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Jewish Journal

Conejo Valley Hit by Growing Pains

"The challenge ... is to keep up with needs."

by Wendy J. Madnick

April 24, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Rabbi Gary Johnson is overjoyed. There's no other way to describe it.

His bliss over the new home for his congregation, Temple Beth Haverim, is so obvious that he practically dances around the building as he takes a visitor on a tour of the site. Not surprising for a man who for the past 15 years has been forced to lead services in a tiny, rented space in an Agoura industrial park.

"Up until now, we were in an industrial park, sort of tucked away and invisible," Johnson said. "It's a maturation of our community to realize we're landowners. It's been a major undertaking."

Temple Beth Haverim made the official move to its new home at the end of February. The property is nestled against Ladyface Mountain in Agoura Hills and has space for multiple buildings, plus an open area that Johnson hopes to use for the temple's Shabbat Under the Stars program this summer.

Although the main sanctuary has not been built yet, the small sanctuary will be adequate for the present time to serve the congregation's 440 families. According to Johnson, the synagogue must raise an additional $6 million to build the main sanctuary, for an estimated total of $12 million when the facility is completed.

The temple's preschool and religious school buildings are finished. The preschool, which opened in September, is full and has a waiting list for most classes.

Temple Beth Haverim is just one example of the growth of the Jewish community in the Conejo Valley. Over the past two decades, the area has experienced a migration of Jewish families heading west, similar to what occurred in the San Fernando Valley in the 1950s. It's been a more difficult birth, however, in part because of an entrenched group of no-growth proponents, and in part because the Conejo's Jewish population remained a quiet minority for a long time.

Another example of growth in the community is the Conejo Jewish Day School. Operated under the auspices of Chabad of the Conejo, the school opened in September 2000 and has since increased its student population from 38 to 64. It will add a fifth-grade class in the fall.

According to day school principal Rabbi Menachem Weiss, the school draws families not only from the Conejo and Simi Valley areas but also from as far away as North Hollywood and Sherman Oaks. The individual attention afforded to students in the small school is one factor in its attraction. Weiss said the rural environment also has its appeal.

The school currently operates on rustic property owned by Gateway Church, which is used in the summer by a popular local day camp.

"It's very kid friendly," Weiss said. "When kids come to school, it should look like a school, not an office building."

The relatively unscathed landscape of the Conejo Valley is part of the area's allure. Its slightly more affordable homes also make it attractive to families. The Conejo stretches from the western edge of Calabasas to Thousand Oaks and includes the communities of Agoura Hills, Westlake Village and Newbury Park.

With the exception of Calabasas, these bedroom communities have never been seen as particularly Jewish neighborhoods. However, local leaders point to the many examples of flourishing Jewish institutions in the area as strong evidence of the Conejo Valley's transformation into a major Jewish center.

The Conejo includes two Conservative synagogues. Besides Beth Haverim, there is Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks. There are also two Reform congregations: Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks and Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas.

In addition, there is a large Chabad network, with a main site in Agoura and several satellite sites in surrounding areas, plus a Jewish Federation office. Also, there is an Agoura Hills Jewish Community Center, which primarily serves as a preschool, as well as an active bikur cholim group that visits patients at Los Robles Medical Center in Thousand Oaks.

"It's a very cohesive Jewish community," said Rabbi Alan Greenbaum of Adat Elohim. "There are many events co-sponsored by most, if not all, of the congregations, such as Chanukah events and speakers series"

"There's a lot of harmony," he continued. "The clergy meet together, we speak well of each other and it comes from a sincere place. We're just very pleased and proud of the quality of the Jewish community here."

Growing a new community is not always smooth. Among the problems the Jewish community of the Conejo has experienced are a lack of affordable space in some areas and the controversy surrounding Heschel West Day School.

Seeking to expand, the school purchased 70 acres near Agoura High School five years ago but has not been able to overcome resistance from neighbors and begin building. The school opponents -- both Jewish and non-Jewish, referred to in the local papers as coming from Old Agoura -- believe that the project would negatively impact the already narrow traffic corridor running near the high school, making it dangerous in case of an earthquake or other emergency.

Johnson said the heated debate over the controversy has been discouraging for his congregation, which includes people on opposite sides of the issue.

"The Old Agoura Jewish residents say to me, 'Rabbi, we want Heschel West in our community, but that is the wrong area, because of access and egress,'" he said. "They say, 'God forbid there is a fire, and we have to get the kids out of Heschel West and residents out of Old Agoura, there's only one two-lane road, one lane in each direction. This isn't anti-Semitism, it's a traffic issue.'"

"And then I have my Heschel West families, who say they will address those safety issues," Johnson continued. "It's very passionate on both sides."

Founders of the Conejo Jewish Day school are watching Heschel West's fight as an indicator of what they can expect when they, too, seek a new location.

"What happens with them [Heschel] will affect us," said Leora Langberg, the day school's president. "If public opinion is for keeping day schools out, it's really going to hurt us."

Although demographic evidence of the area becoming "more Jewish" is difficult to compile -- most synagogues have experienced a significant increase in members, but there could be reasons other than more Jews moving to the area -- anecdotal evidence indicates that growth has been steady and will continue.

Yuval and Ronit Golan are betting on a steady increase. The couple, who own Sam's Bakery & Doughnut in North Hollywood, will open a second store in Westlake Village later this month. The shop joins an Agoura Hills kosher butcher-grocer, pizza parlor and kosher restaurant catering to the observant Jewish community in the area.

"There's no kosher bakery out in that area, and we want to expand our business," Ronit Golan said. "We're looking forward to serving everyone in the Conejo Valley."

Overall, it does not appear that much can prevent the transformation of the Conejo into a center of Jewish life comparable to the San Fernando Valley.

"The challenge of the community is to keep up with the needs," said Greenbaum of Adat Elohim. "As [Temple Beth Haverim and Chabad] complete their building process, that will mark a critical turning point for the Jewish community here, because we will all have finished our minimal building campaigns and will have to look beyond our individual synagogues toward, say, building a Jewish Community Center. That will be an exciting time for the Jewish community."

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