When Rabbi Jason Van Leeuwen sat for interviews this spring with the search committee at Congregation B'nai Tikvah in Westchester, he was struck by the questions. Normally, search committees ask rabbi finalists to, for example, name their three great strengths and three great weaknesses, but such standard human resources probing was of little interest to B'nai Tikvah members.
Van Leeuwen said the committee instead asked him: "'Tell me what your favorite congregant would tell you in an effort to improve your performance.'"
"And I was really impressed with the question. It had a humanity to it," said the 39-year-old Van Leeuwen, a married father of two who on Aug. 20 gave his first sermon as the new rabbi of the small, Conservative shul of about 150 families near LAX.
While it is a highly active, small synagogue, B'nai Tikvah has growth issues. Saturday services typically attract 40 to 60 people, and in the past four years, the congregation has gone from 165 to 135 families.
"We had a lot of older members, and they passed away," said Tony Shaffer, synagogue president. "We had an economic slump, and people got new jobs, and they moved away. There's not much you can do about that."
Part of Van Leeuwen's mandate, Shaffer said, is to be, "somebody that can energize us. Somebody with growth experience."
This is critical because B'nai Tikvah has made the difficult decision to eventually vacate its Manchester Boulevard location and, after decades, leave the high Westchester bluffs and hopefully find a new home in Playa Vista, the new housing development off of Lincoln Boulevard near Playa del Rey. The new location is expected to attract many young families in the next 10 years.
"The ultimate goal is to go to Playa Vista," Shaffer said. "We want to become more a regional-based shul."
For years, B'nai Tikvah has seen members shuttle between services in Westchester and Culver City's Reform shul, Temple Akiba. It also faces competition for congregants from nearby Chabads, plus Venice's Congregation Mishkon Tephilo and Manhattan Beach's Congregation Tifreth Jacob.
In Playa Vista, Shaffer said, "we found that we could be more centrally located down the hill."
B'nai Tikvah's 204-seat sanctuary is the northernmost point of the South Bay's small, self-contained Jewish community. It sits in a part of Los Angeles that makes Westchester neither a South Bay institution, like the Beach cities, nor part of the Westside's vibrant Jewish culture.
"B'nai Tikvah is definitely not the epicenter of Jewish Los Angeles," said Van Leeuwen, who has spent the past five years as cantor at the mid-size Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge. "It's not far from the epicenter. I found a small congregation with a disproportionately high level of involvement. It has a disproportionately large number of programs."
Synagogue search committee veterans say that finding the right rabbi is not unlike the courtship of marriage: The rabbi must be able both to laugh and weep with congregants, bless their newborns and bury their parents.
"Searching for a rabbi is really searching for yourself as a congregation," Van Leeuwen said.
After studying at the University of Judaism and then the Jewish Theological Seminary, Van Leeuwen spent three years at a midsize congregation on Long Island and then a year as interim rabbi at Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo, before switching to cantorial work at Ramat Zion.
B'nai Tikvah's pulpit application was 32 pages, with a lengthy questionnaire.
"You're asked to define yourself as a synagogue; not only are you defining yourself but also what kind of rabbi you're looking for," Shaffer said. "You had a very clear idea at the end of it of what you're looking for."
Roberta Stock, one of seven search committee members, said Van Leeuwen "read our application very closely. He knew who we were. He asked good questions and in return, he appreciated our honesty. It was apparent that he took the time to care about who we were."
Van Leeuwen had a long-standing friendship with his predecessor, Rabbi Michael Beads, who after seven years in Westchester is now the head rabbi of the larger Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, Del. Beals was not involved in the search committee.
Van Leeuwen's musical expertise also made an impression and on his Web site, www.rebjason.com , he promotes his CD, "Shabbat Rocks." Stock explained that during the selection process, "We invited Reb Jason to bring his guitar and conduct his musical Shabbat Rocks service. The teenagers in our religious school loved it and most of the adults were also very enthusiastic."
Van Leeuwen said that along with being a pulpit rabbi and an experienced chazzan, he now has another title thanks to his Westchester posting: "The self-appointed chief rabbi of LAX."