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Jewish Journal

Judaism Expands in Orange County

by Karen Alexander

August 30, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Jews have lived in Orange County for more than 130 years, but the community has never undertaken such an intense period of expansion as the one currently underway.

In the last year alone, more than 150,000 square feet of new Jewish building space has been added to synagogues and schools around the county. And other major projects are just getting underway. Here is a look at what's going up behind the "Orange Curtain":

University Synagogue of Irvine went for 14 years without a permanent home. This year, the Reconstructionist congregation, which now has more than 500 families, has purchased a new 50,000-square-foot building in the heart of Irvine. Having met at a local church for the last decade, University Synagogue will move into its new dwelling next spring. The added space couldn't come a moment too soon; the Temple's monthly Shabbat Alive service, with pop- and jazz-style musical selections, regularly draws 500 people, according to Rabbi Arnold Rachlis.

The Reform congregants of Temple Beth El celebrated the first Shabbat in its new 65,000-square-foot building in Aliso Viejo on July 27. Now the largest synagogue in Orange County, the $18 million facility boasts panoramic views of the surrounding hillsides, two sanctuaries, 21 classrooms, athletic facilities and a demonstration kitchen for Jewish cooking classes. A formal dedication ceremony is planned for October, in which the congregation's Torah scrolls will be paraded into the new sanctuary.

Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine, a 300-family Orthodox synagogue, recently purchased its 6,000- square-foot building and is hoping to raise more than $5 million for what will eventually be a 25,000- square-foot complex on the property. The first phase will include Orange County's only Orthodox mikveh, which Rabbi Joel Landau hopes will be finished by next Rosh Hashanah. For now, observant congregants drive to the mikveh in Long Beach. There is a large concentration of Jews from South Africa in Orange County, including about 40 percent of Beth Jacob's congregants.

Chabad now has seven locations in Orange County. In the last year or so, centers have opened in Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Mission Viejo and Yorba Linda, according to Rabbi David Eliezre of Chabad in Yorba Linda. The new campus in Yorba Linda, on 2 acres, opened in January. It includes a new sanctuary and school building. In Irvine, Chabad moved into a new 6,000-square-foot building a year ago. Chabad of West Orange County completed a new synagogue about two years ago.

Temple Bat Yahm, a Reform congregation in Newport Beach with nearly 700 families, is presently adding a $6 million, 24,500-square-foot expansion that will include a library, computer center, banquet hall, amphitheater and outdoor athletics.

Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot, a 33-year-old Reform congregation in Irvine, is building a new sanctuary, classrooms and a gift shop. The congregation has raised $600,000 for the project so far, and still has a ways to go, according to Rabbi Rick Steinberg, who assumed leadership of the congregation this summer after the retirement of founding Rabbi Bernard King.

Tarbut v'Torah, the 75,000-square-foot state-of-the-art Jewish day school in Irvine, is adding a new upper school campus that is expected to open in September 2002. Adjacent to the existing campus, it is also the site of a planned Jewish Community Center and mega-campus that will eventually be home to most of the region's Jewish community organizations. Tarbut v'Torah, which moved into its current site from the JCC in Costa Mesa in 1997, graduated its first class of 18 seniors in June.

Chabad's 400-student Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach is adding a million-dollar early childhood education center and a new conference facility, according to Rabbi Yitzchok Newman. The school, which goes from preschool through 12th grade, won a Blue Ribbon from the U.S. Department of Education for its elementary program in 1999. The new buildings will add 10,000 square feet of space to the Hebrew Academy's 11-acre campus, which the school has called home since 1977.

Morasha Day School raised about $2 million to finance its move from Aliso Viejo to Rancho Santa Margarita last year. The school purchased 4 acres of land, and hopes to raise $10 million for the eventual build-out of its campus. "This is where the growth is," says Director Eve Fein of the school's location in the Southern outpost of Orange County. With 80 students expected to attend school in the portable classrooms in the fall, Morasha Day School is now raising money to finance its first permanent buildings, a preschool and kindergarten facility. The school is currently kindergarten through sixth grade, and eventual plans are to extend it through eighth grade. Morasha is one of eight day schools in the country invited to participate in a pilot program with the Bureau of Jewish Education to develop a set of guiding Jewish values for day schools.

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