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Geiger Beachfront-Bound

July 3, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Geiger Beachfront-Bound

"When we were growing up, no one considered Venice to be a Jewish area," said Rabbi Ben Geiger, who nevertheless departed last month after five years as a part-time assistant rabbi at Irvine's Congregation Beth Jacob for a tiny, 25-year-old Venice boardwalk synagogue.

Geiger, who met his wife in Los Angeles' Pico-Robertson area where he grew up, is the first full-time rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center, known as the "Shul on the Beach." The Orthodox shul of 50 families is on the fringe of Venice's gentrification, which is drawing younger families into an area known for densely packed, low-cost beach cottages. "We're hoping to increase that growth," Geiger said.

In the past, the congregation's size was consistently undercut by relocations to the city's more established Orthodox neighborhoods. "That will take time to reverse," said Geiger, who will start by creating programs and developing relationships. His wife, Karen, who administered and taught Beth Jacob's Hebrew school, eventually hopes to start sisterhood classes. The couple has two young children.

Beth Jacob is now considering hiring a part-time youth director, but will not rehire an assistant rabbi, said Paul Vann, president of the 265-family shul. "We're not that large," he said.

Geiger had also helped establish an adult education program, Torah Outreach, with the assistance of Basil Luck, a Beth Jacob congregant. "The idea was to reach people who were intimidated by studying at synagogue," said Geiger, who taught in a Placentia office Luck provided. Most participants lived in Irvine, Newport Beach or Tustin.

Geiger is uncertain about the program's continued existence.

Rabbi's Dealings Jeopardized Wife's Jury Seat

Is the rabbi's wife telling a fib? Or more likely, are they, like many couples, often oblivious to what goes on in each other's lives?

The issue was seriously debated halfway through a federal loan-fraud trial against a Wall Street firm and an abusive Irvine mortgage lender founded by Brian Chisick. The lead plaintiff's attorney discovered a troubling fact that raised questions about potential prejudice by juror Robin Einstein.

Einstein is married to Stephen J. Einstein, rabbi of Fountain Valley's Congregation B'nai Tzedek. Before the lengthy class action lawsuit was tried in Santa Ana, potential jurors were asked about their familiarity with Chisick, a philanthroper in the Jewish community.

Einstein, 57, declared she didn't know him. Yet her husband was serving on the board of the Jewish Federation of Orange County between 1993-94, when Chisick made a major gift exceeding $500,000 and an auditorium at the Costa Mesa campus was named after him.

"It was the answer to the jury questionnaire that threw us," said Richard F. Scruggs, the plaintiffs' lead lawyer. "It seemed hard to believe she didn't know him, but my wife doesn't know half of what I do, either."

Some members of the plaintiffs' legal team internally suggested Einstein might be prejudiced in Chisick's favor, which could have led to her removal from the jury. Scruggs disagreed with them, explaining his decision after the June 16 verdict. "We took her at her word," he said.

The unanimous jury awarded the plaintiffs $50.9 million in damages, deciding that Lehman Brothers had aided and abetted First Alliance Corporation's systematic deceptions of 4,500 borrowers between 1999 and March 2000. In a blow to the plaintiffs, however, the jurors determined Lehman should bare only 10 percent of the damage award. First Alliance, Chisick and other executives were held responsible for 85 percent. The remainder was awarded against an insurer.

Last March, Chisick and the firm settled their liability in a previous class action suit brought by numerous plaintiffs and led by the Federal Trade Commission.

Einstein and her fellow jurors self-imposed a gag order on their 19 day deliberations. "I learned a lot," she said afterwards. "The experience was very positive."

Seasoned Rabbi Turns Temp

A veteran pulpit rabbi, Robert G. Klensin, will take his second job as a temporary spiritual leader when he succeeds Rabbi Michael Mayersohn at Westminster's Temple Beth David beginning Sept. 1.

Klensin, 55, is among a growing cadre of seasoned rabbis filling unexpected job openings that allow congregations to conduct a full-scale search for a permanent replacement, said Mark Sklan, president of the 370-family Reform congregation.

The post-holiday fall season is when rabbinic job-shopping reaches its peak and the most candidates are circulating resumes. "If you're not looking at that time, the pool is smaller," he said.

In February, Beth David's 13-year rabbi unexpectedly announced his intention to resign and change career directions, effective Aug. 31. A search committee considered 10 candidates and in June settled on Klensin, who had taken a previous interim post at Temple Beth Israel in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"It takes some healing for a congregation to stop looking back and start looking forward," said Sklan, adding that "it's not easy work" and takes someone sensitive to the emotional undercurrent of anger and hurt among some congregants.

Klensin, who spent 28 years at a Maryland synagogue, and his wife, Francine, will take up residence in Seal Beach early in August. He is unsure whether he will seek the job at Beth David permanently. His 10-month contract does not preclude his seeking the position. "It's the kind of congregation I'd hope to be with in the future," he said.

Two send-off events are planned for Mayersohn. The synagogue's brotherhood is planning a farewell brunch Aug. 3 and its sisterhood is planning an Aug. 15 Shabbat dinner tribute.

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