On May 12, 2012, University Synagogue will celebrate 25 years at the Island Hotel in Newport Beach. Within the Orange County Jewish community that could be considered an “old timer.” But “old timer” it is not! The synagogue is actually using this anniversary to show off its new leadership and bring in a new generation of members and lay leadership, including its executive board consisting of Sari Schreiber, Eric Blum, Anita Mishook and David Wyle. The synagogue is honoring past presidents Lisa Metzger and Marc Alexander and member Dean Erwin Chermerinsky, but this gala is looking toward the future. According to the gala co-chair, Debbie Stern, and the incoming board president, Sari Schreiber, the gala will allow for engaging current and new membership and offer the opportunity for members of the synagogue to meet members of the greater Jewish community as well.
Stern, a past president and executive vice president herself, describes University Synagogue as a synagogue living in two civilizations: today’s moral and ethical issues and the morals and values based on Torah, which go back thousands of years. “People attend University Synagogue for ethics and enrichment,” said Stern. And this is evident in the programs the synagogue provides. From its burgeoning pre-school and religious school to the dozens of adult classes and Tikkun Olam projects, University Synagogue takes great pride in being a center of learning.
“It’s not just about preserving the past,” said Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, the synagogue’s rabbi of 21 years. “We are creating the future of Judaism. Judaism is ‘for life’ – lifelong learning and for the sake of life for the entire planet.”
According to Rachlis, you might say, “[University Synagogue] reflects the reality of the Jewish community…” There is an incredibly diverse membership at University Synagogue – from people comfortable with tradition (both religiously and Hebraically) to people who feel disenfranchised from Jewish life due to life style, education or religious practices. University Synagogue finds diversity interesting. Regardless of whether you are part of an intermarried couple, a Jew by choice, or lesbian or gay, “we have created a congregation that embraces everyone with love,” said Rachlis.
Rachlis was a White House Fellow and a fulltime rabbi in Chicago when he met the couple that would change not only his life, but the face of the Jewish community in Orange County. “I met Hal and Hinda Beral in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., while Congress presented an award to Natan Sharansky. Then we ran into each other the following evening, and they told me about their chavurah studying Reconstructionism.” It just so happened that Rachlis was ordained as a Reconstructionist rabbi. The chavurah invited Rachlis out to speak in Newport Beach.
As he explained, “I expected to fly back to Chicago and not return to Orange County… I went to give a talk on Reconstructionism… My intention was to help spread the Reconstructionist movement.” There were marathon weekends starting with Friday night services and ending with Sunday morning discussions. With the help of Rachlis and other rabbis, such as Rabbi Abraham Winokur (z”l), the founding rabbi of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, the congregation grew from a dozen people in a living room to almost 200 households. It was then the congregation asked Rachlis to leave his congregation in Chicago and become the spiritual leader… That was 21 years ago. Today the synagogue has more than 600 households.
Rachlis said, “I was deeply inspired by the ‘pioneer’ spirit. The ‘match’ worked!” The organization and diligence was also apparent from the beginning, and Rachlis admired the group for its tenacity and vision.
According to Rachis, it is the origin of the synagogue that makes it different from others. “Many synagogues are started with the primary goal of religious education for children – this synagogue was started by adults with grown children. These people had their own intellectual and spiritual needs.” The synagogue has grown in both directions, from young families with preschool children all the way through to senior citizens.
Unlike a lot of fundraisers and galas, University Synagogue is lay-driven, with support of synagogue staff. Co-chairs Debbie Stern and Alice Rochverger represent the direction of the synagogue. Stern is a past president and vice-president and longtime member of the synagogue; Rochverger is the mother of a pre-school child and new to University Synagogue. But both bring necessary ingredients to the gala: Stern knows what has worked in the past and Rochverger knows what it takes to reach the new leadership and “younger families.” Together they can continue to support and grow the youth education (in the form of preschool, religious school and the new Adventures in Jewish Education) and generate interest that may not have existed previously. And it is a place of sustained membership – when making calls to renew membership, Schreiber was often told, “It’s the only place I want to be!”
The honorees were chosen, on this most significant anniversary, as a representation of the synagogue. “We are honoring two past presidents who are incredibly hard-working and dedicated. They had a real vision of where they wanted the synagogue to go in the future,” said Rachlis. With regard to Chermerinsky, Rachlis said he “represents the idea that the synagogue is not just about its members, but our goal as a congregation is to have an impact on the world… Dean Chermerinsky represents the religious and intellectual aspirations of the synagogue.” Chermerinsky is not only a distinguished lawyer and law school dean; he has argued before the highest courts in the nation and served as a commentator on local and national issues. His representation of Constitutional law and civil rights is tantamount to the values and ideals of University Synagogue. In addition, he is a published author (both books and in journals) and has been an active member of University Synagogue.
Step into the University Synagogue on any given day and witness its rich diversity and passion. It is a place that uses the talents and diversity of everyone involved to integrate amazing and successful programs. Perhaps the best word that can be used to describe the history and future of the synagogue is Beshert – “evident or preordained.” From a chance meeting between a chavurah member and a rabbi 25 years ago to the matches made today, University Synagogue is a center for making things happen. It is for many, including Schreiber, “Like my second home… All my friends are here.”
Please join University Synagogue
for an evening of dining, dancing, & celebration to benefit the synagogue
Honoring: Erwin Chemerinsky,
Lisa Metzger, and Marc Alexander
May 12, 2012, 5:30 p.m.
At the Island Hotel
690 Newport Center Drive
Newport Beach, CA
Sponsorships, tributes, tickets and more information are available at:
or call: (949) 553-3535