On Saturday morning in Venice Beach, among the scores of shirtless rollerbladers and bearded aging beach hippies, you are likely to see some conservatively dressed people strolling purposefully past the henna tattoos stands, the Indian deity beachside galleries and the stores selling pleather mini dresses. They don't stop to get massages or to buy incense from one of the many eclectic merchants that give Venice Beach its beatnik charm. Instead, they turn into "The Shul on the Beach" -- a cheery yellow building, where their yarmulkes and long skirts are not out of place.
The Pacific Jewish Center (PJC) has been a Venice beach landmark for the past 60 years. Always a Traditional or Orthodox congregation, PJC has been on the fringes of the larger Orthodox centers in Pico-Robertson and Hancock Park -- and a few miles too far west for some. It is a shul where the tightknit, traditionally Orthodox congregation would daven alongside the backpacking travelers who wandered in from the beach, against an aural backdrop of the crashing waves, making the community somewhat different to the staid Ashkenazi norm in other shuls.
But PJC is now taking bold steps to become a more mainstream synagogue and to establish itself as a community of choice among people already living in Santa Monica and those moving to Los Angeles. It has just hired Rabbi Ben Geiger (the former assistant rabbi of Beth Jacob in Irvine) to be PJC's first full-time rabbi, and PJC members are hoping that the appointment will be a membership booster shot for the 50-family shul and make it more connected to the larger community.
According to Steve Sass, head of the Jewish Historical Society of Los Angeles, PJC was started in the 1940s when two Jewish merchants decided to remove the wall between a butcher shop and another Jewish business to start a synagogue. That was during the heyday of Venice Jewry, when there were at least four other shuls in Venice, including another two on the boardwalk. Back then, PJC was known as the Bay Cities Synagogue, and it was populated by many retired garment workers and union activists who moved to Venice from New York and Chicago, making Venice the "Miami Beach" of the West. But in the 1960s, the city of Los Angeles embarked on a project of urban renewal in Venice, and many of the bungalows and small cottages where the retirees lived were torn down, displacing the residents. Shuls in Venice suffered; many of them had pledged their assets to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which had rights to the properties if the shuls could no longer get a minyan. As the minyanim dwindled, the JNF took over and sold the properties. PJC was saved in the mid-1970s by a bagel club started by Maury Rosen, who attracted residents to the premises with bagels to make it appear as if there was a regular minyan there. At the time, the roof of PJC was so in need of repair that congregants had to wear galoshes when they visited after it rained.
It was around the same time that a group of congregants left the Venice Conservative synagogue Mishkon Tephilo in search of a more traditionally Orthodox service. The group was lead by Rabbi Daniel Lapin and film critic Michael Medved, who decided to revive the ailing Shul on the Beach. This charismatic duo started attracting many people to PJC's services, and the community grew. Barbra Streisand had the bar mitzvah of her son, Jason Gould, there; the shul sponsored regular classes attended by hundreds of people; and a day school was started to serve the needs of the community. It was a community that prided itself on its commitment to Torah learning and its generous hospitality. It welcomed newcomers in from off the beach, set them up with meals for Shabbat and would then invite them to attend the classes.
But the thriving community split in the early 1990s. A new school board moved the day school closer to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, where it became the Ohr Eliyahu school, a decision that was very unpopular with the Traditional members of the synagogue. The move also posed a challenge to Lapin's authority; some people left the shul to start their own minyan, others stayed in deference to Lapin's community vision. Lapin and Medved eventually left Venice and moved to Washington state where they both became radio personalities who espoused a conservative vision.
Back in Venice, Lapin's brother, Rabbi David Lapin, took over the leadership of the now-smaller community (albeit not full time), and Rabbi Avi Pogrow became his assistant rabbi. The shul continued its commitment to hospitality (any stranger walking into PJC generally gets at least three Shabbat-meal offers to choose from), and while the shul was renovated to make its Old World charm clean, bright and modern, it had difficulty in enticing much of the new set of Santa Monica's urban professionals to join the community and fulfill its growth potential. It also failed to become the shul of choice for other religious Jews; the community had no eruv (boundary that enables Jews to carry on Shabbat), which meant that parents of young children could not take them to shul. Meanwhile, many parents of older children found housing costs in Santa Monica and Venice too prohibitive and wanted to live in larger communities where their children could be closer to their schools and friends.
Recently, David Lapin took an educational post in Washington, D.C., and Pogrow decided to look elsewhere for a rabbinic position, leaving the door open for a new rabbi. A search committee was established, and although the shul had differences of opinion as to what the new rabbi should be -- some wanted the rabbi to be more modern; others more traditionally ultra-Orthodox -- after a year, the shul decided to employ Geiger, a graduate of both Yeshiva University Los Angeles and the ultra-orthodox Ner Israel Rabbinic School in Baltimore, Md.
"I stand more to the right than to the left of Orthodoxy," said the 28-year-old Geiger, who has his first official Shabbat in the community this week. "By choosing me they chose a religious direction, but overall, those things tend to be less relevant than people feeling that they have a place in the shul and are connected to the shul."
The shul has high expectations of Geiger. In addition to all the regular rabbinic duties of leading services and teaching classes, they would like him to build the eruv, create programs that will make PJC more a part of the greater Orthodox community, expand the community's National Council of Synagogue Youth chapter and capitalize on the potential for growth and draw new members to the shul.
"Geiger is young and energetic and he comes from a halachic standpoint that is acceptable or preferable to people who have been here for a while" said Michal Geller, who headed the rabbi search committee. "From an age and demographic perspective, he is an L.A. boy, which is helpful for a tie back into the mainstream Jewish community, and hopefully we can get some longevity out of him."