March 10, 2005
Temple in the Desert
The sanctuary of Congregation Beth Knesset Bamidbar in Lancaster evokes the mood of the Mojave Desert, which reaches far to the north, west and south of the small synagogue.
The walls behind the bimah and on each side of the ark are made of simple cinder bricks of a sandstone color. They look as though Western pioneers had put them there, men and women who appreciated the natural resources around them, and who relied on native materials for their buildings, because they had neither time nor money to waste on fancy decorations. In that pioneer spirit, the Jews of Lancaster in the Antelope Valley built Beth Knesset Bamidbar, a house of gathering in the desert.
I thought of the West and the 19th-century Jews who migrated there, as I stood in the sanctuary last month with Rabbi Richard N. Schechter and the congregation's president, Eli Colvin. Th0ey and the 130 families who make up the congregation are certainly worthy successors to those pioneer Jews, who settled where few other Jews ventured and who spread Judaism to an indifferent and often hostile community.
In the past, Jews never came to mind when I thought about Lancaster, 65 to 70 miles north of the synagogues, delis, schools and markets of Pico-Robertson. Rather, my impressions were formed by news stories dealing with Christian fundamentalism, the Aryan Brotherhood and methamphetamine factories.
All of the above exist, although not to the extent of my preconceived notions, said Schechter and Colvin. But, said Schechter, the Antelope Valley "is quite accepting and embracing" of the Jewish community.
I had gone there on another exploration of Jewish life in the far suburbs. The month before, I had visited the San Gabriel Valley. The challenge of maintaining a Jewish community seemed even more daunting in the Antelope Valley, even farther away from Los Angeles and its large Jewish community and many institutions, than the San Gabriel and adjacent Pomona valleys.
The pioneers who established the Antelope Valley Jewish community were modern-day pioneers of aerospace. Among the "Right Stuff" generation of pilots and engineers at Edwards Air Force Base near Lancaster were a number of Jews working for the government and for aerospace companies.
They, along with teachers, business people and others, formed the congregation in 1951 and a year later moved into an old church, which was expanded. The congregation had its troubles. In 1978, two boys set a fire that burned through the interior of the synagogue. Churches opened their doors to the congregants, while the synagogue was rebuilt.
Beth Knesset Bamidbar is Reform. There is also an Orthodox synagogue in town, Chabad of Antelope Valley.
Congregation president Colvin moved to the Antelope Valley from the San Fernando Valley to be with his son, joined the temple and remarried.
"From every person, you get a different reason [for affiliating], he said. "Young families want a Jewish education for their children [30 percent of the families are intermarried]. Jews being in the minority, a number of them affiliate for social reasons. Some are new to Judaism."
Constant job transfers in the volatile aerospace industry churn the congregation. While membership numbers remain constant, families come and go, complicating Beth Knesset Bamidbar's efforts to reach out.
Creating a Jewish community in the Antelope Valley is central to the temple's mission. In a place where there are so few Jews, said Schechter, "the synagogue becomes the center of Jewish life, the magnet for people who want a Jewish identity."
The synagogue advertises events, stimulates articles in the local newspaper, even has a pastrami and hot dog booth at the Antelope Valley Fair.
"One of our strong efforts is to reach out to the nonaffliated," Schechter said.
Newcomers are greeted warmly. Some return; others don't. Longtime absentees are welcomed back. Schechter has about 20 students in his Introduction to Judaism course. He teaches Hebrew to youngsters in preparation for bar and bat mitzvahs, where they read from the Torah.
Each is required to complete a mitzvah project. One of them is called, Saddle Up, in which they help disabled boys and girls ride horses.
Another task of a synagogue so far from the Jewish center is to reach out to civic and business groups, churches and mosques. Schecter gave the invocation at the community commemoration of the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The mayors of Lancaster and Palmdale attended the celebration of the rabbi, who started as a part-timer, before signing his full-time contract.
The synagogue in the desert has a tougher job than those located in the heart of the Los Angeles Jewish community. The congregants must build a Jewish community in an area stretching over many miles. They also feel an obligation to remind the rest of the Antelope Valley of the Jewish presence and of Jewish values.
They made me think of the handful of pioneer Jews who settled in Los Angeles in the 19th century and helped make the place the great city it is today.
Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.