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Meier Schimmel, 89; Rabbi Began Valley's 'House of Light' Synagogue in 1950s

October 04, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Rabbi Meier Schimmel, who founded one of the San Fernando Valley's oldest Orthodox synagogues, has died. He was 89.

Schimmel died Friday of natural causes at the Encino home of his daughter Debby Bitticks, surrounded by family members, said his daughter Selma Schimmel.

In 1957, Schimmel and his wife, Rochelle, who died in 1981, formed the nucleus of their future Studio City synagogue by inviting a few devoted Orthodox Jews to their home for Friday night Shabbat services.

On Dec. 7, 1958, the rabbi dedicated Congregation Beth Meier "The House of Light" at 11725 Moorpark St. in Studio City. He remained its spiritual leader until his death, although in 2003 he relinquished major responsibility to his protege and successor, Rabbi Aaron Benson.

Also in the 1950s, Schimmel and other relatives established the Garden Restaurant on Beverly Boulevard. Schimmel and his wife also created Schimmel's Knish and Bake Shop on Fairfax Avenue. The shop was later renamed Schwartz's Bakery.

Schimmel developed his synagogue as a traditional conservative place of worship, melding Old World Hasidic spirit with contemporary religious practices.

The congregation, which has more than 900 members, is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The Studio City community was not initially welcoming, although in recent years meetings of the Chamber of Commerce and other groups in the Beth Meier facilities have become common.

In the early years, the synagogue's Star of David was stolen and a swastika was painted on one of its walls. Schimmel left the Nazi symbol in place for a week "to let my neighbors feel what's happening here."

Vandals also shot BBs through the structure's 12 stained-glass windows. Undaunted, Schimmel repaired the windows with bulletproof glass.

As part of the synagogue's European roots, one of its five Torah scrolls came from Schimmel's native Germany -- discovered after World War II in the home of a Jewish family sent to Hitler's death camps.

"It is not we who keep the Torah alive. The Torah keeps us alive," Schimmel told his congregation during a 1984 traditional celebration of Simhat Torah, or "Rejoicing of the Law," citing the tattered but durable document.

Schimmel was known not only for his traditionalism but for his humor, joy of life and love of humanity regardless of religious faith. He welcomed all to Friday services, accented by a weekly reading of "The Brotherhood Prayer," which he wrote in 1957. The prayer states in part, "Father, I would open my heart even wider so that your love may flow through me to bless all whose lives I touch."

The rabbi provided personal attention to the emotional and spiritual needs of his congregation. After a member of his congregation was struck by a hit-and-run driver as she left Friday night services in 1982, Schimmel rallied the members to post a $5,000 reward for the driver's arrest.

The woman died after 13 months in a coma, with the driver still at large.

When the Department of Agriculture was combating medflies in the early 1990s, Schimmel joined other rabbis in protesting the spraying of malathion on Friday nights.

The spraying made Orthodox Jews reluctant to walk to Shabbat services, and he characterized the drop in attendance as "heartbreaking."

Despite the similarity in names, Schimmel always noted that the synagogue was not named for him.

Congregation Beth Meier, he explained, was named in honor of Mishna writer Rabbi Meier Ba'al Ha'Ness, an Orthodox rabbi who lived more than 200 years ago.

Beth Meier translates to "House of Light," and the English words have become a part of the synagogue's official name.

The son of a rabbi, Schimmel was born in Frankfurt, Germany, where he studied at the Hoffman and Breuer yeshivas. He was ordained at the Hoffman Yeshiva in 1934.

He fled Nazi Germany in 1938 and practiced as a rabbi in London before immigrating to the U.S. Schimmel served in the U.S. Army as a chaplain during World War II.

In addition to his two daughters, Schimmel is survived by four granddaughters and eight great-grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to Congregation Beth Meier, 11725 Moorpark St., Studio City, CA 91604.

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