Jewish Journal


April 1, 1999

An Extra- Ordinary Place

Ohr HaTorah is paving the way toward a different kind of synagogue


Mordecai Finley is no ordinary rabbi; nor an ordinary man either, for that matter. First there is his past as a former marine sergeant with a doctorate in religion from USC. You can still glimpse the sergeant in the ramrod straight posture when he stands among members of his congregation, Ohr HaTorah, on a Shabbat morning.

But second, there is the clear self-separatism from other rabbis and congregations: Finley is interested primarily in creating a spiritual community and a "shabbos culture" that stands apart from other congregations.

Finley set about forming his present congregation, Ohr HaTorah, in early 1994. He found himself unemployed. Rather than follow the traditional route to a new position -- checking congregations in need of a rabbi and calling on a network of friends and colleagues -- he came up with a unique idea: He would start with what he wanted to do, not with what was available.

Out of this unconventional idea, he organized a number of Saturday services that evolved rapidly into the new synagogue, albeit without a building of its own. The first group of about 150 that began meeting at Brentwood Presbyterian Church has since grown to almost 450 member families and individuals. The growth has taken place despite the fact that the synagogue still has no permanent home, doesn't hold regular Friday night or holiday services and meets in a church.

None of this seems to matter a great deal at an Ohr HaTorah Saturday morning service. Even the current setting at the Redeemer Baptist Church in West L.A. seems strangely appropriate. At moments, the atmosphere is as charged as a revival meeting. Beneath the gracefully arched cathedral ceiling, the congregation of about 200 faces the Ark. Above it, a blue curtain emblazoned with a white Star of David artfully conceals a crucifix. A mix of families, singles, old and young, clap and sway, at one point sending up a resounding chorus of "Hallelujahs" from the wooden pews. Several people are draped in tallitot; a few men have tsitsit dangling below their shirttails. The words and melodies are mostly in Hebrew, and the feeling takes on Chassidic intensity at moments.

In this environment, many disaffected Jews have found their way back to Judaism, while others have discovered the rich depth of their faith for the first time. And Finley, an intense and gifted teacher, has been their guide.

In the hour before services, Finley gives a class from the pulpit. He uses his own blend of Jewish mysticism, Chassidism, psychology, pop culture and personal revelation to reach his audience. His approach, he says, is "rooted in the traditional requirement that we serve God not only with our behavior, but with our inner lives and with our hearts."

For Finley, creating a synagogue that stands out from the pack is a top priority. Although his ordination is Reform and Ohr HaTorah (literally, "Light of the Torah") is listed as Reform, it is unlike almost any other Reform congregation in Los Angeles and is as yet unaffiliated. Finley is currently investigating a dual Reform and Conservative ordination and the shul recently adopted a Conservative prayerbook.

Finley himself is forthright in stating that the aim of Ohr HaTorah is to create its own culture and sense of community. "One of our mottos is not to duplicate what others are doing well," he says during an interview in his small, book-lined office located in a Valley Village strip mall. "There are places where people can go to attend Friday night and holiday services and to hear eloquent rabbis on those occasions. I don't need to add my name to that list," he says emphatically. That goes for refraining from discussing politics from the pulpit as well. "I'm politically passionate," admits Finley. "But if other rabbis are already [talking about politics], why should I do it?...What is not done really well in our community and a lot of places is a traditionally oriented, highly spiritual, communally oriented shabbos morning service."

Ohr HaTorah's culture seems to be a magnet for many Jews who have been turned off by too much or too little tradition at other shuls -- or had no previous affiliation. Some fall into a category that Finley characterizes as "secular Jewish New Age." They stumble on Ohr HaTorah while searching for a consistent spiritual message and, after learning about Torah and prayer, become hooked. "They already know how to do spiritual work; they're looking for a discipline," Finley says. "I show them how prayer works, and they learn how to daven and go out and learn Hebrew."

"He helps map out the different roads you can take to your soul and to Judaism," said Lee Wallach, a 30-something member currently studying for his bar mitzvah with Finley.

The idea for Ohr HaTorah really began at Stephen S. Wise Temple, where Finley previously served as a rabbi, he says. The Shabbat morning minyan there was seen as a hub of a larger community that reached out to affiliated and non-affiliated alike. It included a Hebrew-learning clinic, led by his wife, Meirav, an Israeli native; the children's program; Finley's University of Judaism classes on a range of subjects; and other classes connected with the minyan.

