Next Generation Of Pulpit Rabbis Shakes Up L.A.

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 23, 2005, issue of September 23, 2005.
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Across Los Angeles, the nameplates on the rabbis’ doors have been changing at an unusually fast rate.

Last week, in the latest instance, Edward Feinstein officially took over as senior rabbi at the largest Conservative synagogue in the area, Valley Beth Shalom. All told, within the last five years close to 25 new rabbis have taken over major L.A. congregations. This includes the three largest synagogues in the city, which have a combined membership of 7,800 families.

There’s no scandal here. The cause for almost all the pulpit changes is a generational shift. For example, Feinstein, 51, took the place of 80-year old Harold Shulweis, who was among the genera-

tion of rabbis that established Jewish life in California. Though the turnover has been largely natural, the new rabbis have brought a contemporary vision of Judaism and the rabbinate to the area’s Reform and Conservative congregations. (Orthodox synagogues are a much smaller slice of Los Angeles life and often follow different trends.)

At Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which has 2,500 member families, new Senior Rabbi Steve Leder said that he has “replaced a patriarchal leadership style with a much more fraternal style.” At many of the congregations that have new rabbis, rock and folk music is becoming a staple at weekend services. Sermons are becoming ever more tied to the personal realities of congregants’ lives.

“Here in Los Angeles, it happens that you have this revolution happening all at the same time,” Feinstein said while sitting in his office at the synagogue, located in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.

Los Angeles is a city that has a tradition of powerful, larger-than-life rabbis who dominate a handful of mega-synagogues — from Edgar Magnin’s 60-year reign at Wilshire Boulevard Temple to Isaiah Zeldin at Stephen S. Wise and Schulweis, who was so closely identified with his synagogue that local wags translate its initials, VBS, as “Valley Beth Schulweis.”

Because of L.A.’s large congregations and well-entrenched legendary rabbis, the area’s younger generation of religious leaders has taken longer to assume power than those in many smaller cities in America. But the concentrated nature of the recent changes in L.A. makes the city a petri dish of sorts, where it is possible to observe, up close, the rabbinic culture that is taking root in major synagogues nationwide.

According to Feinstein, one must look toward something simple to understand the change: summer camp. The summer camp movement did not come into its own until the 1950s, after most rabbis of the previous generation were out of the seminary already. But as Feinstein was coming of age, he spent every summer at a Jewish camp, moving through the ranks from camper to camp director. It was at camp in Ojai, Calif., where Feinstein met David Wolpe, senior rabbi at Sinai Temple, L.A.’s other major Conservative synagogue. Wolpe was a counselor when Feinstein was a division leader. Feinstein said that camp offered both rabbis a model of an institution that could be large but also loving.

“The thing that we all worry about the most is that the ferocious bureaucratic culture of a large institution ultimately undermines what it sets out to do, which is to change Jewish lives,” said Feinstein, whose congregation has 1,800 member families. “But camp did it. Having seen it once, I have faith it can happen again.”

Many of the rabbis who recently have taken over spoke of themselves more as fun-loving counselors and less as the towering stentorian figures of old.

“I grew up in a generation where if the rabbi wasn’t God, he was pretty darn close,” said Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “We have rabbis today who want to bring the congregation closer together.”

This impulse takes on many forms. At Valley Beth Shalom, Feinstein said he plans to renovate the main sanctuary and bring down the pulpit from on high, creating more of a “theater in the round.”

On the level of prayer, responsive readings have been dropped in favor of communal sing-alongs: Wolpe, who took over Sinai Temple seven years ago, helped create the now famous Friday Night Live service, to which a rock band comes to make the prayers more approachable for young people. That idea has sparked imitators across town: Shabbos Fest appeared at Valley Beth Shalom, and Shabbat Alive was launched at Leo Baeck Temple two years ago, after Rabbi Ken Chasen took over.

“The essence of spiritual life today is tending to be less formal and more connected to daily life and personal challenges,” said Rabbi Isaac Jeret, who took over at Congregation Ner Tamid in July.

David Kaufman, a professor of Jewish history at the L.A. campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said that becoming involved more personally in the lives of congregants has made for cutbacks in other areas. Kaufman said the younger rabbis have focused less time and energy to focus on the social justice and civil rights causes that made an earlier generation of California rabbis famous. The big L.A. synagogues all have active social justice campaigns. But Kaufman, an expert on synagogue movements, said: “It’s no longer the heart and soul of their rabbinate. It’s much more about serving personal religious needs.”

Not everyone agrees that there has been any uniform change across L.A. In interviews, the older rabbis were more likely to paint a picture of unchanging transition. “Rabbis still have to give sermons. They still do weddings and funerals,” said Zelden, who founded Stephen S. Wise Temple 41 years ago and stepped aside three years ago. “I don’t think there are many big differences in style.”

The transitions at many synagogues were designed to reduce any big shocks. At all the biggest synagogues, the new senior rabbi had worked under his predecessor for many years. At Stephen S. Wise, which has 3,500 member families, Zelden’s successor, Eli Herscher, worked at the synagogue for 30 years before taking over.

Still, the changes are evident when one walks into most synagogues in which the younger generation of rabbis has taken charge. Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard, who is in the process of assuming leadership at the Conservative congregation Adat Ariel, said that his predecessor meticulously wrote down all his sermons before coming to synagogue. Bernhard said that when he went through the religious seminary, “we were encouraged to write as little down as was humanly possible.”

While the rabbis have worked for a greater air of informality, they also have overseen a move toward a more traditional religious practice at both Conservative and Reform synagogues.

Leo Baeck Synagogue’s Chasen, a Reform rabbi, helped rewrite the prayer books six months after he arrived in 2003. Many segments of the Hebrew-language prayers that had been left out in the earlier version were added this time around, including the entire text of the Sabbath Amidah. Similar additions are expected to be included in the revised version of the Reform movement prayer book, which is due to be released next year.

Zelden noted that at Stephen S. Wise, “a lot of our brides now go to the mikveh. In my day, you didn’t even dare suggest it.”

Several of the city’s top rabbis have said that the task of facing this shifting landscape has helped create a newfound collegiality. Every couple of months, the rabbis from the city’s four largest congregations —Valley Beth Shalom, Stephen S. Wise, Sinai Temple and Wilshire Boulevard — come together for lunch.

Leder said that the lunches usually have a “component of group therapy,” but the men also share their ideas about being a rabbi. “We watch each other’s backs,” he said. “That has not always been the case.”






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