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Ohr HaTorah ends 15-year trip in a walk down Barrington to a new home [VIDEO]

Web extra video: Rabbi Mordechai Finley's 'Introduction to Spiritual Judaism'

by Rachel Heller

August 19, 2008 | 1:04 am

Photos by Rachel Heller

Photos by Rachel Heller

It was a sight Mar Vista doesn't see every day -- a guitar-studded procession of more than 100 Jewish revelers marching jubilantly down South Barrington Avenue with five Torah scrolls.

Members of Ohr HaTorah synagogue, which until this month held services at a church in West Los Angeles, donned sun hats and sneakers Aug. 8 to carry their Torahs south to the congregation's new location -- and first permanent home -- on Venice Boulevard.

The walk was only 2.8 miles, but the journey was 15 years in the making.

"We finally have a place that feels like home," said Meirav Finley, who co-founded Ohr HaTorah with her husband, Rabbi Mordecai Finley. "We've been shlepping for 15 years, getting up at 5 a.m. and loading the prayer books. It's time to focus our energy on other things."

The Finleys closed escrow on the new site Aug. 1, and renovation began within two days to ready the building for its first Friday night service less than a week later. On that Shabbat, the interior was still far from finished, but the bare walls and scant furnishings only amplified congregants' joyous voices as they sang and danced around the Torah scrolls in the sanctuary.

Rabbi Finley said the decision to carry the Torahs on foot to the new facility wasn't based on halachah (Jewish law). Instead, he said, it offered a symbolic parallel of the path the congregation had taken to reach a place of its own.

"It's about the celebratory aspect," Finley said. "In a way, it symbolizes the journey of Ohr HaTorah. It's also a way to honor the sifrei Torah, rather than just loading them into a car."

Finley said the move will let the synagogue expand spiritually focused classes and programs for its 300 member families.

"I think our infrastructure is ready to grow," he said. "We can certainly accommodate a greater number of people at services now."

At his Sherman Oaks home on a recent morning, Finley -- his distinct red hair pulled back in a ponytail -- attributed Ohr HaTorah's successful move to "a strange confluence of events."

Officials with Faith Tabernacle Church, where Ohr HaTorah had been operating for the past eight years, told the synagogue in December that its lease would not be renewed. The Finleys scoured more than 100 churches and community buildings for another rental space but couldn't find many facilities willing to rent out a room for a Shabbat service that draws up to 200 people every Saturday morning.

Besides, Meirav Finley said, lease rates were so high that it didn't seem like much of a reach to look for permanent quarters.

"We couldn't find anything that made sense financially," she said. "We used to spend $10,000 on rent. For $15,000, I thought, why not make the stretch and get a mortgage? Let's find something small and make it our little gem."

The faded concrete structure at the corner of Venice and South Barrington was a fateful find -- the site formerly housed Beth Torah, a Conservative synagogue that recently merged with Adat Shalom in Westwood, so the land was already zoned for religious use.

But it was far from a dream home. The long-neglected building needed major repairs, and there was the looming question of how to raise enough money to meet the $4.75 million asking price. The synagogue negotiated the cost down to $3.8 million, and Meirav Finley and a team of congregant volunteers spearheaded a fundraising drive that scraped together more than $2.5 million in six weeks -- enough to put down to obtain the property.

"It was remarkable how people gave of themselves to make this a reality," said Jim Ries, a decade-plus Ohr HaTorah member who helped lead the effort to buy the building. "It's a real testament to the feeling this congregation has toward the synagogue and the rabbi, in particular."

A Beverly Hills-based real estate investor and consultant, Ries joined Ohr HaTorah with his wife, Linda, after hearing Finley speak at a memorial service.

"We were so impressed with the way he handled the service and the sense of community he created among the mourners," Ries recalled. "He is a charismatic speaker and has an enormous depth of knowledge, not only concerning religion, but also psychology and philosophy. He's a true renaissance man."

When he found out the synagogue had a chance to buy the former Beth Torah site, Ries wrote out a check and then convinced fellow congregants to do the same. He also used his background as a real estate attorney to manage the financing of the purchase.

During the Aug. 8 procession, Ries walked under a chuppah carrying one of the Torahs, his curly white hair tucked under a black cap. The evening had added significance for him -- it was also his 70th birthday.

"It was a wonderful gift to be able to participate in the establishment of a new home for this synagogue," he said later. "This was a very moving part of my life."

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