Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) synagogue based in Encino is perhaps one of the more popular synagogues for Iranian Jews living in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. The synagogue, even though predominately Ashkenazi, for the last 25 years has attracted Iranian Jews who wanted to attend a temple near their homes in the Valley but had not yet established a synagogue of their own. Over the years VBS’s Iranian membership has steadily increased with families sending their children there for Jewish day school.
About five years ago, their Sephardic and Iranian members along with the synagogue’s Rabbi Ed Finestein, for the High Holy Days established separate Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services at VBS for their Sephardic members. These High Holy Day services attracted many local Iranian Jews and other Sephardim to attend VBS. I recently caught up with Finestein to find out more about the Iranian Jewish community’s attraction to their Sephardic High Holy Day services…
Rabbi Finestein can you give us some background on how this separate Sephardic service during the High Holy Days came about at Valley Beth Shalom?
Well we first started with a program for Purim and megillah reading because the Persian community has such an affinity with Purim. That was so successful that we decided to take the next step. We thought it would be wonderful to also have traditional Mizrachi or Sephardic service for our Persian, Yemenite, Iraqi and Israeli members. So it’s been very successful and it’s been beautiful to have that as a part of our community.
What are some of the highlights of this Sephardic service that you think attracts non-Ashkenazi members to attend?
The reason we started this service was because we have a wonderful community of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews who come regularly on Shabbat, but when the holidays started I noticed that none of them came to our synagogue. I asked one of them why they don’t come to Valley Beth Shalom and he said he wanted to hear the melodies that he grew up with as a child. When I asked if he wanted to do a Sephardic service here with the traditional Mizrachi melodies, he and others really liked the idea. So it took off from there and the real highlight has been the fact that we have the traditional Mizrachi melodies in the service along with the kind of teaching that is within the spirit of VBS.
High Holy Days are a time to reflect and for the community to come together. Have there been VBS Ashkenazi members who ask why you have two separate services during this time instead of one service for everyone?
It’s really been the opposite. Many of our Ashkenazi members sneak into the Sephardic services and they tell me that they love the melodies and the atmosphere. My father, who is Lithuanian, loves the Sephardic melody and the flow of the service. Instead of seeing resistance from the Ashkenazim, I’ve had people who ask why don’t we do it more often.
Where do see you see this whole concept of incorporating Sephardic programs into your synagogue going into the future?
Well, we’ll see what happens. I’d love to see something like this done more often on Shabbat. But the difficulty is that we have so many communities and it’s hard to accommodate everyone— but it’s a real joy. I invite the community to come and experience this wonderful Sephardic service at VBS. It’s a joyful experience to have. We’ve tried to show that we are a one Jewish community. We might come from different places and speak with different accents, but we care about the same things—our children, Jewish life and Israel— so it’s important for us to celebrate as one. And we’re very proud to do this.