December 4, 1997
Reviving a Shul, One Goat at a Time
Note to future rabbis: If you want to make a lasting firstimpression with your congregants, nothing beats farm animals on thebimah. Just ask anyone at Temple Adat Shalom in West LosAngeles. It's been almost four months since Michael Resnick took overthere, and they're still talking about his goats.
Mort Schrag, the congregation's president, put it succinctly: "Hereally has a lot of unique approaches."
Resnick trotted the two goats out in front of the congregationduring his sermon on Yom Kippur. Earlier that week, he was driving tohis parents'home in Northridge, wondering how he could bring thebiblical concept of the scapegoat -- recounted in the holiday's Torahportion -- alive for his congregants. He passed a petting zoo thatadvertised animal rentals.
Fast-forward to Yom Kippur. Resnick lays out a waterproof tarp onthe bimah -- one of the goats is called Tinkle, a name based purelyon reputation. The rabbi takes a long dagger from his lectern andthen, in accordance with the biblical narrative, draws lots todetermine which goat will be slaughtered for the sins of thecongregation, and which will be set free. Amid nervous laughter andrapt silence, some 700 congregants watch the tall, commanding40-year-old grasp the doomed goat, raise its neck, and draw the bladeacross its throat.
"Don't worry," says the rabbi, patting the animal's head andputting aside the dagger, which is just a letter opener. "We're notgoing to hurt this little goat." The point of the exercise, he tellsthe assembly, is that "no one can make atonement for ourtransgressions but ourselves."
Whether the congregation took the sermon to heart is hard to tell-- until next Yom Kippur. But there is no question that the new rabbigot congregants' attention. And that, as any rabbi in the late 20thcentury will tell you, is at least half the battle.
"Whatever I can do to make the traditions come alive and berelevant," Resnick says during an interview in his office, "I'lltry."
The creative approach seems to fit the youthful, energetic rabbi.A native of Sepulveda, he attended Har Zion Synagogue (it has sincemerged with Temple Ramat Zion) but stopped his Jewish education atage 13. After graduating from Cal State Northridge, he embarked on acareer in advertising. But a visit to Israel during the Gulf Warinspired him to change course. He attended the Pardes Institutethere, then returned to the States to study and receive hisordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
He took the pulpit of Adat Shalom in August, replacing therecently retired Rabbi Morton Wallach, who served there for 24 years.Demographic shifts had been tough on the 50-year-old Conservativeshul, whose modern structure sits on a prime block of Westside realestate across from Trader Joe's market on National Boulevard. AdatShalom has been losing members for the past six years. About 250families and individuals belong to the congregation now, down from apeak of 450. The decline also plunged the shul into a series offinancial crises. "We need to energize the congregation and attractyoung families," said Schrag.
Resnick, then, seems the perfect fit. In his final year at JTS, heserved as rabbi to the Jewish Home for the Aged in Manhattan. "Therewere 500 people over 90 years old. I did 150 funerals," he says. Buthe also learned to lead inspiring, song-filled services, based, inpart, on his experience at such lively New York congregations asB'nai Jeshurun, which draws hundreds of young people to Shabbatservices.
The rabbi is working to create some of that same magic on theWestside. "When Judaism is made relevant and alive and exciting,people respond. People are looking for a sense of belonging, arelationship with their tradition," he said.
Along with a new rabbi, the synagogue also hired a new cantor,Ralph Resnick. The two are not related, but members have startedreferring to their shul as Resnick & Resnick.
On Sukkot, both rabbi and cantor joined with a klezmer band tolead congregants in the procession with the Torah, and provided icecream sundaes for the children. The issue of whether to have music inConservative ceremonies is a touchy one, but Rabbi Resnick sees thevalue in raising it. "I want people to wrestle with what it means tobe a Jew. I can't force anyone to keep kosher, but I can challengethem."
Resnick also wants to create social-action programs and developbonds with local non-Jewish congregations. He hopes to create ascholar-in-residence program and build up the temple's preschool andreligious school, which now have about 80 children.
"I want Judaism to be surprising," says the rabbi.