It was the kind of exchange that is perhaps all too rare in a Jewish community divided by belief, language and geography into many distinct enclaves.
Rabbi Yakov Vann was lecturing at a Feb. 5 meeting of the West Valley Winter Kallah on that week's Torah portion, which related the story of the Jews' release from Egypt, and on the subsequent revelation at Mt. Sinai. He asserted his whole-hearted belief that the revelation of God's laws took place there. The audience members, representing a good cross-section of modern Jewry from not-so-observant to very traditional, listened attentively. But as the young rabbi eloquently expounded his unwavering belief, an elderly man in the audience suddenly shouted, "Where's your proof?"
Rabbi Yakov Vann has that effect on people: He engages them intellectually and emotionally, even when they may not agree with him. It's a gift that's not apparent at first glance. When I met him two years ago, shortly after his move from the sheltered existence of an observant community in Lakewood, N.J., to become the spiritual leader of the Calabasas Shul, he seemed like a goldfish accidentally transported to Sea World. The newly formed shul was made up mostly of ba'alei teshuvah, or newly Orthodox Jews. They were upper-class professionals living in some of the most expensive gated communities in the West Valley. It seemed an odd position for the slight, young rabbi with the serious gaze and the ill-fitting blue suit.
But appearances are deceiving, and when I heard Vann speak at services, I could see why the community wanted him so much: his voice was clear and strong, his faith unwavering. No one hearing him could doubt for an instant his belief or his desire for others to share in it.
That belief translates into action. When he isn't giving guidance to his congregants or teaching one of his two classes at Emek Hebrew Academy in Sherman Oaks, he's busy supporting efforts to help the growing Jewish community in the West San Fernando and Conejo valleys. His latest quest is to get a kosher bakery put in at the local Ralph's supermarket. Some folks would say, why bother? But for Vann, if he can increase the likelihood of someone buying kosher bread by making it more convenient, then it's worth the effort.
Ironically, Vann was reluctant to commit to the Winter Kallah, a four-week series of classes taught by rabbis of different denominations in the West Valley. His shul was not one of the sponsors, and his appearance in the same forum with some of L.A.'s most liberal rabbis did cause a stir on both sides. But Vann felt a responsibility to give back to the community.
"What does the word rabbi mean? To teach," said Vann. "My whole reason for becoming a teacher was to share with others what I have gained from my teachers. That's why I picked the topic I spoke about (at the Kallah), of tradition, mesorah, which means to give over, to be part of one generation giving to the next."
Like a few other local rabbis, such as Rabbi Moshe Bryski at Chabad of the Conejo, Vann believes it is more important to make observance of the halacha accessible than to create isolated enclaves of Orthodoxy. Although the Calabasas Shul is small -- about 65 families -- Vann would like to encourage its growth and recognizes the only way to do that in less heavily Jewish areas is by reaching out to the less observant and the unaffiliated.
"It's like there are two parallel lines in the road, and the shul has to serve both those lines, to be there for those with an observant lifestyle and those on a different track," said Vann. "The important thing is that there is growth. Some people want to make a connection [with Judaism], but they have to start somewhere and keep going. I'll give a talk on kashrut, and for some people it will mean keeping kosher at home; for others it may mean watching what they order in a restaurant. I have people (at the shul) who started with not ordering cheese on their burger."
Kashrut is an easy topic. What about tough ones? Why is it easier, for example, for people to believe in the Holocaust or (as Vann brought up in his talk) George Washington crossing the Delaware but not the giving of the Torah at Sinai?
The rabbi said there were two reasons.
"One is, there is a feeling that once you get past a certain place in history, you can no longer touch it, meaning the closer you get to modern day, the more historical verification there is. With the Holocaust, there are pictures, and with George Washington we have [original] writings we can still see. The problem with the biblical era is it is very far away.
"The other problem with Sinai is, as a friend of mine says, if it's true, then we're all in deep trouble. If it's true, we have to do something about it. People avoid analyzing the truth of Sinai because they fear the consequences. But you don't have to do it all at once. If you're in the process of teshuvah, of returning, then you're on G-d's goal line. As long as we're in the process, we're all right."
Vann wasn't the only rabbi to cross boundaries at this year's Winter Kallah. It was the first time that two sets of shuls often seen as rivals -- Conservative synagogues Temple Aliyah and Shomrei Torah, which hosted the event, plus Reform congregations Or Ami and Temple Judea West -- had co-sponsored an educational event. For the two Conservative shuls, which are within two miles of each other, it was a refreshing change to set aside the rivalry for awhile.
"When it comes to studying Torah, there's no such thing as competition," said Rabbi Richard Camras of Shomrei Torah. "All the rabbis felt it was more important to expose both members and the unaffiliated to the joys of studying Torah. It's not a matter of turf; it's a way to learn from one another. Mainly what we've learned is that there is more that unites us than separates us."
Vann agrees with the last statement -- in part.
"As Jews, everything unites us," he said. "With Judaism, that's another matter. There's a far difference between Jews coming together, like in the tashlich ceremony [held in the Valley area during the High Holy Days] and the three branches of Judaism coming together."
Vann said he is still glad to participate in community events like the Kallah.
"Too often, people like to put up fences," he said. "I prefer to build bridges."