But the larger goal for Ohr HaTorah has been to create a sense of community among a membership scattered from the San Fernando Valley to the Westside. To do this, the Finleys formed shikkunim, based on neighborhoods rather than interests and demographics, like havurot. The aim is to create smaller communities within the larger Ohr HaTorah community and for people to come together to celebrate Jewish occasions -- especially Shabbat dinners, Havdalah services and other holidays. Finley says he hoped to forge bonds among Ohr HaTorah congregants that were similar to those that occur naturally at Orthodox synagogues, where many families walk to shul on Shabbat and develop friendships with others who live nearby.

The congregation, which has grown mostly by word of mouth, includes unusually high numbers of young 20- and 30-something singles as well as couples in that same age range with and without young children. Many stay to shmooze at the kosher lunch that follows services. For some, the Hebrew school is the main attraction. It meets on Saturday mornings during services, and on Tuesday afternoons for older grades. About 120 children are registered.

Finley chose to hold Saturday school instead of Sunday school in order to create what he calls "a shabbos culture." The decision has probably cost him members among parents whose priority is Saturday sports, he admits. But it's part of what makes Ohr HaTorah a different sort of synagogue, and Finley has no plans to alter the schedule. "There are six Reform synagogues within driving distance of us. They're already [holding Sunday school]. What's a Reform Jew going to do who says, 'I want to stay a Reform Jew, but I want to have a shabbos?"

For some parents, the Saturday morning children's program was a great drawing card. Joelle Keene was among them. Keene, a writer and musician, and her pediatrician husband, David, a convert to Judaism, first discovered Finley at the Stephen S. Wise minyan. At the time, their children were 4, 2 and newborn. "The fact that they had childcare was huge," Keene says. "Here was a chance to study with someone brilliant and have the children there."

Harvey Pacht and his wife, Jenna, discovered Finley a few years ago and attended services for three years at Ohr HaTorah. "I credit Mordecai with bringing me back to Torah," he says. Finley so inspired Pacht that he decided to move his family to the La Brea-Fairfax area, with its large Orthodox population. There, he can walk to services at nearby Orthodox shuls on Shabbat, instead of driving, as he was forced to do to reach Ohr HaTorah.

Pacht views Finley as an anomaly in the non-Orthodox world. "He doesn't fit in anywhere. He's trying to do something that can be revolutionary in the world of Judaism," he says. "He's teaching a love of God and...of learning Torah -- which is typically not something you'll find in the non-Orthodox world."

There are others who speak less glowingly of their experiences at Ohr HaTorah. Several seem to have problems with the insistent push for funds with what they consider the shul's autocratic character. "There was a time when you wouldn't find me anywhere else," said one young man who was extremely active in the shul until recently. He was also shaken by the lack of tolerance for dissent.

Finley runs the shul "like a Chassidic place," and that rubs some people wrong, says Pacht. "It's a benevolent dictatorship. It's run form the top down. In the Chassidic world, the rebbe is the person that says this is the way we do it."

The congregation has had its growing pains. When it first began, "we had nothing," Finley recalls. "No place, no money, no prayer books, no Torah, nothing." The Finleys went into debt to start the synagogue. Actor Dustin Hoffman and his wife, Lisa, three of whose children have become b'nai mitzvah at Ohr HaTorah, played "an absolutely crucial role" in its early survival, the rabbi says. "They gave us two very nice contributions that bought us at least a year." About three years ago, the shul was almost forced to close when it ran out of funds. Due to cost-cutting and running a very tight ship, including charging for the weekly Shabbat lunch, the shul is now running smoothly.

The ecclesiastic locale bothers some congregants, and is one of the issues that prospective members bring up most often to temple President Mickey Shapiro. "We have never allowed the question of [creating] an architectural palace to take away from the quest for a community," he says.

With a board of directors composed of five people -- of whom the rabbi and his wife are two -- the temple operates quite differently than many synagogues, where the rabbi serves at the whim of the board, says Meirav Finley, who is executive director, fund-raiser and education and musical director. The synagogue is "clearly a partnership," between them, she explains. But her husband is what people show up for. "What I do is make sure he has time to be what people want."

The Finleys surround themselves with volunteers whom Meirav trains and terms "invaluable." She is aware, though, that some members have become disgruntled with this unique model of a shul. "It's a corporation, and Mordecai is the CEO. We don't have time to shmooze and develop relationships outside of Shabbat," said Meirav. Some people say they don't like it and leave, she said, but many others wouldn't go anywhere else.

