Congregants’ Faith Key to Synagogue’s Expansion


Rabbi Alan Greenbaum was thrilled when a grimy yellow bulldozer began clearing the field next to Temple Adat Elohim this fall.

Within a year, Thousand Oaks’ only Reform Jewish congregation will boast a new home--a spacious synagogue, a social hall, a teen lounge and a cluster of classrooms. As the blue-and-white banner on the temple’s front door proclaims, “We’re Building.”

Despite general rejoicing at the bulldozer’s rumble, the first step in the long-awaited construction, Temple Adat Elohim did not hold a formal groundbreaking ceremony. Fact is, the congregation had already celebrated the groundbreaking in a 1991 ritual that proved three years premature.


“We sort of lost our credibility after that one,” Greenbaum said sheepishly.

“We were too embarrassed to hold another,” added congregation President Zelda Finestone.

Yet even without formal hoopla, ground has been broken. And this time, it’s for real.

“I’m almost incredulous,” Finestone said. “I can’t believe it’s really happening.”

Adat Elohim’s congregation began planning the $2-million expansion nearly seven years ago. By the late 1980s, organizers were ready to begin fund-raising. Just then, the recession hit.

Still hoping they could pull it off, leaders of the 400-family congregation set up an optimistic groundbreaking ceremony in an effort to whip up enthusiasm. It took another three years, however, for them to gather enough donations to actually start work.

With $600,000 in the treasury and a $900,000 loan from Los Robles National Bank, the congregation finally hired contractors this fall. They have watched with pleasure as the field has been graded to a level plain. “It’s been a long time coming,” Greenbaum said with evident relief.

Congregation leaders expect the new sanctuary’s shell to be ready by spring. If they can drum up enough cash, they hope to finish the interior by fall, in time for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“You do a lot of praying,” Finestone said. “You need a lot of faith and a lot of hope.”

As the only Reform Jewish congregation between West Hills and Camarillo, Temple Adat Elohim draws worshipers from all over eastern Ventura County, Agoura Hills and Calabasas.

Its no-frills sanctuary, with a peaked wooden ceiling and rows of plastic orange chairs, overflows during major Jewish holidays. In fact, to accommodate the crowds, Greenbaum has moved Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services to a nearby church for the past four years.


The new sanctuary will seat 380, more than double the current capacity. And the back wall will swing aside to open up still more seating in the social hall.

A new feature for Temple Adat Elohim, the social hall will allow members to celebrate weddings and bar mitzvahs in their own synagogue, instead of hotel ballrooms. The temple will also use the space to host community events--including free dinners for homeless people and the Conejo Valley’s annual ecumenical Thanksgiving service.

“We’ll play more of an equal part in the community,” Greenbaum said.

“There’s all sorts of things you can expand to, once you have the room and the money,” Finestone agreed.

Although the temple has suffered several anti-Semitic attacks in the past decade, the expansion has drawn no protest, Greenbaum said.

Instead, the temple’s ambitious plans for expanded religious programs and community service have sparked renewed interest in the 26-year-old congregation. About 30 new families have joined Adat Elohim this year.

Under a voluntary dues program, each family contributes to the temple’s annual $700,000 budget. This year’s recommended donation for a two-parent family with children was $1,200, congregation member Robert Murray said. That figure could jump in future years because of the new construction, Murray acknowledged. And all families will be tapped in the aggressive fund-raising drive.


But despite the expense, most congregation members welcome Adat Elohim’s expansion.

‘I’m excited, to put it mildly,” Audrey Benesch said.

Describing her attitude, congregation member Charlotte Lewis said simply: “It has to be.”