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HomeCommunity NewsAndy Lippman: Senior Rabbi Ushers In a Centennial Celebration

Andy Lippman: Senior Rabbi Ushers In a Centennial Celebration

Take one Jewish temple celebrating its 100th anniversary in June and add a Generation Z rabbi who is the youngest senior rabbi in the L.A. area in more than 50 years.
If you combine the two, you have Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock and its Senior Rabbi Alex Weisz.
And, at a time when other religious congregations are finding seats increasingly empty, Temple Beth Israel is not only getting older, it’s getting better. It is one of the oldest continuously operating synagogues in the city.
Weisz and I met for lunch a few weeks ago, and he told me that since he started at Temple Beth Israel, the congregation has grown by 85% in seven months. He set a goal when he became senior rabbi to add 27 families by his 27th birthday, and he did that by September of the year he was hired.
The temple, located at 5711 Monte Vista St. in Highland Park, now has 170 member families, up from 75 when Weisz took over as senior rabbi last July.
Now that’s a centennial growth spurt for a congregation that was incorporated in December of 1923 in Highland Park. Temple lore has it that a Highland Park woman, hoping to learn Torah, got a local postman to give her a list of anyone with a Jewish-sounding name. The temple didn’t have a building yet, but it did hold a play celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim at a nearby masonic hall, which will be the site of the congregation’s anniversary party on June 9.
Weisz told me about a cantor who made bootleg kosher wine during Prohibition.
“It’s unlike any temple in this area,” he said. “It’s had its ups and downs, but that goes with the territory.”
Added Weisz: “People have stepped up for this temple when it had its back to the wall.”
Henry Leventon, who was a leader in the congregation from the 1980s to 2000, single-handedly kept the kept the lights on — sometimes out of his own pocket.
“There were a number of others who have kept this temple going by hook or by crook,” Weisz said.
Another person who has kept the light burning at Temple Beth Israel is its cantor Ken Rothstein, who has been part of the community since 1988.
There wasn’t even a permanent rabbi between 1985 and 2013, and Weisz succeeded Rabbi Jason Rosner, who went to a synagogue in Orange County.
The temple moved to its current home in 1929 and was remodeled in 1948.
You step in the front door, take a few steps and you are in the sanctuary with wonderful stained-glass windows along the sides. A community room is situated next to the sanctuary and there is a lovely garden outside.
“It’s one of a kind. You don’t see them like this anymore,” Weisz said. “When you walk in, it feels like a house.”
That fact that it blends in with the neighborhood almost makes Temple Beth Israel, which counts several South Pasadena residents as members, feel overlooked by people who pass by.
Weisz described Temple Beth Israel as a “traditional equalitarian place of worship” and said that it follows a traditional service.
Now about Weisz, who was ordained as a rabbi at age 26. The temple website and Weisz claim that he’s the first Gen Z rabbi in the United States. Gen Z is anyone born between 1997-2012.
Now my journalistic training called me to be skeptical. Who knows where another Gen Z rabbi might be preaching in an area as big as the United States? But we’ll go with it for now.
Weisz came to lunch wearing a Dodgers baseball cap. I don’t know what it is about the Dodgers and the clergy. I’ve seen Holy Family Father Ricardo Viveros photographed in his Dodgers jacket.
With all that divine support, no wonder the Dodgers are in first place.
Weisz grew up in Arcadia and considered himself a self-styled “drum nerd” who once was the drum major in the Rose Parade.
He went to Loyola Marymount and for a brief time thought about becoming a lawyer.
But he turned to religious studies, and because of his age, he said he was told by the traditional seminaries that he should go to work for a few years and come back.
So he found a job as an education director in Las Vegas and he loved it. He loved the job so much that he stayed there while studying for the rabbinate at the Rabbinical Academy for Jewish Religion, which let him both work and study.
“I think I’m a better rabbi with my field experience,” he said. “My professional work set me up for success.”
He did not have to take a year off to go to Israel, as required at most Jewish institutes, but he has studied with the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and was honored to be a Jewish fellow of the Hadar Institute, which is a center of Jewish learning that fosters communities in North America and Israel.
After a year-and-a-half working in Jewish education in the Bay Area and another year-and-a-half working in Seattle, he applied for the opening at Temple Beth Israel and got the job.
“No one has ever thrown my age back to me to my face, even people twice my age” he said.
Weisz could hardly wait to get out the door and into the community.
“I get depressed when I’m not around people and I love the spontaneity,” he said. “In the same day, I can be at the birth of a baby and also going to see someone who is deathly ill, which is not a pleasant task.”
He noted that he became a rabbi at an age when most people his age would be at most an assistant rabbi.
“I bring a perspective to things that most older rabbis might not think about in the same way — the role of the environment, gun control and social media,” Weisz said.
He’s written “Plant Based-Torah,” a commentary from an animal right’s perspective, although he noted he is no longer vegan and was eating a grilled salmon salad as we talked.
One of his first hits was trying something called “Torah on Tap.” When he was introduced to Highland Park, he noticed the number of bars and restaurants, so every month, he gathers a group in a bar near the temple and they talk about the commentaries of the Torah over a beverage. The first session drew 30 people.
He may be Gen Z and publishes articles online, but he warned his congregation after the deaths of Israelis who had gathered for a music festival not to be so quick to run to the internet to express their thoughts.
Weisz is currently handling both the religious and educational aspects of the congregation but said that may soon change with the hiring of a new person.
The plans for the educational future is part of the growth of the temple. The school has grown from 27 to 36 participants and Weisz expects 50 children to attend religious school next year.
Part of the reason, Weisz pointed out, is that there has been what he called a “wave” of young Jewish people moving into the Highland Park and Eagle Rock area.
Seventy percent of the new congregants since he came have been in their late 20s to 50s and the average age is about 35, and many are newly married or have small children.
Weisz’s wife, Whitney, was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley and they have a young daughter.
The rabbi hopes to establish a place for longtime congregants and the newcomers who have made it to the door in time for the temple’s 100th anniversary.
It’s been a long road for Temple Beth Israel, but there is definitely lots of light beckoning in the future.
“People are sending notes that they can hardly believe the place is there,” he said. “It is a microcosm of the Jewish people. Lots of communities in better places collapsed, but you see the magic of the place and you see it continue.”

First published in the May 31 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

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