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Jewish Journal

Call of West Draws Rabbi to Challenge

Stuart Altshuler plans to enlarge and enliven Mission Viejo's Congregation Eilat.

by Andrea Adelson

February 6, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Career management advisers would probably be appalled by Stuart Altshuler's decision.

Spurning job offers from synagogues in New York's Great Neck and Florida's Palm Beach, as well as rejecting the guaranteed incumbency of a large Chicago shul, last summer Altshuler departed for Mission Viejo.

One of the Orange County's earliest planned communities, Mission Viejo is better known for nurturing Olympic athletes than as a capital of American Jewry. The Conservative Congregation Eilat, the oldest of the city's two synagogues, shriveled to 250 families, from 600 in its heyday, after the departure of its much-liked rabbi, Bradley Shavit Artson, now dean of the  Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism. In quick succession, two other rabbis left Eilat in three years.

However, for Altshuler, who will be formally installed as Eilat's rabbi at a dinner Feb. 9, his journey West represents a homecoming and an opportunity for creativity and innovation. By comparison, to him the prestigious jobs at established shuls in the East and Midwest are less innovative because time is consumed by life-cycle events, rather than programming.

A high-energy idea man, in turn scholarly and hip, Altshuler sees potential in Eilat. His goal is to enliven and enlarge the synagogue community and expand its breadth as a Jewish cultural center and possibly an interfaith institute. "It's very exciting," he said, "to be part of something from the ground level."

Before his arrival last August, such ambitions would have been dismissed as wishful thinking. Friday night services barely assembled a minyan.

"They were desperate for change; they were losing members," Altshuler said.

One of the first changes was allowing different formats for Friday night services, which he hoped made services more appealing and less a formality. One week, teens led the service. Another would include a piano accompanist. At a third, the rabbi would moderate post-service talks on topical controversies. Shabbat dinners at the synagogue were also added.

"They've given me tremendous latitude," Altshuler said. "With a large congregation, sometimes it's difficult to make changes."

Size aside, the addition of music was resisted by his predecessor, Martin Cohen, a New Yorker who helped Eilat conduct a search for a successor before taking a pulpit back on his home turf. Compared to the West, music is less commonly heard within East Coast Conservative synagogues.

"I wanted to do it before, but I couldn't," said Josef Chazon, Eilat's longtime cantor.

"We're doing things we wouldn't have tried a year ago," agreed Mitchell S. Gutell of Lake Forest, the congregation's president. "People are liking it. More people are coming."

The seemingly good match produced by Eilat's third rabbi search in four years was attributed by Gutell to Cohen's participation. "I think that was part of what was helpful in finding Stuart," he said.

While Cohen emphasized traditional practices and let congregants draw their own personal inferences, Altshuler applies Torah to everyday events. "He's demonstrated a different type of leadership," Gutell said, citing Altshuler's enthusiasm for interfaith projects.

"It hasn't been on our agenda," Gutell conceded. "Now, there's some confidence we can look at things bigger than ourselves. The leadership is now willing to rock the boat."

Far from radical, Altshuler said the changes he's made so far, and those he envisions, are within the Conservative movement's boundaries. "I want Judaism that makes demands of them; not to listen to a show but to be a participant in it."

Already, former members are returning, longtime congregants are getting more involved and membership has grown by 20 families.

Altshuler, 49, grew up in Los Angeles' Cheviot Hills, the third son of a high-profile attorney. He studied classical music at his parents' urging.

The alluring melody of his own career calling only emerged in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. After transfering from  UCI to  UC Berkeley in 1973, he joined Jewish students demonstrating support for Israel and the Union of Councils of Soviet Jewry, which was pressing to allow Russian Jews to immigrate to Israel by trying to influence U.S. foreign policy.

At one point during six trips to Russia bringing aid to Jewish political prisoners, Altshuler helped the family of Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, the dissident who came to represent Russian Jewry's plight. Sharansky was released in 1986, and Russian Jews later flooded into Israel.

Along the way, Altshuler majored in Russian history at Berkeley, married, had two children and divorced. In 1980, he was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Ella Leya, who Altshuler married nine years ago, is a Russian-born musician and composer. Not long after she immigrated to the United States, they locked eyes at a Washington, D.C., concert, where she was singing. He recalled her first question when hearing what his profession was: "Can rabbis marry?"

Their fates intertwined by an improbable combination of pluck and luck. In 1990, Leya was singing at a Moscow nightclub, when Los Angeles industrialist Armand Hammer came in with an entourage to celebrate his birthday. During a break, Leya spoke about 11 fruitless years of filling out immigration forms with well-connected lawyer Mickey Kantor, who would later serve as U.S. trade representative and secretary of commerce.

A telegram summoning her to the U.S. Embassy arrived a week later. She was permitted to leave, but the Soviet government forbade the departure of her soldier husband. He granted a divorce, and Leya left with their son, Sergey.

But Leya and Altshuler's fairy-tale marriage was sobered when Sergey lost his battle with leukemia in 1995. The couple later would adopt Micah, now 5, from a Russian orphanage.

Leya channeled her grieving into music, producing the well-received CD, "Queen of the Night," in 2001. Since the family settled into an ocean-view apartment in Laguna Beach, Leya has proved Altshuler's equal in energy. She is finishing a second CD of original music, using Russian love poetry for lyrics, is seeking a producer for a play she has written and is scheduling concert dates. Her first probably will be at Eilat in May.

"I'm amazed people are very open to ideas," she said.

The ranch lands may be tiled over, but some of the West's frontier attitude lives on.

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