It was a sight Mar Vista doesn't see every day -- a guitar-studded procession of more than 100 Jewish revelers marching jubilantly down South Barrington Avenue with five Torah scrolls.
Members of Ohr HaTorah synagogue, which until this month held services at a church in West Los Angeles, donned sun hats and sneakers Aug. 8 to carry their Torahs south to the congregation's new location -- and first permanent home -- on Venice Boulevard.
The walk was only 2.8 miles, but the journey was 15 years in the making.
"We finally have a place that feels like home," said Meirav Finley, who co-founded Ohr HaTorah with her husband, Rabbi Mordecai Finley. "We've been shlepping for 15 years, getting up at 5 a.m. and loading the prayer books. It's time to focus our energy on other things."
The Finleys closed escrow on the new site Aug. 1, and renovation began within two days to ready the building for its first Friday night service less than a week later. On that Shabbat, the interior was still far from finished, but the bare walls and scant furnishings only amplified congregants' joyous voices as they sang and danced around the Torah scrolls in the sanctuary.
Rabbi Finley said the decision to carry the Torahs on foot to the new facility wasn't based on halachah (Jewish law). Instead, he said, it offered a symbolic parallel of the path the congregation had taken to reach a place of its own.
"It's about the celebratory aspect," Finley said. "In a way, it symbolizes the journey of Ohr HaTorah. It's also a way to honor the sifrei Torah, rather than just loading them into a car."
Finley said the move will let the synagogue expand spiritually focused classes and programs for its 300 member families.
"I think our infrastructure is ready to grow," he said. "We can certainly accommodate a greater number of people at services now."
At his Sherman Oaks home on a recent morning, Finley -- his distinct red hair pulled back in a ponytail -- attributed Ohr HaTorah's successful move to "a strange confluence of events."
Officials with Faith Tabernacle Church, where Ohr HaTorah had been operating for the past eight years, told the synagogue in December that its lease would not be renewed. The Finleys scoured more than 100 churches and community buildings for another rental space but couldn't find many facilities willing to rent out a room for a Shabbat service that draws up to 200 people every Saturday morning.
Besides, Meirav Finley said, lease rates were so high that it didn't seem like much of a reach to look for permanent quarters.
"We couldn't find anything that made sense financially," she said. "We used to spend $10,000 on rent. For $15,000, I thought, why not make the stretch and get a mortgage? Let's find something small and make it our little gem."
The faded concrete structure at the corner of Venice and South Barrington was a fateful find -- the site formerly housed Beth Torah, a Conservative synagogue that recently merged with Adat Shalom in Westwood, so the land was already zoned for religious use.
But it was far from a dream home. The long-neglected building needed major repairs, and there was the looming question of how to raise enough money to meet the $4.75 million asking price. The synagogue negotiated the cost down to $3.8 million, and Meirav Finley and a team of congregant volunteers spearheaded a fundraising drive that scraped together more than $2.5 million in six weeks -- enough to put down to obtain the property.
"It was remarkable how people gave of themselves to make this a reality," said Jim Ries, a decade-plus Ohr HaTorah member who helped lead the effort to buy the building. "It's a real testament to the feeling this congregation has toward the synagogue and the rabbi, in particular."
A Beverly Hills-based real estate investor and consultant, Ries joined Ohr HaTorah with his wife, Linda, after hearing Finley speak at a memorial service.
"We were so impressed with the way he handled the service and the sense of community he created among the mourners," Ries recalled. "He is a charismatic speaker and has an enormous depth of knowledge, not only concerning religion, but also psychology and philosophy. He's a true renaissance man."
When he found out the synagogue had a chance to buy the former Beth Torah site, Ries wrote out a check and then convinced fellow congregants to do the same. He also used his background as a real estate attorney to manage the financing of the purchase.
During the Aug. 8 procession, Ries walked under a chuppah carrying one of the Torahs, his curly white hair tucked under a black cap. The evening had added significance for him -- it was also his 70th birthday.
"It was a wonderful gift to be able to participate in the establishment of a new home for this synagogue," he said later. "This was a very moving part of my life."
The same could be said for Rabbi Finley, who has seen his unique teachings attract a devoted following since Ohr HaTorah's inception in 1993.
The synagogue's focus is "very much rooted in my own path of spiritual discovery," the Long Beach native said. "I grew up Conservative, with a strong focus on Jewish knowledge and very little of what I would call a spiritual component. I could read the V'ahavta faster than anybody in my Hebrew school class but had no idea what it means to love God."
Finley (center in photo -- at left is writer-director David Mamet, on the right is congregant Hank Steinberg) majored in religion at USC, then joined the Marines and afterward spent a year on a kibbutz in Israel. While there, he applied to rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. But he sought more than textual fluency. Finley wanted a deeper knowledge of "the inner dimensions of Jewish religiosity."
