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Wandering Kehilla Finds a Home

Program brings newlyweds together at Brandeis-Bardin for a unique Jewish experience

by Rob Kutner

December 2, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Want to start a soup? Find an onion. Want to start a shul? Find an "un-yan." At least that's the word Westwood Kehilla founding member Andi Smith uses to describe the not-quite-a-minyan from which her synagogue sprang.

The congregation, which now boasts 70 families and will dedicate its first permanent building on Sunday, December 5th, began in 1984 as a small crew of Westwood residents meeting to daven at UCLA Hillel.

By 1994, the un-yan was known as "the secret minyan," says Andi's husband and two-time past president Greg Smith. Despite its considerable growth, it still didn't have a phone number or an address.

And when Hillel decided it needed the space back that year, the community had to move. The group temporarily settled in rented space on the second floor of an office building on Santa Monica Boulevard. Now, however, it was large enough to have a spillover congregation meeting at the Riddick Center on Overland. Between limited visibility and limited space, a more permanent solution was needed.

As an Orthodox synagogue, the Kehilla was constrained by Shabbat traveling restrictions as to how far away it could move from the members' homes -- even though it was attracting weekly walkers from Bel Air, Palms, and other less-than-nearby areas. "We couldn't sit where we were, and there were not that many options, geographically," recounts current president Mark Katchen. "The fact that we found somebody who was willing to sell this piece of property," a three-storefront complex a few blocks to the east of the office building, "was... beshert."

So quickly and unanimously was the new site decided on that the synagogue leadership, which had sold members on a three-year building pledge, had to go back and ask for it all sooner. By 1998, the community was moving in and making the new house a home.

From the beginning, this stew has done anything but simmer quietly. The Westwood Kehilla has pioneered numerous outreach programs, targeting UCLA students, Russian immigrants, and now the community surrounding its new location. In addition to current spiritual leader, Rabbi Asher Brander, the Kehilla retains a second full-time rabbi, Eli Stern, whose official title is "Outreach Director." The synagogue holds over 25 classes a week, ranging from crash courses in Hebrew to Gemara and Chassidut to offerings like "Jewish Self-Esteem" and "How to Succeed in Hollywood While Still Staying Jewish." According to Rabbi Brander, the place is in use "from 5:45 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. daily, and, of course, on Shabbat and the hagim [holidays]."

Between a new building and an activist reputation, the Kehilla has accomplished much in 15 years. The challenges that lie ahead, however, may be its most profound. While trying to grow by 15 families a year, and raise enough funds to endow the new building, the "little shul that could" also hopes to retain its unique sense of community. "You're here about six months before you can figure whose kid is whose," says Greg Smith, " because, when a child cries, whoever is nearby will pick him up and hold him."

Now it is up to Smith and his fellow congregants to figure out how to swell the soup without losing the taste of the onion.

The Westwood Kehilla Chanukah/dedication ceremony will take place Sunday, December 5th, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at 10523 Santa Monica Blvd., and will include a Torah processional, traditional singing and dancing, latkes, and a childrens' "moonbounce." For more information, contact Phyllis Folb at (310) 474-3937.

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