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Rabbi Lori Shapiro is building a Venice congregation that crosses denominational and cultural boundaries to make Judaism relevant for all.
Chances are that Rabbi Lori Shapiro’s Passover seder last April in Venice was unlike any other.
For starters, it wasn’t held at a synagogue steeped in tradition but within the aggressively contemporary architecture of the 800 Main event space.
Most of the 85 people in attendance were not particularly religious about their Judaism. Some were gentiles.
And the centerpiece of Shapiro’s ceremonial march through the Haggadah — chronicling the emancipation of the ancient Hebrews from Egyptian slavery as detailed in the Book of Exodus — was illustrated through PowerPoint.
During the presentation, a New Testament verse, Matthew 26:19, flashed across the screen: “The disciples did as Jesus had directed them; and they prepared the Passover,” appearing alongside a scene of the Last Supper created not by Da Vinci but at a Las Vegas hotel.
Later, the phrase “freedom of oppression within and without” was juxtaposed with images of Kim Kardashian and Kim Jung Un. There was even a clip of a song-and-dance number from the raunchy “Sesame Street” parody “Avenue Q.”
This was definitely an unorthodox seder, and orthodox without the capital “O” at that.
Under the auspices of her Open Temple endeavor, Shapiro runs distinctive, Venice-friendly Jewish services, but they’re not meant to be flip and she didn’t fall into the role lightly.
“I didn’t have a Jewish education growing up, so I represented the periphery. I had no denominational bias,” she said. “I realized that every denomination had an agenda. So I wanted to pursue Judaism looking through a very contemporary lens.”
Which set Shapiro on a complicated, trans-denominational journey. After getting her bachelor’s degree in English at Columbia University, she pursued master’s degrees in Jewish and rabbinical studies.
Shapiro’s rabbinical explorations also took her to the Orthodox Sharei Bina Women’s Center for Jewish Studies in Tsfat, Israel, the trans-denominational Pardes in Jerusalem, and the Conservative Judaism-focused American Jewish University in Bel-Air.
She emerged from her rites of passage determined to infuse a love of Judaism into Jews as disenfranchised and disconnected from their faith as she once was.
In 2010, the former Lori Schneide married Dr. Joel Shapiro, creator of the Electric Lodge and an environmentalist who founded Arts: Earth Partnership. She gave birth to a daughter in May 2013.
Open Temple, which has seen nearly 300 people attend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur events since forming last year, holds High Holiday services at Electric Lodge on Wednesday.
— Michael Aushenker
You were not raised religious, correct?
I didn’t grow up with any preconceived notion of what a synagogue should look like. One of the things people find difficult is just the Hebrew. When I came back to America, I had a certain philosophy of Jewish life that has a more traditional version of balance. With Open Temple, the biggest thing was to make all of what is greatest about Judaism accessible to someone who hasn’t learned about Judaism. I wanted to take that feeling of shame and replace it with empowerment. You can bring all of who you are to it because we make it accessible to you.
At what point did you have this epiphany?
I was a rabbi-in-residence at USC Hillel for four years. Being on campus was a great match for me. The model of Judaism [at Hillel] is not top-down; it’s more peer-to-peer — getting students where they were at. It’s much more 21st century.
Why did Venice become ground zero for Open Temple?
It was always really clear to me that Venice had no [Jewish] community. Yet here was all this vibrancy, the individualism, the radical thinking, the provocative thought through creative expression.
How does being in Venice shape what you’re doing?
There’s no [common] domination, but what they have in common is their individualism. People are allowed to be who they are. They don’t have the pretense or the ambitions of the rest of L.A. Those of us who live in Venice are really grateful. We really love it here. We see each other every Friday morning at the farmers market. People are surfers, people love to eat healthfully, and all of those values match what Open Temple is all about.
How did you build your congregation?
By going out into the community. It’s been very organic. I meet them on the playgrounds, in the coffeehouses, in the streets, at the farmers market. I’ll talk to eight to 14 people at a house, asking people what’s important to them, where in their lives the Jewish community intersects, has it been there for them. Emerging from these coffee dates, I have a good sense of what they’re really looking for. And they become volunteers. But I call them co-creators.
What does Joel think?
My husband has been very supportive. He hadn’t set foot in a synagogue for ages. When he heard I was a rabbi, he initially said ‘no’ [to being set up on a date], but he went out with me and the rest is history. He’s a creative person and someone with a great sense of art. He’s enjoyed taking part in Open Temple because it also respects his intellect. It doesn’t tell him what to think, but encourages him to think. I think he’s the perfect example of someone at Open Temple.
What do you have planned for this year’s High Holiday services?
All of our services are come as you are. We’ll have local actors doing creative interpretation of the Torah sections. We’ll have a woman playing piano. We have a labyrinth in the parking lot so you can have a meaningful walk after services. It’s going to be really energetic and provide a creative reality in a way that High Holidays aren’t usually experienced. We’re asking people to learn to play, to lend out their voices. We want to go through this together. I always wanted to do a yoga flow. We’re giving it a Jewish context.
What’s next for Open Temple?
Through [the crowd-funding site] Jewcer.com, we want to start The Wandering Jew Truck. It’s very Open Temple, the idea of meeting people where they are at: Shavuot at Temescal Canyon, a night hike in Santa Monica, at Mother’s Beach and near Abbot Kinney Boulevard on First Fridays. We’re not serving food; it’s a spiritual food truck. We’re bringing Jewish content to people. We’re also starting our school with Tuesday afternoon classes for seven to nine year olds and a monthly woman’s group.
Is having a permanent building a goal?
No, it’s to have a community. We represent a creative Judaism. You don’t have to leave your creative juices at the door.
Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown on Wednesday, Sept. 24. Yom Kippur begins the evening of Oct. 3. For a full holiday schedule, visit opentemple.org