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October 09, 2012

Jewish Temple Encourages Worship Through The Arts

by Elizabeth Lee

Most Jews in the United States belong to either the Conservative or the Reform branches of the faith. But in Los Angeles, music, drama and dance are the focus of one Jewish synagogue that has decided to go outside tradition. The Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts at the Saban Theater is the largest arts synagogue in the country, and it's celebrating its 20th anniversary.  But not everyone approves of its methods.  
 
Located in the Beverly Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, one synagogue is also a theater where people come for an experience unlike traditional Jewish services.  David Baron is the founding rabbi of the Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts. “We operate within a theatrical space with lighting and sound that relates to a theater. Our prayer books are all Biblical works of art," he said. 
 
Baron says his synagogue does not belong to any mainstream Jewish movement.  He tries to create a religious experience by fusing religion with art - drawing , in large part, from Hollywood's talent pool.  “Our cantors who sing the service are Broadway stars. Our choir is LA opera and Master Choral," he said. 
 
Even the African American community and a gospel choir take part in the service before the Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates the ancient Exodus from Egypt and bondage. 
 
“We try to reach out to cross borders that historically have, that has kept our communities separated and bring them together to celebrate," said Baron. 
 
Baron says Orthodox Jews would not approve of services that mix the traditional with the contemporary.  “I think they'd approve conceptually of bringing people back to faith. I think the means used would not be acceptable because they don’t follow the very strict guidelines of orthodoxy," he said. 
 
For many traditionalists, the use of instruments could violate Sabbath laws.  But instruments are used in monthly services at the Temple of the Arts because, Baron says, they were used in ancient Jewish worship. 
 
The rabbi is no stranger to Orthodox Judaism.  He was ordained by an Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem.  He spent the first part of his career working in Conservative synagogues. But he says he wasn’t reaching enough people.   Twenty years ago, he founded this temple and created a new style of worship. 
 
“And people started coming in greater and greater numbers and began to engage in worship. The vast majority who are unaffiliated and have no connection but know they have a Jewish identity can reconnect in a way that is comprehensible," he said. 
 
They reconnect, he says, through works of art in prayer books and music during a service - like this one, at the start of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews. 
 
Blind mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin participated in the service. 
 
Inspirational stories are also incorporated into the services. Eighty-two-year-old Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger tells about singing in a children’s opera when she was held in a Nazi concentration camp. “The Nazis wanted to show the world that they're not harming children.  And they put this little opera on Nazi propaganda film. We were 15,000 children in the camp; they were sent little by little to the gas chambers to die.  So we were left only a hundred," she said. 
 
Baron says he tries to reach out to people of all backgrounds to share values that transcend religious and cultural boundaries.