On Friday I moved to Santa Monica CA. I have been the rabbi at The Shul on the Beach in Venice for four years and had been commuting with my family almost every Shabbos and Yom Tov to be at the shul. After four years we decided to make the move and relocate our family from Hancock Park to the beach community. I could not be happier with our decision.
I have been eager to write this post for several years but felt it was disingenuous unless I took my own advice. Now I have, and so here it is…
The community based around the Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach is mostly made up of residents of Marina del Rey, Venice, and Santa Monica. In my opinion, it is the ideal Jewish community. I believe we have a model worth emulating and a community worth joining. Read on and you’ll see why I feel this way.
On Friday night we sing Shalom Aleichem together after services. Every week we lock arms and sway as we sing the familiar Shabbos tune. I looked around this week and I saw a vibrant but elderly Yemenite Israeli, a Los Angeles native middle-aged baal Teshuva, a traditional 40-something single guy from South Jersey, the academic son of a Conservative Rabbi in his 60s, a young man from Tarzana who usually goes to the Happy Minyan in Pico-Robertson, a young professional who only recently started coming to shul for the first time in his life to say kaddish for his late father, among others. One can’t help but feel a surge of emotion as the group with its incredibly diverse Jewish backgrounds joined together in welcoming the Shabbos.
On Shabbos morning we had several guests, as usual. One couple was from Lakewood, NJ. They were a typical yeshivish Lakewood couple. Another couple was from Livingston, NJ. They were a borderline modern Orthodox couple. The Lakewood couple said the davening was beautiful and they really enjoyed it. They were surprised how much they liked it and were going to tell their friends to include our shul in their vacation plans. The Livingston couple said that the services and the sermon were perfect for them and they are looking forward to being with us over the next few weeks.
Where else in the world can you find such diversity at a minyan? Where else can you find visitors from opposite sides of the orthodox spectrum with the exact same reaction to a shul? Outside the Kotel, there cannot be too many places like that in the world.
This encapsulates our community.
As I am fond of saying, we have ashkenazim and sephardim, Americans, Israelis, South Americans, South Africans, North Africans, Russians, French, Italians, Brits, and Australians, and others who call our shul home. We have baalei teshuva, not-yet baalei teshuva, frum from birth, not frum from birth, or not frum ever, converts, not-yet converts, people who consider themselves orthodox, and people who adamantly do not. We have a little bit of everything. That’s just the way we like it.
There are places “out of town” that can make similar claims. But they are still missing the creature comforts of a large Jewish community like Los Angeles. We are in close proximity to a large variety of schools, several large kosher markets, kosher restaurants, every kind of Torah learning and class, and events for all kinds of Jewish experiences. This is a very unique combination that marries the benefits of out of town life with living in a thriving orthodox community.
Living in a fairly insular orthodox Jewish community can be an unbelievable experience. Many people thrive in that kind of environment. I do not question the wisdom of insular communities. However, I do know that they do not work for everyone. I know this because it doesn’t really work for me. But know it doesn’t work for other people because of the emails I get on a regular basis.
Some people feel intimidated in insular communities. Some people feel lost in insular communities. Some people want be in a diverse environment for whatever reason. Some people want a shul where they can meet people from different social circles. Some people want a shul where they can make a difference in the lives of complete strangers. Some people just don’t fit into the expected molds within the insular communities. Some people would like to have neighbors from different backgrounds and religious beliefs. Some people, whether justified or not, feel like they are constantly under scrutiny or are “being judged” in more insular communities.
Those kinds of people are likely to be frustrated by insular orthodox Jewish communities. They might be unhappy. They might feel left out. They might even resent the community and sometimes they resent Judaism by association.
This is very unfortunate.
I know it can seem daunting and maybe even a little crazy, but I have an offer for those people: Try the Pacific Jewish Center community. Our community is the kind of environment where anyone can thrive. Everyone has their own space and there is room for all kinds of people. The core of the community is strong and is welcoming to anyone.
You can be part of a community that makes a huge difference in the lives of many people. Uniquely situated on the Venice Boardwalk – literally on the beach, thousands of people pass our shul every week. A lot of them stop in and say hi. Some of those people stay for a little while and find a small sliver of inspiration in those moments. Some of them become part of the shul and our community. But even the people who do not have the time or the courage or the interest to poke their head into the shul, are affected by the shul. They see a shul in a very unlikely place and it gives them pause. It causes to think and consider their Judaism, or if they are not Jewish, their religion, or if they are not religious, their personal path. The shul functions on its most basic level as a landmark that says to people that they should stop and contemplate their lives. Some people want to be part of something special like that.
My life goal is to make Torah and Judaism as accessible to as many people as possible. I try to do that on the blog in many ways. One way is to give a voice to those who have legitimate complaints. Another way is to start a conversation about contemporary orthodox Judaism. That is why I do my Daf Yomi and put it online. I want people to be able to learn Torah in short bursts if they don’t have the time or interest in an hour long class. That is what I do at the shul as well. The programs and services are designed to present Torah and Judaism in an accessible way to the maximum number of people possible.
To underscore this point, there are people who come to our shul that might not go to shul anywhere else. We are proud of that.
I want people out there to know that if you are not in love with your community and shul, you can be. You just need to find the right place for you and your family. For more people than not, the Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach can be that place. If insular communities don’t work for you, see if you are able to join us for a Shabbos. Try us out. See if you feel the magic of The Shul on the Beach. Most people do.
(Are there reasons not to live here? Yes. There is no eruv, yet. Housing is expensive. It is a bit of a commute to the schools. Some people find the beach-like atmosphere a great spiritual challenge. There are reasons not to join our community. But those reasons do not outweigh the benefits for people who feel like they don’t fit in where they are currently living. And the beach lifestyle has much to offer. There is a conscious focus on health and wellbeing, people walk, they buy their produce from Farmer’s Markets, they ride their bikes, it is a more relaxed, less urban lifestyle.)
At the very least, think about it. If you’ve been feeling out of place in your own home, give us a shot. If you know someone who could use a place where they would feel more at home tell them to check us out.
I hope to see you all at The Shul on the Beach sometime soon…