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.