'We strive to make the old new and the new holy'

Service with a smile: Synagogue rethinks the High Holy Days

From the way it sells tickets to the contemplative stitching circle, Pico Union Project is putting the ‘new’ in New Year

Contributing artist Craig Taubman, who also founded LA's Pico Union Project in 2013. (Courtesy)
Contributing artist Craig Taubman, who also founded LA's Pico Union Project in 2013. (Courtesy)

For a community in Los Angeles, Rosh Hashanah not only represents the evolution of the self and the birthday of the world — it also translates into a reinterpretation of communal finances.

To underwrite a dynamic series of High Holiday programs, Pico Union Project (PUP) launched a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign this summer. In less than two months, donations totaled more than $62,000, supporting a wide range of creative events including teen services, meditative stitching and innovative services with musician Craig Taubman, PUP’s founder and artistic director.

“We raised the minimum amount needed in order to produce our full schedule of services and still have tickets to spare,” says Dr. Zach Lasker, PUP’s full-time executive director and resident yogi. “Anyone can purchase a single or multi-day pass and those who believe in our work and still want to make a financial contribution are able to do so.”

PUP describes itself as a multi-faith center for spiritual exploration, cultural arts, and community activism. Its mission statement reads, “We are rooted in the principle to love your neighbor as yourself, and believe that in order to love your neighbor you must get to know your neighbor.”

“Programmatically, Rosh Hashanah at PUP will again be a joyful, soulful, innovative and creative experience that strives to make the old new and the new holy,” Lasker says. “As a non-traditional community, we decided to move away from the dues-paying membership model.”

PUP came into being when singer-songwriter Taubman purchased the landmark synagogue in 2013 with his wife Louise, who oversees several administrative functions, such as accounting and parts of event operations. The building dates to 1909, when it was the first home of the Sinai Temple congregation, and was sold to a church nearly a century ago. After the Taubmans took ownership, they hosted the first High Holy services in L.A.’s oldest synagogue structure in 91 years.

“My wife and I seized the opportunity to purchase the building and rebuild a Jewish community in downtown Los Angeles and honor the incredibly diverse, multi-faith, and cultural make up of the neighborhood,” Taubman says. “PUP promotes the Jewish principle to love your neighbor as yourself — with the understanding that in order to be loving to others you must get to know them first. We celebrate and honor diversity and promote mutual respect through story, song, theater, dance, food, prayer, health, wellness and acts of loving kindness.”

The self-described open egalitarian community witnessed a standing room-only crowd last year.

People “came together for an unexpected and unprecedented experience of celebration, prayer, singing, spoken word, diversity, emotion and intellectual stimulation… all with a casual, let-it-loose, eclectic and affordable vibe,” Taubman says.

Without traditional membership, PUP can’t say exactly how many people it serves. The sanctuary, Lasker says, is expected to sell out its 375 High Holiday seats. Its Shabbat program accommodates 50 attendees. And about a dozen people regularly attend Lasker’s yoga classes.

The goal is “about joining together to form a creative, nurturing, and loving community… something special and uniquely Jewish in the heart of L.A.,” Lasker says. “The holidays will be our launching pad.”

This year’s “High Holy Day Gathering” features Taubman as well as Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Nefesh, Rabbi Susan Goldberg and “Tashlich,” a new dance composition by Deborah Rosen and Company.

Also on the High Holidays menu is a stitching circle, spiritual centering through the art of contemplative stitching to create a meditative practice around liturgical themes with renowned instructor, Debra Linesch. Teen prayer services in partnership with Tzedek America and other programs are designed to make the holidays meaningful in a nouveau L.A. kind of way.

PUP invites non-Jewish faith leaders to attend services, Lasker says. Reverend Najuma Pollar of the Word of Encouragement Church will make public remarks on Erev Yom Kippur.

“There are occasions when other faith groups hold services and events [and] they have attendees from other walks of life, too,” Lasker says.

Special High Holy guest speakers include iconic television writer and producer Norman Lear, Palestinian activist and pacifist Ali Abu Awwad, Rabbi Deborah Schuldenfrei and social activist and entrepreneur Joseph Sanberg.