After being ordained, the rabbi went back to USC to complete his doctorate, studying mysticism, moral philosophy and virtue theory. All these elements combined to form an approach to Judaism that Meirav Finley said she found "refreshing" when they met as teachers at Los Angeles Hebrew High School in 1987.
"I wanted to help him get his teachings out there," said Meirav Finley, who grew up in Eilat and also taught at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School and Union Hebrew High School.
A five-year stint leading an alternative morning minyan at Stephen S. Wise Temple garnered Rabbi Finley a staunch fan base. "I found there were many people who were spiritually seeking," he said. "I became the rabbi that addressed those kinds of things."
Still, it was Meirav Finley who ultimately pushed him to break away and found his own congregation.
"She was the one who said, 'Let's do this,'" the rabbi recalled. "What we envisioned was a relatively small community focused on traditional Jewish practice, with a strong kabbalistic, Hasidic, spiritual focus in a non-Orthodox setting and a strong focus on virtue -- the actual training for leading a virtuous life."
Meirav Finley, whose energy is palpable even over the phone, led the effort to establish the congregation in 1993, despite the "little snag" of being nine months pregnant with the couple's first daughter, Shulamit.
"Mordecai was a little anxious, but I wasn't -- I was just very excited," she recalled. "The day after my C-section, I ran home, got in bed and rented a space at Brentwood Presbyterian Church. Within two weeks, we had a service."
The first year, Ohr HaTorah held services in the auditorium of Ralph Waldo Emerson Middle School in Westwood. Membership hovered at around 150 families but began to grow. The synagogue rented space at Redeemer Baptist Church near Culver City from 1995 to 2000 and then at Faith Tabernacle Church until last month.
"We are a 'mission synagogue' with a specific vision," said Rabbi Finley, who also teaches liturgy and Jewish ethics at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus. "If you like it, great; if you don't like it, go down the street. I try to serve a public need. When someone comes and finds those needs met, that's a good thing."
As the stream of congregants turned onto McLaughlin Avenue during the Torah procession, Ohr HaTorah board member Sheri Porath Rockwell of Santa Monica recalled the first class she took with Finley 12 years ago.
"The way he connected Judaism and cognitive psychology and personal growth really spoke to me," recalled Rockwell, who has served as president, vice president and secretary of the congregation since joining in 1996. An attorney who rarely observed Jewish rituals before coming to the synagogue, she even decided at age 31 to become a bat mitzvah.
Now that Ohr HaTorah has its own space, Rockwell -- who periodically had to stop her three children from running into the street -- wants to see more early childhood programs put in place.
Finley said he's keeping an open mind when it comes to potential new areas of expansion.
"Might we have a Jewish yoga class? Sure, if there's a need and a teacher and the mats," he said. "Now that we have a facility that we can use 24/7, we want to reach out to other markets."
He might even consider interfaith work or reaching out to local schools.
But for now, he said, "it's renovation, renovation, renovation." They will soon overhaul the structure's plumbing and air-conditioning system and completely replace the roof. Meirav Finley also wants to plant a patio garden and create a play space for children.
Despite the building's condition, however, she said it felt right the moment she stepped inside on her first visit.
"I said, 'This is it,'" she recalled. "It's modest, unassuming. It needs to be cleaned and stripped, but it has a wonderful bone structure and a great feel -- you walk in and it feels like home."
Above: Ohr HaTorah founders Rabbi Mordecai Finley and Meirav Finley
Congregants on Aug. 8 seemed to agree.
The procession reached the new building just as the sun was setting; many threw rose petals at the Torah scrolls and cheered. The Finleys cut the ribbon strung across the facility's doors, and the crowd rushed in, burst into a spirited rendition of "Heveinu Shalom Aleichem" and joined hands to dance around the Torahs.
Finley shook hands with and greeted members of the congregation, including writer-director David Mamet.
A six-year Ohr HaTorah member, Mamet worked on a committee with other congregants to help secure the new building.
"I'm thrilled to be part of this shul," said Mamet, who attends Shabbat services each week as well as evening study sessions with the rabbi. "Everyone is so happy and proud. This is a magnificent event."
The party pressed close around the bimah to see the Torah scrolls placed in their new ark. The Finleys' four children were also there: Lev, 28; Kayitz, 26; Shulamit, 14, and Avigayil, 11.
Meirav Finley, who is also the synagogue's music director, helped lead a brief Shabbat service as the approximately 300 attendees sat around the room on folding chairs. After the service, Rabbi Finley invited the former pastor of Faith Tabernacle Church, who first took in Ohr HaTorah eight years ago, to bless the congregation.
The Rev. Mike Hinojosa donned a yarmulke and told congregants that offering them their longtime rental space was "one of the best things I've done in my career."
As attendees waited to sit down to a celebratory dinner, Meirav Finley contemplated the unfinished wall around the ark, mottled with splotches of paint and spackling. She said she has decided to leave it as is.
"People thought I was a nut when I first said I wanted to leave it, but it reminds me of the work it took to get here. Besides," she added, running her hand over the marble-like pattern, "it's just beautiful."