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Jewish Journal

Have Ark, Will Travel

by Gaby Wenig

July 8, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Rabbi Abner Weiss is looking through the closet that holds his shul. There are two Torah scrolls lying face up on shelves, the gold mechitza curtains are hung against the wall and the mini-weekday ark is facing the closet door.

"'Have ark will travel' -- that's our motto," Weiss said, and quoted the verse that is used in the Shabbat liturgy when the Torah scroll is removed from the ark in the synagogue: "Vayehi binsoah aron" (and behold the ark was traveling).

Westwood Village Synagogue (WVS) stores its accoutrements in the closet, because there is no permanent place to display them. This small but growing Orthodox congregation currently has its home in the auditorium of the University Religious Conference building at UCLA, a room that is also used for other religious services and folkloric dancing.

But while the ark, mechitza, et al are wheeled out and put away before and after every service, it hasn't stopped the congregation from feeling that it does have permanence -- perhaps not of place but definitely of spirit.

"It's so much more than a synagogue to me," said Michelle Heilpern, a past president of the congregation and a current member. "I really discovered a family there."

The "family" that Heilpern is referring to is made up of 60 member units, up from 40 the year before. The growth of the congregation, Heilpern said, is due in large part to Weiss' rabbinate.

"[Weiss has] a natural appeal," Heilpern said. "He has an incredible Torah knowledge, and he inspires us to do all these wonderful things. When you have a spiritual leader, it creates a synergy and an energy that leads you to grow."

A few years ago, Weiss left Beth Jacob Congregation, where he had been rabbi for 15 years, to assume a position in London, reviving the rabbinical school at the London School of Jewish Studies. Weiss was unable to raise sufficient funds in London to keep the school going, so he left the post and returned to Los Angeles in retirement from the rabbinate.

He settled in Westwood and joined WVS as a lay person. But after less than a year, the 10-year-old congregation prevailed on him to be their rabbi, after Rabbi Ben Gottlieb left.

Weiss accepted the part-time position. The shul, whose membership primarily consisted of UCLA professors and doctors, started attracting more locals who were drawn to its nonjudgmental ambience.

The congregation is now looking for a more permanent home in Westwood, somewhere where it won't have to store the aron kodesh, or ark, in a closet. The congregation would also like more members, but not too many more members, because it wants to retain WVS's close, extended-family atmosphere.

"We don't ever want to become a 300-family shul, but we sure want to be a 75-100 family shul," Heilpern said.

But increasing the size of an Orthodox congregation in a largely non-Orthodox neighborhood is a challenge. WVS is not the only Orthodox shul in Westwood. There is also Westwood Kehila and the Southern California Jewish Center, but for the most part, Orthodox Jews on the Westside are concentrated in the Pico-Robertson area.

Westwood, being a college community, has an attraction, but being without day schools, kosher restaurants or a large choice of synagogues, it has never served as a serious alternative to Pico-Robertson in terms of Orthodox growth.

In order to grow and to offer an alternative to the thriving Sinai Tempe and Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, WVS members say it fosters an atmosphere of acceptance and nonjudgementalism. The congregants don't pry into others' level of observance -- no one asks if fellow congregants drove to shul (an Orthodox violation) or keep kosher homes.

The congregation also considers itself progressive within the confines of Jewish law, when it comes to women's issues. Members say WVS was the first Orthodox congregation where women carried the Torah on Shabbat. Though there is no women's prayer group, on Shabbat, women often give divrei Torah (speeches about the Torah portion).

"There is no frummer-than-thou attitude," Weiss said, meaning a more-religious-than-you attitude. "It is just love and acceptance of every Jew."

That "love and acceptance" worked out well for Weiss, who found himself embroiled in a communal that started about five years ago, when he discovered through extensive family research that he was not -- as he had always believed -- a Cohen (a descendant of the Jewish priest line). Being a Cohen made Weiss eligible to perform certain Jewish rituals, such as the priestly blessings and the pidyon ha-ben (redeeming of the first born)

When he discovered that he was not a Cohen, Weiss wrote to the rabbi at Beth Jacob that the pidyon ha-bens he had performed would need to be redone, upsetting some members in the community. Heilpern said the Cohen affair was not an issue for WVS.

"From our standpoint we feel so blessed to have [Weiss]," Heilpern said. "Here is the man who was the head rabbi in South Africa and the rabbi at Beth Jacob, and now he is with us. It is a gift and a blessing to have such a great scholar as our rabbi."

Westwood Village Synagogue has Shabbat services and weekday morning services at the University Religious Conference building, 900 Hilgard Ave. Westwood. For more information call (310) 208-0852.

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