July 22, 2004
Small Shul With a Big Heart
When comedic actor Larry Miller and his wife first went to Studio City's Congregation Beth Meier 11 years ago, the very small shul's Tomb of Rachel architecture was less inspiring than watching elderly Rabbi Meier Schimmel toss one back at L' Chaim time.
"He pours himself a blast of vodka and -- boom -- knocks it back!" Miller said. "That always impressed me as a real emblem of his joy of life."
Since opening in December 1958, Congregation Beth Meier has been a quiet, unassuming little staple of Jewish life near the corner of Moorpark Street and Colfax Avenue. The shul -- its name honors not Schimmel, but Mishnah writer Rabbi Meier Ba'al Ha'Ness -- has about 150 families. While Beth Meier's exterior replicates the Tomb of Rachel, its brown, wooden interior intentionally was designed to resemble the Little Brown Church in the Valley, the Sherman Oaks church where Ronald and Nancy Reagan were married. Only on the High Holidays was Beth Meier's cozy sanctuary traded for the larger Studio City Theater on Ventura Boulevard, now a Bookstar.
"I felt that the smaller synagogue is more spiritual than the big one," the rabbi said.
Now 88, Schimmel doesn't toss back vodka like he once did, but he's still in the game, reciting opening and closing prayers at Shabbat services, and slowly handing over the reigns to Rabbi Aaron Benson, who came to Beth Meier in 2003.
The Modern Orthodox rabbi's Traditional-Conservative congregation has been rare among Los Angeles synagogues; it never has had a building fund, does not ask potential members for personal financial information and has been run by the same rabbi since it opened in December 1958.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Studio City was home to young, assimilated families who attended synagogues on Laurel Canyon's other side, such as Temple Israel of Hollywood or Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
"They were Reform and they were not advertising their Jewishness," said daughter Selma Schimmel. "There was only one girl in the synagogue whose house I could eat at."
When Congregation Beth Meier was still new, its Star of David was stolen and a swatiska was painted on one of its white walls. Rather than quickly paint over the Nazi symbol, Schimmel left the swatiska up for a week -- to be seen by all, he said, to "let my neighbors feel what's happening here."
Later, holes from a BB gun shot into the shul's 12 stained glass windows prompted Schimmel to make the repaired glass bulletproof, while still portraying the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
"It wasn't like the synagogue was welcomed with open arms," said Selma Schimmel, who also added that the Studio City Chamber of Commerce recently held its monthly mixer in Beth Meier's meeting hall.
Schimmel turned down a request to sing a prayer in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" because he was too busy with Beth Meier commitments. When Miller was asked if skipping such an opportunity was a mistake for the rabbi, the actor said, "The core truth of a different way to live is that he didn't miss out; there was nothing to miss out on. For him, each morning's prayer is the richest moment in the world. So he wasn't turning something down; he's giving something greater."
He is rare among Americans because he has stayed in one job for over four decades. Rebbitzen Rochelle Schimmel, who spent 40 years running the 125-student Beth Meier School across the street, died in 1981 ("For me, she never died," said the rabbi). Now, Schimmel lives with his older daughter, Debby Bitticks, in Encino, surrounded by photos of his four granddaughters and six (soon to be seven) great-grandchildren.
He also is one the last of the pre-Holocaust generation of European-trained rabbis, a Frankfurt rabbi's son who fled Germany in 1938, first eyeing America from the Queen Mary's deck and, once here, becoming an Army chaplain.
Despite his theological pedigree, Schimmel embraces various definitions of family; when an elderly, childless couple's parrot died, Schimmel bent Torah law and officiated at a little parrot funeral service, thus honoring the child-like affection the couple had for the bird.
Schimmel also wrote the, "Brotherhood Prayer" for his congregation. It sums up the small shul's appeal to Jews and some non-Jews. The prayer reads, in part, "Father, I would open my heart even wider so that your love may flow through me to bless all whose lives I touch."