Whenever Rabbi Arnie Rachlis came from Illinois as University Synagogue's guest rabbi, the founders went out of their way to lend him a convertible and hold meetings at a beachfront home. One trip occurred during a winter day when temperatures soared to summertime highs. Incredulous, Rachlis noted the literal 100-degree difference between his destination and point of departure.
While the courtship took several years, "when he got off the airplane in shorts, I thought, 'I think we've got him,'" said Hinda Beral, a former president and among the eight founding families that in 1987 established the county's only Reconstructionist synagogue.
After sharing space with Irvine United Church of Christ since 1991 and growing from 80 families to 600, University Synagogue starts a new chapter in its history, moving on Aug. 22 into its own building.
Following a traditional custom, University's leaders will carry their Torahs in a 3-mile procession between the present Alton Parkway location and the new one, which adds a third synagogue to Michaelson Drive. The public is invited to join the 1 p.m. walk, witness the fixing of the synagogue's mezuzah and the placing of the scrolls within the new sanctuary ark.
The rehab of the 33,000-square-foot former ice rink took less than a year, though the project sat idle for three years when the original appraiser died and more capital was required than initially expected. Opposite a game arcade and bowling alley, University is walking distance from a Reform and Orthodox congregation, Shir Ha-Ma'alot and Beth Jacob, respectively.
The founders anticipate University's move will deepen their guiding value, which was to create community. "Having a place of our own will enhance that feeling; people will have more of an opportunity to connect," Beral said. "It's a gift to ourselves and the community."
The biggest change by University is shifting religious school to Sunday from Saturday, which conflicts with youth sports activities. "That will be wonderfully helpful," Beral said. A variety of new weekday educational classes are also now being planned.
University's founders, like an earlier group that established Newport Beach's Temple Bat Yahm, split off from Shir Ha-Ma'alot where Beral had served as president. "It wasn't meeting our needs," she said.
Known as the South Coast Reconstructionist Chavura, the group met for weekly Shabbat get-togethers at homes, studied with visiting rabbis and by 1987 renamed itself University Synagogue. The founding president was Carol Richmond.
By serendipity, Beral recruited the synagogue's founding rabbi, meeting Rachlis in Washington, D.C., where he was a fellow in the Clinton White House during a sabbatical from a Reconstructionist congregation in Evanston, Ill. She wangled her way into a White House ceremony where Soviet dissident Natan Scharansky was receiving the Medal of Freedom. There on business for the American Jewish Committee, Beral and her husband, Hal, had also visited refuseniks in the former Soviet Union.
It took a year to arrange the first visit, but Rachlis then was a frequent visitor over the next several years. He relocated full time in April 1991 when the congregation stood at 80 families. At the time, sensitive over the accusation of raiding, Beral said a review of applications found a small percentage of former Shir Ha-Ma'alot members.
"Building a congregation was intriguing and exciting to him," she said. "He was excited by our vision.
"We all wanted something interesting, exciting and welcoming, and not boring," she said. "We don't think we're so weird."
Possessing an entrepreneur's confidence in innovation, Rachlis experiments with Shabbat services, drums up congregational support for trips to international Jewish communities, and fearlessly courts high-profile speakers on controversial topics.
Today, Beral said many members were previously unaffiliated or disengaged from Jewish organizations. "We have a lot of families who found us a congregation with which they could connect. We've brought those people into the Jewish community.
"I love that we all share in this, that it's a big extended family."