RELIGION / JOHN DART : Temples Form a New Alliance : Woodland Hills: Shir Chadash needed a home, and Temple Emet needed help paying the bills. Now they have merged to become Kol Tikvah.
After a brief liaison with mystical/metaphysical Judaism, the Jewish congregation sitting in a pretty but expensive synagogue on Ventura Boulevard may have finally found a partner for life.
In a Friday service one year ago in the Woodland Hills temple, the chanting blended into a monosyllabic hum and a rabbi urged worshipers to be channels for the light of the Sabbath. Realizing a 14-year dream, Rabbi Ted Falcon and his Makom Ohr Shalom, the Synagogue for Jewish Meditation, which previously rented space in churches, at last had a synagogue to call home.
The host Temple Emet built the structure in 1981, added to it in the late 1980s and wound up with a $1.3-million mortgage. That and other debts, combined with a declining membership, prompted Temple Emet to try to meet costs by leasing its sanctuary two Fridays a month to Falcon’s congregation.
“It was wonderful while it lasted,” said Temple Emet’s Rabbi John Sherwood. His new assistant rabbi, Wendy Spears, had done her seminary master’s thesis on the impact of New Age ideas and eastern religions on Judaism. Providing a philosophical bridge between the two congregations, Spears was to direct a religious school for both congregations to integrate “the best of Reform Judaism curriculum with Jewish spirituality,” as a flyer put it.
The arrangement soon collapsed. “We had 200 dues-paying members but we needed twice that in order to continue,” Falcon said. “Over the years, we always took free-will offerings, which is OK when you are renting. So the change was not received joyfully and we ran into economic troubles.”
Now, one year later, Sherwood is engaged in a busy retirement, Spears is an assistant rabbi at the Agoura Jewish Center, Falcon has gone to Seattle in search of new opportunities, the Synagogue for Jewish Meditation is renting again and finding its way without its founding rabbi, and Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs and his Shir Chadash-New Reform Synagogue have a building after nine years without a place of their own.
Jacobs and Shir Chadash had hoped to build a synagogue on part of a 17.5-acre site near Pierce College, but neighbors sued and a compromise was stymied by the poor economy, Jacobs said. The congregation, whose offices were in Encino, had held Friday night services for eight years at Woodland Hills Community Church.
When Temple Emet and Shir Chadash started talking merger, “it was the right moment,” Jacobs said. “Our people were getting impatient,” he said.
In late May, the 500-member families of Shir Chadash and the 250 of Temple Emet merged congregations and adopted a new Hebrew name, Kol Tikvah, which means “Voice of Hope.”
Rabbi Sherwood, 57, was given the title rabbi emeritus. “After 35 years of pulpiteering, I am very pleased,” Sherwood said. “It gives me an opportunity to work in religion and health and a lot of areas in which I’m interested.”
Jacobs was given a 10-year contract, starting next year, that will take him to the traditional retirement age of 65.
To save on costs, the congregation is doing without an assistant rabbi.
Even so, the synagogue’s president, Paul Glaser, a former national vice president for Citicorp, said that both congregations brought deficits to the merger. “The debt is not overwhelming, but we probably will have to have special fund-raising events to meet the costs,” he said.
Nor did Jacobs sound gloomy in a recent interview. The congregation still has the property near Pierce. “If the congregation grows to 1,000 or 1,500 families and if the economy changes, we could build,” said Jacobs, noting that the synagogue, located a block west of Taft High School, has limited parking.
At 54, the rabbi is not the outspoken liberal he was in the 1970s while at Temple Judea in Tarzana, although he points with pride to his involvement in rabbi-black pastor dialogues in central Los Angeles and in the San Fernando Valley.
Jacobs admitted that he upset some Temple Judea congregants as a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and by inviting farm labor leader Cesar Chavez to speak from the pulpit. A sharp division developed later in the congregation over the court-ordered school busing programs. “I was pro-busing and Bobbi Fiedler, who created the anti-busing group Busstop, was a member of the congregation,” he said.
A group of liberal members broke from Temple Judea to form their own congregation in 1983. “I stayed on to fulfill my last year of a contract, and when I left, the group asked me to be their rabbi,” he said.
Such breaks often mark the start of a new Jewish congregation. Temple Emet began as a group that split from Temple Solael, another Reform synagogue in the western San Fernando Valley.
Meanwhile, the Synagogue for Jewish Meditation has been holding services at Encino Community Church. Falcon ended his association with the group in May, but the group has carried on with guest speakers.
The meditation synagogue, in fact, secured one of the biggest names in mystical Judaism, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of Philadelphia, to conduct its High Holy Day services in September at UCLA’s Ackerman Hall.
“I take it as a great compliment that they were able to do that at this point in their journey,” Falcon said.