August 19, 2008
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'
(Page 2 - Previous Page)The same could be said for Rabbi Finley, who has seen his unique teachings attract a devoted following since Ohr HaTorah's inception in 1993.
The synagogue's focus is "very much rooted in my own path of spiritual discovery," the Long Beach native said. "I grew up Conservative, with a strong focus on Jewish knowledge and very little of what I would call a spiritual component. I could read the V'ahavta faster than anybody in my Hebrew school class but had no idea what it means to love God."
Finley (center in photo -- at left is writer-director David Mamet, on the right is congregant Hank Steinberg) majored in religion at USC, then joined the Marines and afterward spent a year on a kibbutz in Israel. While there, he applied to rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. But he sought more than textual fluency. Finley wanted a deeper knowledge of "the inner dimensions of Jewish religiosity."
After being ordained, the rabbi went back to USC to complete his doctorate, studying mysticism, moral philosophy and virtue theory. All these elements combined to form an approach to Judaism that Meirav Finley said she found "refreshing" when they met as teachers at Los Angeles Hebrew High School in 1987.
"I wanted to help him get his teachings out there," said Meirav Finley, who grew up in Eilat and also taught at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School and Union Hebrew High School.
A five-year stint leading an alternative morning minyan at Stephen S. Wise Temple garnered Rabbi Finley a staunch fan base. "I found there were many people who were spiritually seeking," he said. "I became the rabbi that addressed those kinds of things."
Still, it was Meirav Finley who ultimately pushed him to break away and found his own congregation.
"She was the one who said, 'Let's do this,'" the rabbi recalled. "What we envisioned was a relatively small community focused on traditional Jewish practice, with a strong kabbalistic, Hasidic, spiritual focus in a non-Orthodox setting and a strong focus on virtue
Meirav Finley, whose energy is palpable even over the phone, led the effort to establish the congregation in 1993, despite the "little snag" of being nine months pregnant with the couple's first daughter, Shulamit.
"Mordecai was a little anxious, but I wasn't
The first year, Ohr HaTorah held services in the auditorium of Ralph Waldo Emerson Middle School in Westwood. Membership hovered at around 150 families but began to grow. The synagogue rented space at Redeemer Baptist Church near Culver City from 1995 to 2000 and then at Faith Tabernacle Church until last month.
"We are a 'mission synagogue' with a specific vision," said Rabbi Finley, who also teaches liturgy and Jewish ethics at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus. "If you like it, great; if you don't like it, go down the street. I try to serve a public need. When someone comes and finds those needs met, that's a good thing."
As the stream of congregants turned onto McLaughlin Avenue during the Torah procession, Ohr HaTorah board member Sheri Porath Rockwell of Santa Monica recalled the first class she took with Finley 12 years ago.
"The way he connected Judaism and cognitive psychology and personal growth really spoke to me," recalled Rockwell, who has served as president, vice president and secretary of the congregation since joining in 1996. An attorney who rarely observed Jewish rituals before coming to the synagogue, she even decided at age 31 to become a bat mitzvah.
Now that Ohr HaTorah has its own space, Rockwell
Finley said he's keeping an open mind when it comes to potential new areas of expansion.
"Might we have a Jewish yoga class? Sure, if there's a need and a teacher and the mats," he said. "Now that we have a facility that we can use 24/7, we want to reach out to other markets."
He might even consider interfaith work or reaching out to local schools.
But for now, he said, "it's renovation, renovation, renovation." They will soon overhaul the structure's plumbing and air-conditioning system and completely replace the roof. Meirav Finley also wants to plant a patio garden and create a play space for children.
Despite the building's condition, however, she said it felt right the moment she stepped inside on her first visit.
"I said, 'This is it,'" she recalled. "It's modest, unassuming. It needs to be cleaned and stripped, but it has a wonderful bone structure and a great feel
Above: Ohr HaTorah founders Rabbi Mordecai Finley and Meirav Finley