Craig Taubman with Normalika Chishti, a member of the Women's Mosque of America. (Anthony Weiss/JTA)
Craig Taubman with Normalika Chishti, a member of the Women’s Mosque of America. (Anthony Weiss/JTA)

Services are led by Taubman, who possesses a unique gift “at holding space and recognizing sparks in other people that he brings into the room,” Lasker says. “The result is that people feel a heightened sense of belonging and meaning.”

In Taubman’s eyes, it is a shared effort, “recognizing that no one personality, mode of prayer and singing, or point of view can speak to everyone equally,” Taubman says. “Our team of spiritual leaders includes singers, artists, teachers and rabbis that reflect the diversity of our community. Our hope is to optimize engagement through multiple points of entry.”

Taubman, 58, brings to PUP a storied history as a Jewish professional.

“Once upon a time, I was an artist with Disney records and performed over 100 concerts a year. I felt blessed for the work, but it was hard on me and my family to be on the road,” Taubman says. “Twenty years ago, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple asked me to create Friday Night Love with him. This service allowed me the freedom to stay in town more, as well as focus on music for the Jewish community.”

Taubman has had, he says, “an amazing run producing recordings since my first of over 60 albums as a high school senior 40 years ago. From vinyl we went to cassette tapes, CDs and digital downloads.”

Taubman previously curated 11 mini volumes relating to High Holiday themes under the concept Jewels of Elul for the month leading up to the Jewish New Year.

“Twelve years ago, I had no idea how impactful the project would be on my life and many others around the world,” Taubman says. “People want to grow and change and Jewels of Elul gave them the tools to do it.”

Craig Taubman performs at a Pico Union shabbat celebration. (Courtesy)
Craig Taubman performs at a Pico Union shabbat celebration. (Courtesy)

He recently decided to apply the concept to the universal experience of losing a loved one. His “30 Days” project is inspired by the Jewish mourning ritual of Shloshim. Similar to the Jewels project, it will contain 30 affirmations and healing thoughts from an eclectic group of writers.

“The past year has been a challenging one for me with illnesses and deaths including the lives of my wife’s parents,” Taubman says. “With loss so heavy on my heart I have been focused on ways to honor them and the mourning process.”

Taubman’s and PUP’s out-of-the-box approach was reflected in its recent Jewcer campaign, which included opportunities to contribute at various price points. Starting at $50, a five-ticket package included seats at Slichot, first day Rosh HaShanah, Erev Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur morning and Neilah services. Two donors claimed a “Tree of Life” contribution starting at $1,250 to support the purchase of trees for the synagogue that will later be planted in the neighborhood. Another donor supported a minimum $1,500 donation to support Chief PUP Storyteller Jason Chu to pen a poem to be read at the High Holy Day services based on a theme of the donor’s choice.

Another two donors each donated at least $3,000 each to sponsor and design the menu for lunch on Rosh Hashanah or at a communal Yom Kippur break-the-fast. And two more donors each contributed a minimum of $5,000 to support the composition of a musical piece to be debuted at services. Private contributions and other funding includes a grant from the Office of Homeland Security in California and a $200,000 Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

“Investing in vibrant spaces for Jews to thrive and engage with one another and the wider community in downtown Los Angeles is exciting for us,” said Elana Wien, director of the Jewish Community Foundation of LA’s Center for Designed Philanthropy. “We are confident that The Sanctuary@Pico Union can answer the call for opportunities to engage in Jewish spiritual discovery, social justice and the creative arts.”

Craig Taubman has opened the Pico Union Project in a historic synagogue building in downtown Los Angeles as a home for cultural, religious and community events. (Anthony Weiss/JTA)
Craig Taubman has opened the Pico Union Project in a historic synagogue building in downtown Los Angeles as a home for cultural, religious and community events. (Anthony Weiss/JTA)

Rentals for private events, including bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and “quincineras” (Latin American coming of age parties for 15-year old girls), also generate income.

While the Taubmans currently donate use of the building, in the coming year, PUP will phase in a modest rental fee payable to the Taubmans. PUP will retain rental fees collected from the faith community, cultural groups, and private rentals, Lasker says.

“I feel as if all of the elements that motivate and excite can be found at the PUP — art, music, community, gardening, making a difference, Jewish culture, all come together in our beautiful downtown space,” Taubman says. “Every day I am reminded that I can not only make change, but be the change in the world I have been blessed to inhabit.”

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