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Jewish Journal

Rabbi Revolution

by Julie G Fax

May 29, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Picture major rabbinic leaders of Los Angeles gathering to discuss the future of synagogue funding. Now, instead of seasoned rabbis with well-earned wrinkles and gray hair, picture a group of energized new leaders in their 30s and 40s.

With the retirement this year of several prominent senior rabbis, youthful faces have come to occupy the majority of Westside pulpits and others throughout the city, a confluence of vitality that has the potential to herald the beginning of a new era for the wider Los Angeles Jewish community.

Along with the try-anything spirit of youth, these rabbis bring a refreshingly unladen approach to working with each other and a determination to quicken the momentum of outreach and spirituality that characterized the last decade. In many cases, however, this freshman class lacks a local track record to back up its innovations and represents a loss of communal memory and an attenuated commitment to that which the previous generation held dear.

All the young rabbis expressed admiration for the older generation of rabbis who built the community, and now they have set out on a path that falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between evolution and revolution.

Just how things fall into place will affect not only the style and substance of synagogue life, but the entire Los Angeles Jewish community.

"Ultimately, the synagogue has the opportunity to inspire, to teach, to create a sense of community and connectedness and to enhance Jewishness," said Marvin Schotland, president and chief executive of the Jewish Community Foundation, who, along with Jewish Federation President John Fishel, co-hosted the meeting with rabbis this month.

Among those sitting around the table were Rabbi Steven Leder, 43, who on June 1 becomes senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, when Rabbi Harvey Fields retires; Rabbi David Wolpe, 44, who has been rabbi at Sinai Temple for six years; and Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who at 47 and with 17 years of service at Young Israel of Century City, is the most senior rabbi among Orthodox congregations on the Westside.

In the past year, Rabbi Morley Feinstein, 49, became senior rabbi at University Synagogue in Brentwood, after Rabbi Allen Freehling became rabbi emeritus; Rabbi Ken Chasen, 37, will be arriving from Westchester, N.Y., this summer to become senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple, where Rabbi Sanford Ragins will become emeritus.

While other rabbis are retiring -- Gilbert Kollin at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, Eli Schochet several years ago at Shomrei Torah in Woodland Hills -- the generational shift is especially concentrated on the Westside.

"There is an opportunity for the generation of rabbis coming into this community to create a glorious future together, not just making Shabbos for ourselves, but creating a wider Jewish community that is strong and vibrant," said Feinstein, who has won many admirers in his first 10 months at University Synagogue.

While all the new senior rabbis are men, Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills doesn't think that point should be overblown.

"The fact that there aren't women at this moment stepping up as senior rabbis in major congregations doesn't mean for a moment that there isn't an extraordinarily rich and talented group of women colleagues who in time will, I'm sure, have open to them all of the different choices that the American rabbinate has to offer," she said.

In fact, some of those women -- Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Rabbi Sherre Hirsch at Sinai Temple -- have been mainstays in the interdenominational cooperation that is emerging as a hallmark of this generation of Los Angeles rabbis, many of whom are close friends and expressed an interest in working together.

"Without a lot of the baggage of interdenominational squabbling that was really a main characteristic of the generation above us, we have been able to define a new era in interdenominational relationships," said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, 39, of B'nai David-Judea Congregation.

The Jewish Community Foundation has opened the question of whether the new era demands a new model of funding. It has suspended its program of seeding individual programs at synagogues -- a total of $100,000 last year -- as it examines whether that money might be better spent on a communitywide endeavor in the model of Synagogue 2000, a revitalization program to bring fresh ideas and energy to congregations.

Community leaders are hoping that pooled resources will go far in giving the current generation of spiritual seekers the fulfillment they are looking for, perhaps even winning back the many Jews who have left the fold in the past several decades.

"The younger rabbis coming in now are facing in a sharper and more intense fashion the dislocation and erosion of the Jewish community," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, who at 78 brings some of the most cutting-edge ideas and programs to the community. "It is much more difficult to be a rabbi in the 21st century."

