Los Angeles — Did you hear the one about the Orthodox synagogue located between a rehab center and an erotic lingerie shop, steps away from medical marijuana clinics and tattoo parlors, with a dead-on view of a beach where bikini-clad sun worshippers frolic?
If you haven’t, it means you’ve never been to the Pacific Jewish Center on the boardwalk in Venice Beach, California. The little “Shul on the Beach” is the pride and joy of one Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, a baby-faced 32-year-old rabbi with a conventional Orthodox education but some very unconventional views, and even more unconventional visitors to his congregation.
“We allow almost anyone to come into the shul as long as they look safe,” says Fink, looking very un-rabbinical on a weekend morning in a button-down shirt and a baseball cap, as he meets me in the cafe next to the synagogue and ushers me inside, away from the activity of the Venice boardwalk. A bustling all-day festival of shops and cafes, the Venice boardwalk is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Los Angeles, but also a haven for lost souls down on their luck, some of whom find themselves in the Pacific Jewish Center looking for consolation.
“You can’t just say they’ll go to the next shul and find the next rabbi. There isn’t one, so we have to be on our best behavior and have to always be alert, always be ready for that person who needs open arms or somewhere to cry. Sometimes when it’s more empty on a Friday night, people will come in, non-Jews, and prostrate themselves on the ground in a non-Jewish type of prayer and maybe they’re even high. On one hand I think to myself, ‘is this appropriate?’ On the other, I think to myself, where would this person be able do this if this person can’t come here? This is giving them something no one else can give them, a place where they feel connected.”
He hastens to add that his synagogue is far from being merely a refuge for the dispossessed. Some very sophisticated people stop in as well. His small core of congregants are businesspeople and entrepreneurs, and Venice being what it is, sometimes Hollywood glitter blows their way. Natalie Portman has been snapped by paparazzi carrying her baby Alef into the synagogue. One Yom Kippur, it was Sasha Baron Cohen who performed the “Birkat Cohenim.”
Most recently, Fink raised the synagogue’s media profile by agreeing to be the first synagogue to participate in a National Geographic reality series called Church Rescue, in which three business-savvy ministers, known as “the church hoppers” travel the country helping faith-based organizations reestablish themselves in the marketplace. By participating in the show, the synagogue got an “Extreme Makeover”-type facelift, complete with repairs, paint job and renovation.
The unusual location of the Pacific Jewish Center is connected to the history of Jewish Los Angeles. Before air-conditioning and backyard swimming pools, the Jews of urban L.A. would migrate to the beaches of Santa Monica and Venice for the weekends, and several small synagogues were established to serve their needs. Over time many of those potential congregants stayed home, prompting almost all of the beach synagogues to shut their doors. Only the PJC, where a tiny group of elderly Jews had trouble putting together a minyan, remained. In the 1970’s Rabbi Daniel Lapin and writer Michael Medved decided to revitalize the PJC and it now has a small but strong core membership of 50 families, supplemented by its high number of transient worshippers. The nature of Venice beach as a tourist destination means that congregants come and go like the tides of the ocean. Sometimes worshippers return every few months, sometimes they come once a year and sometimes they don’t come back at all.