In 1986, Valley Village’s Adat Ari El, the oldest congregation in the San Fernando Valley, hired Leslie Alexander as an assistant rabbi. And though Alexander will go down in history as the first woman to serve as a pulpit rabbi at a major Conservative congregation, it was another woman, Miriam Wise, the synagogue’s longtime rebbetzin, who made it possible for the congregation to envision a woman as the center of synagogue life.
Born in 1919, Miriam Wise lived until December 2013, and she “personified an old-fashioned rebbetzin, which doesn’t exist anymore,” said Erika Jacoby, a longtime temple member and friend. “She was always interested in people’s welfare.”
Far from old-fashioned, however, was her co-directing, along with Rabbi Jacob “Jack” Pressman, the pilot summer of Camp Ramah, in 1955. Also in the 1950s, she inaugurated a bat mitzvah program at the synagogue for adult women.
“She was modest but very outgoing when it came to teaching,” Bea Reynolds, a 60-year member and friend who gave a eulogy at Wise’s funeral, recalled.
She was not alone, though, in helping to create an environment of communal participation at the still-thriving East Valley synagogue.
According to the book “The First Fifty Years: Adat Ari El,” another key player was Alex Ratner — who with his wife, Anne, had co-founded the famous dairy restaurant Ratner’s on New York’s Lower East Side. The couple moved to the Valley in 1914, and Ratner became determined to create a shul for the Valley. So, in 1928, he took it upon himself, along with 10 other Jewish families, to raise money to buy a lot for that purpose. That was before the Depression, which “caused them to abort their plans and refund the money.”
Then, in 1937, Dr. Maurice Young invited 22 Jewish families to his home to discuss the need for a Jewish Sunday school and social center for adults. Fifteen couples showed up, and on Jan. 31, 1938, they founded what they called the Valley Jewish Community Center (VJCC).
“It started out really as a social-intellectual group,” recalled Genya Horwitz, one of the founding members, in “The First Fifty Years.”
By 1940, the VJCC began to re-evaluate its purpose, and the group’s bylaws were changed to form a “temple center.” In that same year, they bought a small building at 12800 Chandler Blvd., a former speakeasy, for $6,800.
Though the members themselves did much of the remodel, they obtained a prop built at Universal Studios for their ark; it had been made for a movie about the American Revolutionary War Jewish figure, Haym Solomon.
The location of the synagogue wasn’t ideal, however. The building was next to the Red Car Line, and noise from passing trolleys “would drown out parts of many Friday night services.”
By 1944, needing larger quarters, Nate Blumberg (then-president of Universal Studios) and his family donated $28,000 for the initial two acres of the site on which Adat Ari El now stands. In 1946, Art Whizin, one of the community’s founders and creator of the Chili Bowl restaurant chain in Los Angeles, became president.
In 1947, after a stint with Rabbi Sidney Goldstein, the congregation hired Rabbi Aaron Wise, who had been recommended to them by the Rabbinical Assembly.
Responding to the explosive post-war growth in the Valley, in 1948 Isadore and George Familian announced a gift of $75,000 and plans for what would become a 350-seat chapel to be named in honor of their father, David Familian, a Russian immigrant who went from the junk business to success in plumbing supplies. Adorned with 11 stained-glass windows about Jewish holidays that were designed by Rabbi Wise and Mischa Kallis (who was an art director at nearby Universal Studios), the modern Georgian-style building by architect Herman Light continues to be used today and has been designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.
Rabbi Moshe Rothblum, who began work at VJCC in 1963 teaching confirmation classes and was named associate rabbi in 1971, remembers Rabbi Wise saying that the “role of the rabbi was to be a social engineer.”
“He was very good at it,” said Rothblum, who succeeded Rabbi Wise as senior rabbi in 1978. Rothblum retired in 2006.
In 1964, Rabbi Wise introduced a dershanim program, which invited congregants to give a derash on the week’s Torah portion on Saturday mornings. “Adat Ari El was one of the first congregations to do it on a regular basis,” Rothblum said of the practice, which has become a mainstay of such respected, layperson-participatory groups as the Library Minyan at Temple Beth Am and the Movable Minyan, which meets at the Institute of Jewish Education.
“He gave up his time to shine on Shabbat,” recalls Bea Reynolds, the first woman to give a drash at the synagogue.
Active in social causes, Rabbi Wise marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s civil rights movement marches in the South and was an early critic of the Vietnam War. After his retirement, he co-created and taught the 10-week “Making Marriage Work” course at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), a program still being offered today.
In 1972, Rabbi Wise recommended that VJCC change its name to the more poetic Hebrew name “Adat Ari El,” meaning “Congregation Lion of God.”
In another L.A. Jewish educational breakthrough, this one in the 1960s, Pearl Rosen recalls going with Miriam Wise and another temple member to Grant High School in the Valley, to make a case for a Hebrew language program at the school.
“The principal was really reluctant to add another language,” Rosen said. But when he raised a roadblock, asking who would teach it, they knew they had him. Miriam Wise, who had a teaching credential, was ready to go.
The rebbetzin was also a leader at the synagogue in another arena — the creation of the financially successful “California Kosher” cookbook, published by the temple’s Women’s League chapter in 1991. “She wrote the ‘Who We Are,’ ” recalls Rosen, who was the book’s project director and editor. The book, with reprints, has sold 75,000 copies, bringing in $750,000, Rosen estimates. If ever there were evidence of the synagogue’s participatory nature, the cookbook is emblematic: More than 100 women helped create it.
Adding a soulful soundtrack to services was Latvian-born Cantor Allan Michelson, who served from 1952 to 1984 and whose voice also could be heard in several films, including “Land of the Pharoahs.”
“He was a magnet. If a kid had any kind of ability, they were drawn to him,” Rothblum said. As a result, at least nine students from the congregation have gone on to become cantors (among them Cantor Nathan Lam at Stephen S. Wise Temple).
For others, Michelson was there to pull them through. Stuart Ziff, who had his bar mitzvah at Adat Ari El in 1962, remembers the cantor as “warm and joyous.” But when Ziff couldn’t remember his trope, “he basically had to threaten me with canceling the bar mitzvah, before I got it together,” Ziff said.
Rothblum, who recorded several albums of Jewish music — he composed a popular version of “Veshamru” that continues to be used in many synagogues — also used music to draw in youth by directing synagogue musicals, such as “Man of La Mancha,” in 1972. Earlier, the temple’s Married Couples Club had produced Jewish parodies of Broadway hits, like “Howard Blum’s Song” for “Flower Drum Song.”
Adat Ari El was also the first to host Los Angeles music impresario Craig Taubman’s “One Shabbat Morning,” a program of inspirational music and singing that Rothblum and Cantor Ira S. Bigeleisen helped bring to the synagogue.
As to continuing the community’s tradition of participation in the larger Jewish community, Adat Ari El’s current senior Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard called participation a part of the “ethos” of the synagogue.
“It’s completely been modeled,” he said. “Rabbi Rothblum was president of the Board of Rabbis [of Southern California] — Rabbi Wise as well,” said Bernhard, who now is the Board’s president. “One generation does what the other does,” he added.
Have a lead for an L.A. Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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