The current generation has been reared on new ideas about spirituality, egalitarianism, social justice and tikkun olam (repairing the world) and is equipped with -- and challenged by -- new modes of communication.

It is also a generation of rabbis and congregants who are grappling with a growing distance from the drama that shaped the modern Jew -- the immigrant experience, the Holocaust, the creation of Israel. Population surveys depict rapidly declining numbers of Jews and dissipating affiliation.

Schulweis lays some of the blame on his colleagues, who he said neglected to address the growing desire for spirituality and the big questions people had about Judaism.

"There is a lack of philosophical and theological response to people's needs," he said. "Normally unspoken, not articulated, there are questions of God, of evil, of conflict with scientific outlook.... You just scratch the surface and you'll see it there."

While older rabbis had to retool their thinking midcareer, rabbis in their 30s and 40s are more prepared for moderating interactive Torah study in place of formal oration, delivering sermons that focus on individual spiritual growth and intellectually challenging an educated core. Text study has become more central to these rabbis, whose ordination process required a year of study in Israel.

But some older rabbis fear that the renewed spiritual quest and the desire for more meaningful Jewish rituals and observance may come at a cost.

"There is an excessive interest in finding satisfaction in religion rather than challenge," said Ragins, who has served Leo Baeck Temple since 1964. "People want religion to make them happy, and I don't think that is the job of religion. I think the job of religion is to help us deal with life, and sometimes that means things have to upset us."

Ragins and several other senior rabbis worry that the focus on Jewish continuity has left little interest in interfaith dialogue and building bridges to other ethnic communities.

"If all of this means that there is a withdrawal from the larger community, and if that means there is going to be a sense of provincialism and a lack of contact and interaction with others, that will work as a detriment to the welfare of the larger community in which we all live," said Freehling, who is currently the executive director of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission.

Whether youth is the key ingredient necessary to deal with these new challenges is yet to be determined. In this younger-is-better age of botox and Tiger Woods, presumptions abound.

"You find that, contrary to the conventional belief, younger people can be very conservative and fearful of change," Schulweis said.

"The rabbinate, like so much else in the Jewish mind, is so linked to the bourgeois temperament and the corporate structure of the way life is organized that it is not a ground in which creative thought can always take root," warned Rabbi Leonard Beerman, founder of Leo Baeck Temple, who retired 16 years ago.

Some wonder whether young rabbis will have the same fundraising clout as their older colleagues. Leder, who has been at Wilshire Boulevard Temple for 16 years (see box below), has already begun pulling his weight in that area, said Bruce Friedman, incoming president at the synagogue.

"People tend to gravitate to people in their generation, and we're already seeing that" in involvement and contributions from younger people, Friedman said.

The younger rabbis recognize the limitations of not having the life experience of an older rabbi.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who 10 years ago became rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood when he was 28, said the first funeral at which he officiated was the second funeral he had ever attended.

"Until I experienced, about six years ago, the death of my mother, I had no idea what I was doing at a funeral," he said.

In the Orthodox community in the Pico-Robertson area, nearly every one of the pulpit rabbis is in his 30s or 40s -- a situation that leaves some with mixed feelings.

"It is both liberating and at times frightening," Kanefsky said. "There are moments of self-doubt that would be clarified if there were a grand scholar figure who would help define the center of gravity for the community."

On the other hand, the open slate has been a breeding ground for creativity, and the lack of a firm hierarchy among colleagues has led to friendship and cooperation.

Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, 33, came to Congregation Mogen David last year, and Rabbi Steven Weil, 37, took over for Rabbi Abner Weiss at Congregation Beth Jacob two years ago.

Joining them this summer will be Nachum Kosofsky, a 33-year-old rabbi who will lead Congregation Shaarei Tefilah in Hancock Park.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, 39, founding rabbi at Kehillat Yavneh in Hanock Park, echoes other young rabbis in recognizing that what is being built now is only possible because of the infrastructure built and nurtured by the previous generation of rabbis.

"We have to be respectful of the achievements of rabbis who have been here so many years and helped build this community," Korobkin said, "and at the same time, try to identify those areas where there is room for greater achievement for the community."

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