Looking around the room at the recent tikkun leyl Shavuot held at Shomrei Torah in West Hills, it was hard to believe this synagogue was ever doomed to failure. There was hardly an empty seat to be found in the huge sanctuary; Rabbi Richard Camras said it was typical of the holiday and Shabbat attendance at the newly invigorated shul.
Yet, failure was what the congregation faced only a few short years ago. Wracked with millions of dollars in debt and congregants slipping quietly out the back door, the future looked anything but bright. Yet, through the efforts of a determined group of temple members and a massive fundraising drive, the congregation was able to retain its spiritual home, a victory it celebrated June 9 with a banquet. The "Gala 2002" honored treasurer Robert Weingarten, along with a group temple leaders refer to as "the Guardians of the Gate," people who contributed their money, time and expertise to ensuring the shul's survival.
"We are certainly out of what was a very significant crisis," said Camras, who joined the congregation in 1999 and helped steer it through the emergency. "People had us closing our doors and saying 'Kaddish' for Shomrei Torah."
It was the spring of 2000 when temple leaders realized they were in deep financial trouble, faced with an approaching balloon payment on their state-of-the-art, $5 million facility for which they had never initiated a building fund. In addition, the synagogue was the result of a shaky merger between Congregation Beth Kodesh, led by Rabbi Eli Schochet, and Temple Beth Ami, led by Rabbi David Vorspan. When Schochet retired in 1999 and Vorspan was not promoted to senior rabbi, Vorspan left and many of his original congregants followed (he is now leader of Congregation Shir Ami, which holds its services at Kol Tikvah's building in Woodland Hills).
These two factors, plus fallout from the 1994 earthquake, resulted in the congregation taking drastic measures to ensure its survival. Fundraisers were held, an assessment of $80 per month was levied on all member households (later adjusted to be more equitable, e.g. a lower assessment for seniors) and an outside consultant, Rabbi Jerry Danzig, former executive director of Valley Beth Shalom, was brought in to coordinate recovery efforts and streamline the shul's operations.
"We started out with a very complete, in-depth study of the functioning of the synagogue and as a result completely restructured the organization, particularly the board and the executive committee, so it would be more efficient," Danzig recalled.
Danzig also assisted Weingarten, a certified public account and financial consultant, and temple member Stuart Marks, a real estate developer, in approaching the synagogue's mortgage holder and working out a restructuring of the loan. According to Weingarten, the new financing takes the synagogue through 2006 with a reduced interest rate and a much lower principal.
"Between the assessment, the money we were able to raise internally and the new mortgage holder, we were able to make everything much more manageable for the temple and cut our monthly payment in half," Weingarten said. "Formerly that [expense] was approaching $40,000 a month."
With the financial pressure alleviated, temple leaders are concentrating on rebuilding the infrastructure and working on programs to attract new members. In the past two years, the congregation dropped in membership by about 50 families, due in part to negative press from media.
One of the ways the congregation hopes to grow is by positioning itself in contrast to other nearby Conservative congregations. The shul has acquired a reputation for being slightly more traditional, with a concentration on learning at all levels, from preschool to adult education. This fall, the religious school will move from a three- to a two-day schedule and begin a program of electives called Chuggim, where once a week, students can participate in either art, sports and games, drama or creative writing, all with Jewish content.
"We read the whole Torah and do daily minyans, and so for that reason we do have a reputation for being more traditional," said Nancy Wold, community vice president of Shomrei Torah's board of directors. "However, we also have innovative programs like the Ruach [Shabbat service held monthly], and of course our religious school has undergone a dramatic change. We are traditional, but also very cutting edge."
Danzig said he is confident that the synagogue is now firmly on the road to recovery.
"I'm convinced Shomrei Torah will survive," he said. "It's in a good location and with the renewed spirit of the congregation, they have a hopeful approach to the future."