Jewish tunes, Grateful Dead-style tie-dyed T-shirts and rows of singing, swaying, arm-in-arm Jews gave a summer camp feel to Valley Beth Shalom's (VBS) "25th Hour" event, which marked the end of the Valentine's Day Shabbat.
Nearly 400 people came to the Conservative Encino synagogue's festive but compact Feb. 14 outreach to the 90 percent of San Fernando Valley Jews not affiliated with a synagogue.
"We wanted to create the world's most user-friendly, welcoming Jewish experience," said VBS Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who led young singles, middle-age parents and their kids in songs, stories and prayers in the shul's Malkin Hall.
The "25th Hour" positions Shabbat's final hour as a first hour for unaffiliated Jews looking for community. With two more such music-filled hours set for this spring, the targeted demographic -- professional Jewish singles and couples -- has given way to a Ventura Boulevard "25th" billboard near VBS, plus some free event advertising in Los Angeles Family Magazine. Feinstein's largest out-of-pocket "25th Hour" expense were the musicians, notably Craig Taubman, who in 1998 joined Rabbi David Wolpe to create the popular monthly "Friday Night Live" singles gathering at the Conservative Sinai Temple in Westwood.
"I didn't expect there to be this big a turnout," said David King, a young attorney who sat in one of the "25th Hour" back rows with his Valentine's Day date.
After starting exactly at 5:05 p.m., the Saturday evening hour moved swiftly. Aside from the musicians and T-shirts, the cozy gathering was a stripped-down operation lacking the sweets, cookies and beverages common at shul events. It also avoided the formal, religious air of the prominent Conservative synagogue.
"Don't go to the temple unless you're a guest of that bar mitzvah," Feinstein jokingly said to his casually attired, early Saturday evening flock.
The hour focused on a podium hourglass, of which Feinstein said, "the grains of sand come through the hourglass and you don't grab every one of them."
About 30 of the "25th Hour" revelers came from Beit T'Shuvah, the Jewish, faith-based addiction treatment facility in West Los Angeles. Joanna G., a 28-year-old recovering addict, arrived at the "25th Hour" in a Mercedes-Benz filled with three other Beit T'Shuvah women ready to party with Feinstein and Co., their sedan's speakers blasting MC Hammer's, "U Can't Touch This." After a quick cigarette break, the quartet crossed over from the parking lot to the synagogue hall for the lively hour.
"It's really nice to have fun and be spiritual in sobriety," Joanna G said. "I would celebrate Shabbat at camp and things, but never at home."
With some children in the aisles almost swimming in their tie-dyed shirts, Feinstein told the crowd that he recently noticed, and also disagreed with, a book on Eastern spirituality titled, "Wherever You Go, There You Are."
"Wherever you go is not where you are," Feinstein said. "I've been lots of places where I wasn't, [such as] high school. Sometimes if you're really blessed, somebody comes and turns your shoes around. We just want to turn your shoes around, so you might really learn."
Karen Sonnabend, a Jewish Community Center program director at the West Hills campus, said she appreciated the hour's summer camp sentiment with people singing and swaying.
"What grabbed me was the energy and the lightheartedness," she said.
The hour ended with the Hebrew song, "Am Yisrael Chai."
For more information about the March 13 and May 8 "25th Hour" events, call (818) 530-4092.
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