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A House Divided

Breaking up is hard to do for two Calabasas congregations.

by Wendy J. Madnick

July 18, 2002 | 7:59 pm

On a blazing hot Saturday in the hills of Calabasas, the streets are deserted, devoid of the usual clusters of children playing ball or teens on bikes and scooters within this gated community south of the 101 Freeway. Houses shimmer in the glaring sun; garage doors hold the heat at bay.

Driving through, one would never know a small revolution is taking place behind one of those garage doors. In a home with a three-car garage, a new congregation, Kol Simcha, has sprung up, the second traditional shul to invade this cloistered community. (The garage is only a temporary solution; the group expects to move to a more appropriately-zoned location within a few months, its rabbi, Dov Fischer, said.)

Comprised mostly of ba'alei teshuvah (returnees to Judaism) and Sephardim, the group represents a new era in Orthodoxy, one where you can have your Mercedes M-Class and your mechitza, too.

However, the new shul's birth has not been without its labor pains. Many of the members initially met as founders of The Calabasas Shul, the first Orthodox congregation in Calabasas, which still meets for Shabbat services at the nearby Bay Laurel Elementary School and holds classes at the home of their rebbe, Rabbi Yakov Vann. The 7-year-old congregation peaked in number at 65 families about two years ago but ever since the Kol Simcha group began meeting following last year's High Holy Days, the Calabasas Shul has shrunk to some 35 families, Vann said.

Until now, Calabasas, which is about 78 percent Jewish, had only two synagogues: Or Ami, a Reform congregation which also rents Bay Laurel, and the Calabasas Shul. While Or Ami has grown exponentially since its inception, the Calabasas Shul has not, limited as it is by its location atop a steep hill and by the few Orthodox families willing to move to an area with no kosher restaurants and where housing is astronomically priced.

This split from the Calabasas Shul has caused a deep rift within the community, one that will likely take years to heal, if ever. Some say it was a matter of synagogue politics and social cliques that led to the break-up; others from the original congregation point out, with some bitterness, that it is easier on the checkbook to handle being a member of a shul with such little overhead.

"We rent a public school for services and have a full-time rabbi. They have a part-time rabbi and are using someone's garage. So when you ask if we can both survive, it's a difficult comparison," said Shelley Cooper, a middle school teacher at Emek Hebrew Academy and one of the Calabasas Shul's founders. "It's no longer a financial problem for them."

More than the financial concerns, the split has caused problems on a social level in this close-knit community -- especially for the children. Many of the departing families had young children and the ones left behind do not understand why they have been abandoned.

"It is very upsetting, not only for me, but for our children," David Hofstadter said. He and his wife, Batia, moved to Calabasas from Tarzana five years ago specifically to be closer to the shul. Their children, ages 5 to 12, have grown up in the congregation, but Hofstadter said now it is a struggle for the family. "Their friends now no longer attend, so they don't feel like going. It's really had a deleterious effect on the community."

Still, Hofstadter said he could see both sides of the issue. "The people who left felt like they weren't getting a fair shake and had other priorities that were not being met," he said. "So it's probably good because there was this feeling of negativity and now that is gone."

Families who left say they simply needed a different experience than they were getting at the Calabasas Shul.

"We just wanted something that met our spiritual needs," said Dr. Sam Fink, an internist in private practice in Tarzana and the president of Kol Simcha. "We are more Sephardic; we have more Persians and more Israelis. It's a different culture. We bear the Calabasas Shul no ill will; we just wanted something different. "

Rabbi Aron Tendler of Shaarey Zedek said the situation in Calabasas is typical of most synagogue communities when there is a break-off.

"Clearly, as you thin out the ranks there are fewer people to share the financial burden and increased responsibility on the survivors and there is some resentment that comes with that," Tendler said, adding that on the other hand, "the people who leave are the ones who are the most unhappy, which leaves behind a more homogeneous, happier group. "

Tendler concedes, though, that the Calabasas Shul was a small congregation to begin with, and that the loss of members had a more significant impact than it would for a shul like Shaarey Zedek. Both Calabasas groups will also face special challenges in terms of growth because of the high cost of housing and the area's geography, which makes walking to shul a hardship for most people.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, Kol Simcha's newly hired part-time rabbi, said he is optimistic, even in the face of such challenges.

"It is an Orthodox community that really reflects an evolution in American Orthodoxy," Fischer said. "Until about 15 years ago, it clearly was the case that Orthodoxy was not upscale. But with the proliferation of yeshiva day schools which had faculty who were themselves American-born, you had all these Orthodox children like me who were raised to be Orthodox, but also to go to Columbia University. So you're going see a lot more upscale people."

The second component, Fischer said, concerns the massive ba'alei teshuvah movement that has snowballed over the course of the last two decades.

"There are many Conservative and Reform Jews who feel they want to go forward and create for themselves something substantive," he said. "Often it begins with the children, coming home from day school with new lessons they want to see actualized," Fischer said. "The parents see that Orthodoxy is not so foreboding and find it's an exceptionally warm community. That's why we feel we can be attractive even in an upscale area, because we try to do things in an elegant way that people find comfortable."

Fischer said that he has met with Vann to discuss healing the breach between the two congregations. Despite that effort, the situation has been especially hard on Vann. In addition to running the Calabasas Shul, he and his wife, Chumie, have worked hard to establish themselves throughout the West Valley Jewish community. Chumie runs a small catering business and teaches classes through the Kollel in North Hollywood. The rabbi teaches classes at Emek, serves on the West Valley Rabbinic Task Force and attends meetings of The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance. It is the possible loss of an Orthodox presence in the greater community if the Calabasas Shul folds that concerns Vann the most.

"There's a far difference between what I do and what Rabbi Fischer is going to do. Nothing against Rabbi Fischer, it's just a fact of life," Vann said. "For example, this week several people called me about divorce issues, about suicide issues, about halachic issues and I don't get paid a penny for people who come to me. The only people who pay me are the shul. If I leave, the problem is we're going to create a vacuum of leadership. Who's going to sit in on The Federation meetings, who's going to advise the community high school?"

But Fink said he believes the two congregations can continue to grow and thrive, even within the limitations of a city like Calabasas.

"They've had no trouble getting minyans and we've had no trouble getting minyans," he said. "They have a rabbi who is very committed and can provide good leadership. As long as they are meeting people's needs and [congregants] are happy, they should be fine.

"The goal here is not to be a Sephardic Temple [Tifereth Israel] or a Sinai Temple; you don't need 2,000 families," Fink continued. "The goal is to be a place where spiritual needs are met, and if you can also meet the financial expenses associated with that, then you can be a successful congregation."

Even if it means meeting in a garage.

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