It wasn't quite 40 years in the wilderness, but the people of Temple Beth El did spend 20 years wandering around south Orange County without a permanent home.
The congregation--now nearly 600 families--met in trailers, in other synagogues and in churches. During last year's High Holy Days, they worshiped in a Mormon meeting house.
But Friday, the faithful will finally enter the promised land: a new, $18-million building of their own. The 65,000-square-foot facility on an Aliso Viejo hilltop is the largest synagogue in Orange County.
Polly Sloan, 77, who founded the Reform congregation two decades ago with two other families, toured the sanctuary last week.
"The tears came," she said. "It was like seeing a new baby."
Did Sloan ever dream that her nomadic synagogue would be in a building like this--21 classrooms, two libraries, two sanctuaries, a youth lounge designed by teenagers, an outdoor plaza and gardens, volleyball and basketball courts, and a kitchen and social hall big enough to handle a sit-down dinner for 370?
"Oh, heavens no," Sloan said. "Where was our [financial] angel going to come from?" She paused. "That's where the Samuelis came in."
When Henry and Susan Samueli first visited the congregation in 1995, they drove past the complex of trailers along Aliso Creek Road three times. They were looking for something more grand than a series of double-wides.
Three years later, Broadcom, the high-flying company Henry Samueli co-founded, went public, and the Samuelis struck it rich. The billionaires' first philanthropic act was handing over $3 million to Temple Beth El for a permanent building. The Corona del Mar couple eventually ended up giving $6 million more because of rising construction costs.
"It really makes me feel good that we've accomplished something significant that will have an impact" on generations to come, said Samueli, the son of Holocaust survivors.
Before the Samuelis arrived, Rabbi Allen Krause figured the congregation could raise about $2.5 million for a new building. The Samueli donation gave temple fund-raisers a boost, and the proposed building doubled in size.
"Everybody's stepped up to the plate," Samueli said.
In appreciation of their gift, the synagogue's full name is now Temple Beth El of South Orange County, the Samueli Center for Progressive Judaism.
The Aliso Viejo synagogue is one of several Orange County temples that have developed enough size and financial strength to offer their congregants more than just the standard sanctuary, social hall and classrooms. The idea, carried out at larger synagogues throughout the United States, is to make the temple a holistic center of Jewish community life, and not just a place for worship and religious training.
The Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles offers a wide range of nonreligious activities on its 10-acre campus and is known as "the shul with a pool."
On a less grand scale, the nearly 700-family congregation at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach is adding 24,500 square feet to its facilities, including a free-standing library, computer center, banquet hall, amphitheater and two basketball courts.
To draw more people to its campus, Temple Beth El has built a demonstration kitchen--complete with ceiling mirrors--to offer kosher and non-kosher cooking classes.
Temple Beth El is the only Reform temple in south Orange County, besides a synagogue inside the private gates of Leisure World. Rabbi Krause believes that with new development in the area, the membership could climb quickly to 1,000 families--the size the new building is designed to handle.
"I might be one of the people least overwhelmed by all this," said Krause, who came to the temple in 1983. "I've always seen the tremendous potential of this area. I think people could be a little surprised how quickly we fill this building up with people."
Orange County is home to an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 Jews, and about 20% are affiliated with one of the county's 23 synagogues. Local Jewish leaders applauded the completion of Temple Beth El's new building, saying it symbolizes the robust health of the county's Jewish community.
A Temple to Serve a Growing Population
"I don't believe in competition," said Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell, whose Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana has a membership of 670 families, one of the largest synagogues in Orange County, along with Temple Bat Yahm. "If 100% of the Jews were affiliated with a temple, then there might be competition. Temple Beth El is absolutely and totally a blessing. It's needed in South County, the fastest-growing Jewish area."
Orange County synagogues have experienced rapid growth over the past two decades, but the largest synagogues are still dwarfed by their counterparts in Los Angeles. For example, the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles attracts more than 3,000 families to its 10-acre campus.
Still, Temple Beth El's new building is about 25% larger than the other large synagogues in Orange County.