Looking to really make your Passover meaningful? To truly exploring the modern-day concept of freedom? Then invite an American soldier to your home for the seder. That's what the Conservative movement on the West Coast is trying to arrange in a program called Seders for Troops, connecting synagogues located close to bases with local base chaplains.
"When I was growing up in Chicago after World War II, every Passover we had soldiers from the Naval Training Center," said Joel Baker, executive director for the Pacific Southwest Region of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "And I thought, 'Why can't we do that again? Why can't we welcome to our seders Jewish troops that are away from home?'"
Baker has connected rabbis in five states -- California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah -- with the bases closest to them. There are about 30,000 Jewish soldiers right now, Baker said, but he didn't have exact figures for the West Coast. Right now, synagogues are just gearing up for Passover (they're just finishing Purim) so it's too early to tell how many matches will be made.
"Given everyone's concern for the military troops," Baker said, "we think it's a great mitzvah."
A New Beginning
On a blustery sunny day at the Southern edge of the Malibu mountains, the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue dedicated its stunning new building.
Ten years in the making, the $10 million Reconstructionist synagogue designed by architects Ed Niles and Mike Barsocchini was unveiled after years of overcoming neighborhood regulatory hurdles, as well as the usual challenges of fundraising and construction.
The main sanctuary is nestled into the mountains, with the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean behind it; it's a domed and sloping glass structure with a slatted steel ceiling that looks like vertical blinds and allows a view of the sky. On each side are semiopen patios, one for services and one for use as an amphitheater/reception hall. The 20,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor complex seats 300 for the 250 member shul.
"Look around! We did what we were going to do," Rabbi Judith Halevy, leader of the congregation for the last 10 years, said at the March 12 dedication. "God said, 'Make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among you,'" she said, quoting Exodus.
She went on to discuss the light of the synagogue in relation to the mishkan described in that week's Torah portion: "There was a light put aside so that we could make this structure. That light is in your hearts at this very moment," she said, before they turned on the synagogue lights -- temporarily as the electrical work is not 100 percent complete.
At the Hanukat Habayit (dedication ceremony) those in attendance buried a time capsule for 25 years with contributions from members of the synagogue, affixed a mezuzah to the main entrance door, heard a choir perform and listened to speeches from local dignitaries.
"Other rabbis have shul envy," joked Rabbi Mark Diamond, the executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, about trying to pass a resolution on the board supporting the new synagogue. "If only their synagogue was as nice as this one."
In all seriousness, Diamond congratulated Halevy and the community but asked her "not to forsake Shabbat on the Beach," the monthly summer program the community holds at the shore.