Mogen David, one of the last Trad-itional synagogues left in Los Angeles, installed a mechitzah and took out its microphones this month, choosing to become Orthodox rather than defunct.
"The board has come to the realization that as the membership keeps dwindling and our members are aging, we need to do something to rejuvenate the synagogue," says Rabbi Gabriel Elias, interim rabbi of Mogen David, of the choice to erect a divider and create men's and women's sections of the synagogue. So while many of the older members, who have poured a lifetime of service into building the synagogue on Pico Boulevard near Beverwil, would rather have stayed Traditional, the board decided to take the only logical step for the congregation that sits on the western edge of Los Angeles' most vibrant and concentrated Orthodox corridor.
"The board decided that if we want young people to come, we have to put up a mechitzah, because otherwise the young Orthodox families are not going to come," Elias says. "And those who drive are not going to come here anyway, because we don't have a parking lot."
Founded in the late 1920s and led for 47 years by Rabbi Abraham Maron, Mogen David for decades was a young and active congregation, with 2,000 families, a Hebrew school and a sizable endowment. But Maron didn't have an assistant rabbi as a natural successor when he died 17 years ago, and with the changes in the neighborhood, membership shrank. Today the synagogue has about 350 families -- with an average age of about 70. While it owes nothing on its valuable building with an attached school, and while it is still financially well-positioned, there seemed to be no future.
"We are not an institution that was closing its doors," says synagogue president Al Spivak, whose family has been active in the synagogue since the 1950s. "We can continue on indefinitely with the capital we have. But we needed to put more life into where we are."
Mogen David will continue to hold mixed-seating High Holy Days services off-site, with a rabbi and cantor.
Like a handful of synagogues founded in the postwar years in Los Angeles, mostly by Holocaust survivors, Mogen David was Traditional, sometimes called progressive Orthodox, meaning it used an Orthodox prayerbook and its services were non-egalitarian, but men and women sat together and microphones were used. The only other such synagogue still in the area seems to be Congregation Beth Israel, on Beverly Boulevard at Crescent Heights, which also has a dwindling, elderly membership. Most other Traditional synagogues went one way or the other, becoming either Conservative or Modern Orthodox.
With Mogen David's transformation, all the synagogues on the 1.5-mile stretch of Pico between La Cienega Boulevard and Roxbury are now Orthodox.
Competition is pretty intense among the half-dozen major synagogues and many other small ones, and Mogen David will have to hustle to attract those coveted young Orthodox families.
Elias is under no illusions about just how tough and protracted a battle this can be.
"We know that we are looking to do the right thing. Are we aware of the fact that this is a long process? Yes," he says. "We are looking to the 21st century, and we expect that in the next five or six years, we can be full to capacity again."
He believes young families may initially be attracted by the lower membership dues, which at $500 and no extras is about half to one-third of other synagogues in the neighborhood, something Mogen David is able to accomplish thanks to some well-invested funds from the shul's years of plenty.
Elias, who founded and runs the Elias-Elitzur basketball league, plans to spend the next few months setting up a quality youth program, as well as adult education, perhaps in conjunction with Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which are both across the street.
He says the style of the synagogue will remain as it always has been -- a quick, straightforward davening, over by 11:15 a.m. on Shabbat, followed by a "Chulnt Kiddush" and, for those who want to stay, a class. He says the philosophy is Modern Orthodox. Women will be invited to speak from the bimah and teach classes, and the Torah will go through the women's section during services.
Elias had been the congregation's executive director and assistant rabbi, and he became acting rabbi after the congregation did not renew the contract of Rabbi Yisroel Kelemer, who served for 13 years. Elias looks to B'nai David-Judea, with a similar history, as a model of what it may take to make this transformation a success.
About 11 years ago, Rabbi Philip Schroit, the longtime leader of B'nai David, decided to install a permanent mechitzah in what had been a Traditional congregation. But even that did not help much for the first few years. Rather, the synagogue took off when Rabbi Danny Landes and a core group of families from an auxiliary minyan at Beth Jacob Congregation moved into B'nai David, forming an alliance with the older members who had been leaders for decades. After Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky came to lead the congregation about four years ago, B'nai David took its place as the vibrant, flourishing community it is today.
Elias says Mogen David has been approached with merger or buy-out proposals by nearly all the synagogues in the neighborhood -- including B'nai David, Young Israel of Century City, Beth Jacob, Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, Chabad and Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue on La Cienega at Olympic. While some of those talks are ongoing, the synagogue wants to keep its doors open rather than sell outright, and so far, those who have proposed merging "all want to merge on their terms, but it doesn't make any sense for us," says Spivak.
Mogen David has formed a search committee to find the rabbi that can help it make a success out of this venture. Spivak points out that opportunities are available for lay leaders as well.
"They will have a better voice in the future of the congregation because they are coming in on the ground floor," Spivak says.
Meanwhile, the first Shabbat with a mechitzah saw attendance jump from the usual 30 or 40 on Shabbat to about 350, thanks to some publicity.
"We had around 50 kids, which is more than we've had on the High Holidays in the last few years," Elias says.
While he knows the real test will come in seeing how many of those families will come back week after week, he is optimistic.
"We made the only decision we could make, the decision we needed to make for our survival," he says. "As long as we continue to service our elderly population, and not alienate them but make them a part of the rejuvenation process, I think this will all work out."