'My Home for Now'

By Adam Gilad

There's an old midrash suggesting that an ideal Jewish week shifts sometime around midnight on Tuesday. The glowing memory of Shabbat should linger until that hour, when suddenly, you begin to long for the next Shabbat. I never thought it would happen to me, a grumpy, grumbling refugee from "organized religion," but I go to shul every Saturday morning.

It didn't start out that way. I came to Ohr HaTorah that first Saturday only because my wife forced me to. She wanted community, she wanted to find a humane crack in the city's high-fence-and-nanny-culture, she wanted Jews who had some passion for Jewish life. I, naturally, wanted a happy wife, so I put on socks and brought along a script I was writing. My plan was to smile and be nice, and while people prayed, I'd go over dialogue and story beats.

But I got distracted.

I liked the general warmth of the people as I entered. There was a relaxed happiness about them as they milled after the early morning Torah study session before the service. Embraces. Laughter. Chattering. Some men wore ties and jackets, some wore jeans. Colorful Bukharian kippot mixed in among the knit and traditional black and whites of global shuldom.

The next blow to my script doctoring plans came with the liturgy. I detected a careful hand in the choice of melodies. And the congregants lifted their voice in song. I don't mean they merely sang -- they lifted their voices. There was joy in the air, harmony and lilt. People seemed to be genuinely raising their spirits when -- boom! -- the back doors burst open and all the children came running up the center aisle to a raucous hand-clapping rendition of "Oseh Shalom!"

Holding hands, tumbling over each other, hanging onto their kippot, their teachers lurching after them, these kids bounded up to the bimah -- and right smack in the middle of them -- there were my two little boys. Of course, they weren't belting out the song with the rest of the kids because they didn't know the words. I had soured on Judaism for too many years. I hadn't taught them.

Tears fell from eyes as it all began to come back -- the things I loved about Jewish life.

After the Torah reading, the rabbi spoke. Now, if people know anything about Ohr HaTorah, they know about its rabbi, Rabbi Mordecai Finley.

One immediately senses power in Finley, something tensile, muscled, burgeoning. What that is, I have come to learn, is concentrated intent. It is the manifestation of what he's doing as a rabbi deeply mattering to him.

Some people are scared away by this aura of commitment, wary, perhaps as they should be, of strong spiritual leaders. Hey, no one is more wary than I, having been ridiculed by Orthodox outreach leaders for daring to profess even political opinions without possessing their type of learning. I know cults. I don't like them or their goals. But I have heard people use the "c" word with regard to Finley. To them, I point out the difference between affection and obeisance, temple dues and tithing.

I have come to know Finley in his many moods, knocked back beers with him at poolside, pondered movies, history, our favorite sci-fi writers. He reminds me of my Cambridge dons, professorial at heart. His curiosity is prodigious, almost boyish, his generosity toward other Jewish traditions remarkable. He is frank and funny, a guy's guy overburdened by family demands, university lectures, shivahs and simchas and counseling He can seem harried as he hurries from task to task and you wonder how people could think he's anything other than what he is -- a husband and father who works too much.

That is, until you listen to him speak from the bimah, when he gathers up his broad learning, his humor, his soul-searching, and lets at it. Slowly, the grand and chaotic pageant of the Judaic past begins to trickle, then pour in, as if from every direction through the high windows, a nourishing Niagara converging at a tiny point -- you.

When he's finished, there's always an extended Q and A, always a rousing session as congregants, rocked, challenge or addend him. Deftly, and with good humor, he listens for the meaning beneath the message. He meets intellectual questions with intellectual replies, the more New Age-y questions in a sober dialect of spiritual language and emotional pleas with sympathetic psychological complexity. Patiently, learnedly, one at a time, we work the week's themes over, putting flesh on tentative probings.

That, I think, is the key to Ohr HaTorah. No matter how smart we congregants think we are, we return weekly because we're learning something that really matters to us. About how we live, how we add or detract from others' lives, how we come closer or push away what is sacred.

And so Ohr HaTorah has become my home for now, a happy mooring in a difficult city. There, I have found a community of people who are something like me -- relatively unguarded, thoughtful, individualistic, who can't stand being bored or condescended to, who are actively seeking the opportunity to deepen their lives.

My wife, God bless her, is finally happy. My kids know the words to the songs -- and more. And me? I don't bring scripts to shul anymore. But I hope I'm bringing something of shul to my scripts. -- Adam Gilad, Contributing Writer

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