The Old Jerusalemite shuffled into a tiny shul in Meah Shearim, one of the strictest Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Clad for Shabbat in a regal shtreimel and robe, he joined the other members of the minyan. On this Shabbat, there were unexpected visitors: Rabbi Shalom Rubanowitz, Rabbi of the Shul on the Beach in Venice, California, and his videographer and congregant, Drew Rosen. They were in Israel to participate in the annual charity bike ride for Jerusalem’s ALYN Children’s Hospital. They were not filming on Shabbat but had sought out this shul because Rabbi Rubanowitz’s great-grandparents were among those who founded it in 1899, and he wanted to sponsor a kiddush in their honor.
When Rabbi Rubanowitz introduced Drew and mentioned that he made films, one of his hosts exclaimed, “Hollywood man? We have a Hollywood man, too!” Pointing at the regally attired Old Jerusalemite, he beckoned Drew to meet “Our Mr. Hollywood,” whose name was Rav Yosef Suker.
Drew had brought several “Shul on the Beach” kipot, which he was judiciously doling out to people he met. During the kiddush, he and Reb Yosef were engrossed in conversation. Afterward, Drew took the Rabbi aside, pointed to Reb Yosef, and said, “He has a Shul on the Beach kippa in his pocket!”
“Of course,” replied Rabbi Rubanowitz, “you just gave him one.”
“No,” exclaimed Drew, “He already had it in his pocket. He says he always carries it with him.”
Intrigued, they asked Reb Yosef to share his “Shul on the Beach Kippa” story. He told them that he’d been raised in a secular Israeli home. His only connection to religion was his warm memories of his mother, a Holocaust survivor, taking him to stand outside the window of a Shul in Haifa. Never entering the Shul, little Yosef and his mother stayed long enough to listen to the haunting tunes of Kol Nidrei, the only religious song his mother seemed to remember. Yosef grew up to be a television producer and filmmaker with no attachment to Jewish life.
Forty years ago, Yosef found himself in Los Angeles after wrapping up a major Hollywood production. Wandering down Ocean Front Walk in Venice, looking out at the ocean, he was thinking, “What’s next?” With this thought in his head, he came to the open door of the Shul on the Beach in Venice, where he heard the familiar strains of Kol Nidre. Feeling he was dressed inappropriately, he did not enter the Shul, but stood outside just like he did as a child. But this Kol Nidrei struck a chord. He had been so lost he had forgotten it was Yom Kippur — but now he remembered he was a Jew. That was the moment he turned his life around. He decided to go back to Israel and explore his Jewish roots. He returned, studied Torah, and ended up as the “Old Jerusalemite” whom Drew and the Rabbi had met.
But how had he gotten the kippa?
Reb Yosef wrote a memoir describing his spiritual journey, highlighting the Shul on the Beach’s significant role in his transformation. Two years ago, his friend, Rabbi Mota Frank, a prominent Breslov Rav, was traveling to Los Angeles. Reb Yosef prevailed upon his friend to carry his book to Venice. Reb Mota fulfilled his promise. He gave the book to Alan Danziger, president of the Shul on the Beach. Alan impulsively gave him a Shul on the Beach kippa. Rav Mota gave the kippa to Reb Yosef.
Concluding his story, Reb Yosef said, “I carry that kippa in my pocket all the time to remind myself where I started. Every Yom Kippur, at Kever Rachel (Rachel’s Tomb in Hebron), I wear it underneath my regular yarmulke. And I remember the Shul on the Beach every day of my life.”
Rabbi Rubanowitz and Drew were astounded. Out of all the shuls in Jerusalem, Reb Yosef had chosen the one founded by the ancestors of the Rabbi of the Shul on Beach.
Every Shabbat, hundreds of people stroll by the shul on the Venice Boardwalk. Many current shul members found their way back to Judaism in the same way that Yosef Suker did – walking by and feeling the pull of their tradition calling them from this unassuming and incongruous synagogue amid the tumult on the Venice Boardwalk. Yosef need not have felt self-conscious about his attire – many people come to the shul informally dressed. The Shul on the Beach has a uniquely welcoming approach to Jews from all backgrounds and levels of commitment.
At a time when many observant Jews feel they need to circle the wagons and keep outsiders out, let’s remember the power of an open door.
To learn more about the Shul on the Beach in Venice, visit www.shulonthebeach.com.