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New Beginnings for High Holy Days

Judaism: In keeping with Rosh Hashana's spirit of renewal, synagogues large and small are unveiling recent additions.

September 19, 1998|JOHN DART and REGINA HONG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For Jewish congregations, the 10-day period of repentance that begins with Rosh Hashana--starting at sundown Sunday--and continues through Yom Kippur is often a time to trumpet new physical features, innovative programs or staff additions.

The High Holy Days are the period when synagogue attendance is at its highest, with many Jews present who never attend organized religious services at other times.

This year's new developments include the region's largest temple, and also some of its smallest, and newest.

The 3,150-family Stephen S. Wise Temple atop Sepulveda Pass has unveiled a large ark--the enclosure that holds the scrolls of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible--as a new focal point of its main sanctuary.

Sweeping lines on its sliding doors suggest the steps of "Jacob's Ladder," his dream of an angel-filled stairway to heaven and God making promises to him and future generations.

"Jacob is a reminder that we can become better than we are," said Rabbi Eli Herscher.

The theme is particularly appropriate for the season because beginning anew and trying to grow out of ruinous ways is a central theme of the High Holy Days.

And who is a better symbol for that transformation, asked spiritual leaders of Stephen S. Wise, than Jacob, the biblical patriarch who once deceived his father and his brother?

Stephen S. Wise Temple, founded in 1964 and named after a 20th century Reform Judaism rabbi and Zionist, bills itself as the world's largest synagogue. By contrast, in eastern Ventura County, rapid growth of the Jewish population has led to the establishment of new congregations that must scramble each year to accommodate a crush of High Holy Day worshipers.

A recent population survey by the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, the umbrella organization for Jewish charitable organizations in the region, found that more than 38,000 Jews lived in Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Moorpark, Westlake Village, Agoura Hills and Newbury Park--a region that had a very small Jewish population as recently as a decade ago.

Many congregations are heading for seemingly nontraditional venues--hotels, community centers, even a Baptist Church.

"It's a time for connection," said Rabbi Yakov Latowics of the Chabad in Ventura--a branch of the Orthodox Lubavitch movement.

"They want to connect with their people even if they aren't particularly religious. A lot will show up on the holy days that won't be in synagogues the other year round.

"You end up with a proportionately much larger crowd, and a large synagogue can't handle the crowds," Latowics said.

The Chabad of the Conejo has reserved the Hyatt Westlake Plaza, the largest hotel in eastern Ventura County, for the High Holy Days. More than 700 attended during the group's services last year at another hotel. This year the group expects more than 1,000 worshipers.

The Chabad of the Conejo draws from three synagogues in Westlake Village, Oak Park and Agoura Hills, all of which together would accommodate only 400 people.

"The Jewish community is booming and our reputation is just spreading," said Rabbi Moshe Bryski. "As it was, last year you couldn't get through the front doors."

A week before the High Holy Days, the 262-room Hyatt Westlake Plaza had already booked 70 rooms for Rosh Hashana and about 80 for Yom Kippur, hotel officials said.

"It kind of turns into a little Jerusalem in the hotel lobby," Bryski joked.

'It Doesn't Matter Where You Worship'

Holding services at the hotel will be especially helpful to Orthodox Jews who want to observe all the rules surrounding the High Holy Days, Bryski said. Kosher meals will be available, and those who rent a room don't have to worry about driving to services. Religiously traditional Jews do not drive on Jewish holidays or on the Sabbath and often live within walking distance of a synagogue.

Across the county in Ojai, one Jewish group is renting a Baptist church to celebrate the holidays. The sanctuary of the Ojai Valley's Jewish Community of the Oaks can't accommodate all those who want to attend services, said community president Arnel McAte, who estimated that the membership grew as much as 15% in the past year.

The group is renting the Southern Baptist Church across the street from its own 1,300-square-foot sanctuary so services can accommodate up to 100 people. Jewish Community's own sanctuary will be used for children's events.

"It doesn't really matter where you worship," McAte said. What matters, "is that you're together."

The sentiment will be the same at Stephen S. Wise, but the picture will be far different. The temple expects to accommodate 10,000 worshipers this year at its advantageous position halfway between the well-established Jewish communities on Los Angeles' Westside and the west San Fernando Valley.

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