Rosh Hashanah to Put Maverick Rabbi to the Test
Some members of the traditional Jewish community in Los Angeles might cringe at Richard I. Schachet’s ideas. But the hefty, open-faced rabbi will get the opportunity to test them beginning Friday night.
At sundown on Rosh Hashanah eve, the start of the Jewish New Year, Schachet will conduct services for those who have nowhere else to go.
Schachet’s project, Valley Outreach Synagogue or Congregation B’nai Shalom in Tarzana, is to be a home “for those who don’t feel comfortable in a traditional, family-oriented synagogue.”
“I am looking for the kind of people whom others don’t want, can’t accommodate or won’t accommodate,” said Schachet.
Those who might fall into this category, he explains, are “people involved in interfaith marriages, singles, those who have been away from Judaism and want to come back but aren’t sure how, those who are afraid to go into a synagogue because they have so little knowledge and background, and those who want to make a creative contribution to services.”
Schachet, who previously had pulpits in Brooklyn, San Diego and Burbank, sees himself as a throwback to the rabbis in medieval times who earned their main salaries from other fields. His income is derived from performing weddings and teaching.
Schachet wants the services at his synagogue to be as non-traditional as the type of congregants he is trying to lure.
“I hope my own innovativeness will contribute to our success,” he said. “I write a lot of my own services. I like to experiment with music. I think camp songs are great at services, sometimes. I want to provide a place for people to express themselves, whether through dancing, poetry or a dramatic means.”
Not everyone agrees.
“Certainly there is room within Judaism for different points of view, but the question is at what point is it no longer Judaism,” commented Conservative Rabbi Moshe Rothblum of Adat Ari El in North Hollywood.
“I have nothing against what this new synagogue proposes to do, but I prefer to work within the Establishment. Is poetry reading really part of a Friday night service?”
The Jewish community of Los Angeles is divided over rabbis who depart from the normal lines of demarcation--Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox--and seek their own kind of congregation.
Rabbi Paul Dubin, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, took the opportunity of Schachet’s announcement to decry the existence of “mushroom synagogues.”
“By that I mean, synagogues that grow up just before the High Holidays, die out afterward, and then come back again the next year.”
Rabbi Janet Marder, spiritual leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim, a congregation in West Los Angeles for lesbians and gays, is also somewhat skeptical about the need for a maverick synagogue.
“I’m not convinced that existing synagogues are unable to meet the needs that this synagogue says it will serve,” Marder said.
Sherry Dubin and Gloria Ramos are prospective members of Schachet’s new synagogue.
“I’ve been in California for seven years, and I never have found a synagogue where I can go for the High Holidays, or even on a regular basis, and feel welcome as a single,” she said.
Wants to Feel Welcome
“I want a synagogue where I can walk in, not to be a mother of three children who are going to Hebrew school, not be a member of Sisterhood, be single, and still feel welcome,” said Dubin, 33, a project coordinator for a Northridge manufacturer.
Gloria Ramos, 50, is a former Catholic who still identifies herself as a Christian.
“I’ve tried the Protestant religions, the Anglican Church, Scientology. And the attitude everywhere is, ‘Accept our ideas or we will not accept you.’ That’s why I left the Catholic Church, because I couldn’t accept all of their doctrines. Everyplace I’ve looked, until now, you can’t have--or at least express--contrary ideas.”
It was not until 1979 that the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform arm of Judaism, began developing programs for converts and those in interfaith marriages. Reform historically has been more committed to social action than any other branch of Judaism.
Rabbi Abner Weiss of Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills is trying to change that. He supports Schachet’s enterprise in Tarzana.
Favors Unlimited Outreach
“Outreach has to be unlimited,” Weiss said. “It’s wonderful to involve people who have been neglected.
Beth Jacob, in concert with Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, is offering a weekly beginners’ service that Weiss says was wildly successful last year. They had to cut off classes at 250 members.
The classes are geared, he said, “so that in six months, even if you started out not knowing anything, you can sit beside me and feel comfortable.” There are also free High Holiday services for beginners.
An issue that may never be resolved is whether outreach temples, such as Schachet’s, deserve Establishment certification.
Lydia Kukoff of Los Angeles, a leading spokeswoman for national and local outreach programs in the Reform movement, said that, since 1979, “we have come light years in our attitude toward converts, and now it is beginning to happen with intermarrieds, too.”
Kukoff has a close-up view because she is national director of the Reform Outreach Program and is in charge of nine regions around United States.
‘Never Happened Before’
“Tightly structured programs, such as we are offering, represent something that never has happened before in the Jewish community,” she said. “Finally, we are recognizing that some people are different, that some have different problems requiring our attention.
“Intermarriage, though, is a sticky issue. We (in Reform) do not see it as a good or bad issue. We hope to create a climate of understanding so that intermarrieds are not rejected, so that intermarried couples feel comfortable when they come to temple.”
One of the most influential thinkers in American rabbinic life, Harold M. Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, is giving Schachet enthusiastic support.
“He ought to be encouraged because what we need most in Jewish life is the courage to experiment based on our knowledge of a rapidly expanding society,” Schulweis said.
“There is too much experimenting and innovation in non-Jewish religions for this man not to be encouraged. Even the Lubavitchers, for all their Orthodoxy, are recognizing contemporary needs.
“The challenge is for us modernists to do what we are doing, but without all of the authoritativeness and dogmatism.”
Social Problems Exploding
Schulweis, who came to Encino from an Oakland synagogue in 1970, says social problems that are exploding around Jews today have existed all along. “But, until recently they were covered up out of shame,” he said.
“I don’t remember hearing about such crises as drug addiction, child abuse, domestic violence, alcoholism among Jews when I was in Oakland. We believed they were problems for the rest of the world. At the end of the ‘60s, everybody came out of the closet and we finally began to realize we no longer were an exception.”
Schulweis’ latest major outreach project is formation of the Foundation to Sustain the Righteous Christians, designed to aid needy Christians who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
Those in most need of being reached, however, he believes, are Jews. “It drives me nuts that 74% of the 600,000 Jews in Los Angeles are unaffiliated.”
And that is where Schachet comes in with his pitch for the Jewish unwanted.
“My idea is to save the Jews,” said Schachet, who most recently was at Temple Beth Emet of Burbank. “We lost 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. I don’t want it to be 6 million and one.”
Service in Methodist Church
Schachet says he has no idea how many people will show up at the sanctuary of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church when the first service begins for Rosh Hashanah.
As the High Holidays near, money continues to come in slowly to Schachet’s Woodland Hills home, even though he is only “suggesting” a $100 stipend for annual dues, which include High Holiday tickets. This is a fraction of what traditional synagogues assess their members.
The high cost of holiday tickets has kept her away in the past, says Sherry Dubin. She also says she doesn’t really know if Schachet’s idea will work. “New Yorkers have a very strong Jewish identity whether they go to the synagogue once a year during the High Holidays, regularly on Shabbat or not at all,” Dubin said.
“You don’t find that here. My California-born friends are completely ignorant of their heritage.”
Gloria Ramos says she is magnetized by Schachet’s personality more than his theology, and has been since she heard him eulogize a close friend of hers at a recent funeral.
“Dick has not made converting a factor in my participation,” she said. “I probably will be a very active member because Dick merely has said, ‘Come along and explore.’
“Who knows? I may embrace Judaism someday without knowing I’m embracing it.”