Twenty-five years ago, Temple Ner Maarav in Encino served nearly 450 families. Today, that number has dwindled to 65.
After more than half a century, the Conservative congregation will shut its doors on June 30. Many of its remaining congregants will join with Northridge’s Temple Ramat Zion under a merger plan, and Ner Maarav’s Torahs will be marched to their new North Valley home on July 1.
Uri Grinblat, Ner Maarav’s president, says the constant migration of young families to the Conejo Valley has played a large part in the attrition.
“Over the last 10 years, our number came down as many young families moved to Agoura and Thousand Oaks,” Grinblat said. “Unfortunately, we do not have too many young families around us and naturally, without them, a temple cannot exist.”
Ramat Zion’s membership has held steady at roughly 300 families over the past few years, and the merger is expected to add approximately 50 Ner Maarav families.
Rabbi Ahud Sela of Temple Ramat Zion said he is committed to bonding the two communities into one united congregation.
“We’re thinking of it like a marriage,” Sela said. “In fact, many of the people know each other already. These are friends with deep connections already in place, and it’s really a joyous thing for us to come together.”
Grinblat agreed, “The biggest benefit of merging with Temple Ramat Zion is the formation of a symbiotic relationship. The people at Temple Ramat Zion are extremely nice and similar to our congregants. I feel that it is a good match.”
Ner Maarav held its first service in the Sherman Oaks Women’s Club on July 8, 1955. Founded as Maarav Temple, the congregation broke ground at Magnolia Boulevard and White Oak Avenue in 1956, and completed construction the following year. In the late 1980s, the congregation merged with Temple Ner Tamid of Van Nuys to become Temple Ner Maarav.
In October 2011, Ner Maarav sold its site to Held Properties for $4 million and has been leasing the property since. Held plans to use the site to develop luxury apartments.
Bernie Bubman, past president of Ner Maarav, said he is relieved that memorabilia from Ner Maarav will be displayed at Ramat Zion.
“To have a home for our artifacts, especially our memorial plaques, is of paramount importance to us,” Bubman said.
Jeffrey Stern, president of Ramat Zion, is looking forward to the changes this new chapter will bring.
“On a personal level, the merger has provided an incredible degree of satisfaction to me. People are enthused about the influx of potential members to Temple Ramat Zion, and there is talk of new programs and events,” he said. “I believe all those involved are incredibly positive about the opportunities provided by this merger.”
One of the main goals of the merger is to ensure a Conservative Jewish presence in the northern part of the San Fernando Valley, Stern said. “There can be no hiding from the fact that shuls are having a difficult time retaining existing members and enrolling new ones.”
Although both congregations are looking forward to the merger, the change is bittersweet for the members of Ner Maarav, especially those who have been with the congregation for many decades.
“Perhaps the largest challenge will be in acclimating to a new environment and feeling comfortable in a new setting,” Bubman said. “We are pretty steeped in our ways, and to meld as one family will take a proper mindset and willingness to learn to do things, perhaps differently, than we have in the past. It is always more difficult for the congregation who will be moving to a new location than for the congregation who will be accepting.”
Ner Maarav’s clergy also must acclimate to a new reality. Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen will take over as senior rabbi at Temple B’Nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, replacing Rabbi Beryl Padorr. Cantor Linda Rich is still undecided on where she will continue her work.
Grinblat, who will be the final president of Ner Maarav, said he is hopeful for the future.
“I see a smooth transition, and I feel that in a year from now, we will be one people,” he said.
“Those of us from Temple Ner Maarav who will be joining the new synagogue,” Bubman said, “look forward with great expectation that at our new home, we, together with those at Ramat Zion, will continue to be a source of pride for the Jewish community.”