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JewishJournal.com

November 4, 1999

A Temple’s Pride

Adat Ari El celebrates the 50th anniversary of David Familian Chapel

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/a_temples_pride_199911051

In the just-the-facts world of the Los Angeles Police Department, rocks and other objects thrown through stained glass windows at the David Familian Chapel last February were categorized as acts of vandalism motivated by hate.

But for the Adat Ari El congregation in Valley Village, which has made the chapel its spiritual and religious hub for a half-century, the crimes -- and the shards -- tore at the heart.

"It was devastating," recalls Ellen Glettner, the synagogue's executive director. "Our youngest children from the nursery and day schools are in there all the time. For a time, boards covered the broken windows. There were lots of questions, even harder answers."

Adat Ari El quietly swept up and made repairs -- some of it with the pennies and nickels collected by children in the Rose Engel Early Childhood Center.

On Sunday, awash in the light shining through the 11 stained-glass windows that depict the major Jewish holidays, Adat Ari El will celebrate the chapel's 50th anniversary and its rededication as a California Point of Historical Interest.

The State of California's Historical Resources Commission bestowed the honor last August for the chapel's historic value to the state, its importance to the Jewish community and for the uniqueness of the towering windows.

Speeches by politicians and community leaders may give Sunday's event an air of officialdom, but the program is designed more to recognize the David Familian Chapel's connection between Adat Ari El's past and present, and its place in the growth of the San Fernando Valley Jewish community, organizers say.

"The David Familian Chapel is associated with accessibility, welcoming, warmth, which is a reflection of the kind of synagogue we try to be," said Rabbi Moshe Rothblum, Adat Ari El's senior rabbi. "Our congregation has made a significant contribution to Jewish life in the community and the chapel symbolizes that."

The David Familian Chapel was the Valley's first synagogue structure, and was built at a time when the East Valley's chicken ranchers and farmers were quickly being displaced by commerce, the expanding motion picture business and a growing population.

In the late 1940s, the Valley Jewish Community Center -- the precursor to Adat Ari El -- tallied 300 members, up from the 15 families that founded the VJCC in 1938. With the growing Jewish population, came a growing need for space.

Nate Blumberg, a temple member and then president of Universal International Pictures, led his family's purchase of two acres on Laurel Canyon Boulevard for the new synagogue, replacing the congregation's existing quarters at a one-time speakeasy on Chandler Boulevard.

Isadore and George Familian -- to honor the memory of their father, David Familian, a Russian immigrant, businessman and philanthropist who died in 1946 -- made the 350-seat chapel possible. At the time, the $75,000 donation was the largest single gift to a West Coast synagogue.

The chapel, with its Georgian styling and square colonial columns, was designed by architect Herman Light. The stained glass, which has served as a source of inspiration to the congregation for 50 years, was designed by Mischa Kallis, who was a temple member and art director for Universal Pictures. The 90-by-43-inch window panels despict scenes from Jewish holy days and festivals.

In 1978, the City of Los Angeles' Cultural Heritage Board declared the chapel a historic cultural monument. And this year, in a bid supported by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and the Jewish Historical Society, the chapel was nominated and approved for the state distinction.

In some ways, Sunday's rededication is a trip back to the future for Adat Ari El.

Rothblum, who has served as Adat Ari El's senior rabbi since 1978, notes that the chapel's dedication on Nov. 7, 1949, set a tone for his congregation and for the Conservative Jewish community in the Valley -- a tone that promoted philanthropy, social activism, education and egalitarianism.

"This congregation has made a significant contribution to Jewish life in the community and the chapel kind of symbolizes that," Rothblum said. "It's a simple reflection of what's inside us."

With Rabbi Aaron Wise and Cantor Allen Michelson at the pulpit during the 1950s and 1960s, the VJCC forged a reputation as the "singing congregation" and created programming that served as prototypes for other synagogues in the Valley and beyond. In that time, the David Familian Chapel played host to several Jewish firsts for a West Coast Conservative shul -- including the first Bat Mitzvah of a young girl on Shabbat morning.

In five decades, scores of families that forged their Jewish identities at Adat Ari El and celebrated life events inside the chapel have migrated west, spreading those values and traditions to other parts of the Valley and into Ventura County. Some of them will return Sunday to celebrate with a congregation that now numbers more than 900 families.

When they gather, the chapel and those windows -- fortified for another 50 years -- will once again return to center stage.

"The David Familian Chapel provides continuity between the past and present," said Paul Abrams, a temple member. "It's moving to know that generations of people have prayed here before me. And with the children using the chapel on a regular basis, it's nice to know there is an important future for it too."

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