Shikler, who has served the congregation since 1970, waxes enthusiastic about Shir Ha-Ma’alot’s creative spirit and warmth, the chemistry between the clergy and the “energy, spirit and tremendous will to work hard” of Rabbi Richard Steinberg. Shikler says that Steinberg “rejuvenated the congregation” when he came here 10 years ago, infusing it with new programs. While the congregation has gone from 280 to 650 families during that time, “the spirit and warmth remained,” he adds.
Rabbi Steinberg believes that when people come to the synagogue, they should feel better when they leave than when they arrived. He thinks that congregations ought to meet people where they are and take them on the journey of the spirit, that Judaism ought to be compelling and relevant and that “everyone should have access to Judaism,” including people with disabilities. While the rabbi takes pride in Shir Ha-Ma’alot’s reputation as “the place where children bring their parents,” he is very serious when he speaks of the congregation’s motto, “A Lifetime of Belonging.”
All of the clergy want to create an atmosphere where “people want and are proud to be Jewish, where people value being part of something bigger than themselves,” Steinberg adds. “In a world where there is so much loneliness and difficulty, people need a safe place. ‘Sanctuary’ means ‘safe place’ – a refuge from the difficulty that the world presents. The synagogue is a safe place where it’s safe to cry, laugh, scream or hug. It has to be experienced.”
Kids certainly do bring their parents – and themselves – to Shir Ha-Ma’alot. A recent Friday Night Live musical service with the theme, “Teach Your Children Well,” attracted 20 students who received a blessing from the rabbi before starting or continuing their college careers. There are 130 teens in the high school program, 60 of whom are madrichim (student helpers). The congregation has three age-appropriate youth programs and junior congregation and Teen Shabbat programs, as well as a new youth director, Rebecca Zarrabi.
“This is a real sign of success, that we are engaging kids when the competition for their time is so stiff, and they choose to spend it at temple,” Steinberg says. “We must be doing something right.”
There are also 60 to 80 B’nai Mitzvah per year at Shir Ha-Ma’alot. Steinberg chooses to “stack instead of share” the dates, sometimes having two B’nai Mitzvah on a Shabbat morning. Rather than being a “Bar Mitzvah mill,” the congregation is a place where the students build community, according to Steinberg. He credits Marisa Kaiser, the director of education, for her innovative programming and proudly adds that Shir Ha-Ma’alot’s religious school is one of only 30 in the country to be accredited by the National Association of Temple Educators.
Rabbi Leah Lewis, who became the associate rabbi of the congregation on July 1, believes that “it is in synagogues that lives are shared and sacred communities are built – that is, if we take advantage of them.” Lewis says that the number of young families in the congregation is “mind boggling,” but “the more established members are critical too. They have built this place, and the congregation is part of who they are. We want the younger families to feel like they do, and we want this to be a congregation for everybody.”
Lewis hopes to get more congregants of all ages involved in Shir Ha-Ma’a lot’s many social action programs. She also wants to be involved in women’s programming and to build on the success of the Chai Society, a program for seniors.
“I’m a firm believer in the synagogue and its unique place in Jewish life,” Lewis says. “While people should support communal institutions, the synagogue has the ability to provide something that nothing else can – to accompany people through their lives and make connections through people. The role of the synagogue is unique and so important.”
Steinberg agrees, describing the congregation as “a warm family with vibrant, dedicated leadership. People really step up and love it, and there is a real partnership between the clergy, staff and lay leadership. My tenth anniversary celebration was really a celebration of all the people who have worked together during these ten years.”
He is grateful for longtime staff and congregation members and for “the beautiful foundation built by Founding Rabbi Bernie King,” who passed away early this year. Shir Ha-Ma’alot is continuing many traditions started by King, including the adopt-a-family program and the blessing of the children at the end of the Shabbat service.
“There are all kinds of congregations, and ours is programmatic,” Steinberg explains. “My goal as a rabbi is to connect people to Judaism, so each year we explore a different theme that helps people to explore themselves and their Judaism. This year’s theme, ‘Mishpacha Family Moments,’ connects families to each other and to the congregation. There are more than 300 programs, including services, parent and family education programs, adult learning programs, family fun programs, community events and social action programs during the year, to explore the theme – something for everybody.”
“This is a conversational congregation,” he adds. “There’s always conversation between the bimah and the pews.”
That conversation extends to the Torah Study group of about 25 people, who Steinberg describes as “a committed core of people seeking and searching.” He is excited that he gets to teach, because “I love to see the light bulb going on. I enjoy being the vehicle for people exploring Judaism.”
He adds, “People used to go to the synagogue to be Jewish. Now they go to learn how to be Jewish.”
Shir Ha-Ma’alot is also known for its creative expression. Congregants designed and made the colorful stained glass windows that grace the front of the building and depict Biblical themes.
Nowhere is the creative expression more evident than in the musical realm. Shikler, an innovator who early in his career introduced the guitar as accompaniment during Shabbat services — the first cantor to do so in Orange County — has engineered a Friday Night Live program that is designed to enrich Shabbat in a musical way. Each month has a different theme that provides a deeper understanding of the rich musical heritage of the Jewish people and an appreciation of the many talents of the cantor.
There have been 80 to 90 Friday Night Live concerts in the past 10 years. Shikler says he prepares the music based on what the rabbi is going to talk about. “I try to enhance with music what the message is from the bimah,” he explains.
Shikler started a youth band that participates in the family service the first Friday night of the month and performs in an annual concert. There are also temple musicians, “who are not full-time musicians, but could be,” according to Shikler. They play a variety of instruments and are in a High Holy Day ensemble. Finally, Shir Ha-Ma’alot has a professional band that works with Shikler in the Friday Night Live Shabbats once a month and performs in an annual concert. There are youth and adult choirs too.
Shikler, who has released five CDs, is “always doing things in a new way, bringing more of the soundscape into what I’m doing musically and incorporating all the music I have absorbed since childhood.” He is learning to play the trombone, perfect his playing of the oud and bringing the bazookie into the service to incorporate Greek music. Shikler will also bring back some ideas when he visits his native Israel.
“I try to be current – to reach the younger generation and everyone else through music to establish contact with people,” Shikler explains. How fitting for the congregation whose Hebrew name was adopted in 1974 after the massacre of teenagers in Ma’alot, Israel, in a spirit of remembrance and dedication. Shir Ha-Ma’alot means “Song of Ascent,” the title of Psalms #120 to #134.
How will the congregation build on its success? Beyond growing in numbers, Steinberg wants to see Shir Ha-Ma’a lot growing in spirit. He recently obtained a master’s degree in marital and family therapy in order to “gain awareness of the dynamics in people’s lives.” He thinks the synagogue should help to “lift people out of their spiritual malaise, be a place that provides the essence of memory and show people how to live their life through mitzvot.”
Steinberg seeks to get to know people, to find a way to impact their lives and to show people how to use Judaism as a way to elevate themselves. “Judaism is more of a journey than a destination, more about the questions than the answers,” he says.
He hopes that the congregation will be a place where people can have the experiences to change or supplement what they believe, and he thinks Orange County can be a model community in the sense of cooperation and new roles for Jewish institutions.
“I love this synagogue,” Steinberg concludes. “I feel very blessed, very lucky to feel like both a leader and a member. I found my voice as a rabbi, feel rooted and hope to be here for a long time.”