Rabbi Lori Shapiro’s Open Temple is redefining the faith community in Venice
By Jessica Koslow
Disco dancing down Abbot Kinney Boulevard with headphones for Simchat Torah. Reading text from rabbis about human sexuality as essential herbal essences waft in the air at Scent-ual Havdalah. Biking through 100 Years of Jewish Venice on an Electric Light Bike Shabbat.
This is Open Temple.
“I always say the core values of Open Temple are truth, creativity and love,” says Rabbi Lori Shapiro, who created Open Temple four years ago. “People that stick with us are on that journey. They are people seeking love, creativity and truth. It creates a strong core. I see that happening. It’s beautiful and fascinating.”
Open Temple is having a breakout year, according to Shapiro. It now has a home — Open Temple House on Electric Avenue — and is receiving national attention: a three-year commitment from The UpStart Accelerator and recognition in the current Los Angeles edition of the Slingshot Guide, which highlights the most innovative Jewish organizations in America.
“What began as one woman standing at the Abbot Kinney Fest collecting names is now a powerful dynamic reverberating throughout the Jewish world, locally, nationally and internationally,” says Shapiro. “It’s its own thing — bigger than me.”
As the High Holidays approach (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and Open Temple hosts 10 separate events with fun titles, Shapiro has much to celebrate and reflect on.
“It’s always been my dream to create a contemporary Jewish community,” says Shapiro, who moved to Venice in 2011 when she married Joel Shapiro, owner of the Electric Lodge. Still a rabbi-in-residence at USC Hillel, she soon became pregnant with their first child and started hanging around playgrounds, chatting with locals. She saw the need for a place for contemporary Jewish people to come together.
“The longstanding spiritual gathering places in Venice include three black Baptist churches and a Jehovah’s Witness center; the demographic is shifting, and these institutions are not going to sustain the future of local spirituality and faith,” says Shapiro. “Our community is going through adaptive change, and our spiritual and faith institutions need to reflect this shift as well.”
In the past four years, Open Temple has gained a staff, a board and a growing number of co-creators. James Fuchs of Beit T’Shuvah (a Jewish rehab center and congregation) is the new musical director. And they have gained a rich offering of collaborators, including New Ground (a Muslim-Jewish initiative), NuRoots Jewish Federation, IKAR and more.
A live band is one of the highlights of Open Temple events — most notably at Shabbat Take Me Higher, each third Friday of each month. The musicians and vocalists change frequently (with a few regulars), and Shapiro is cultivating more participation from the local community. As the curator, she includes more traditional Jewish music with, say, a Justin Timberlake song, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” plucked from “Trolls” soundtrack and transformed into a “Lecha Dodi”.
“I study the history of Jewish music, as it is important that our community stands on the shoulders of those who came before us. What Open Temple does ‘mashing up’ liturgy with popular music is actually something called ‘Contrafactionism’ — the act of taking a pre-existing melody and retrofitting it with new words or text. In our case, we take popular music: rock, pop, R&B, and mash it up with Jewish prayers for our Shabbat and High Holiday services, which Jews have actually been doing for millennia,” says Shapiro. “And we’re living in place that’s user-friendly to it. Venice is a place where popular culture trends so fiercely. It’s a natural partnership.”
Though every month is bustling for Open Temple, the High Holidays are an especially lively time. After completing The Call on Sept. 6 (announcing Elul with a soundbath on the beach under the full moon), The Shvitz on Sept. 9 (trip to Wi Spa for Selichot) and The Pause (Shabbat on the beach on Sept. 15), they are now gearing up for The Awakening (Rosh Hashanah Venice Experience, Sept. 20 and 21), The Dunk (dip in the ocean under the rising moon on Sept. 28), The Sacrifice (Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur from Sept. 29 and 30), The Building (Sukkah-raising on Oct. 1), The Celebration (Sukkot at a pop-up Abbot Kinney Farm with petting zoo on Oct. 8) and The Dance (Dancewalk on the Boardwalk to Pacific Jewish Center for Simchat Torah on Oct. 12).
Oh, and Yom Kippur goat yoga … with actual goats.
Each event is overflowing with meaning, community and fun, which spill out into their programs and events throughout the year.
There is ReBar/Torah Study every Wednesday from 1 to 2 p.m.; five dance parties for kids under age 7, October through May, with children’s music artist Jennifer Paskow and friends; parenting classes with Barbara Olinger, formerly of the Santa Monica YWCA; Teen Soul Journey; an after-dark series for millennials; an upcoming Silicon Beach Spiritual Direction group; and a new spin on Hebrew School — Arts 36, a “Hebrew School of the Performing Arts,” which begins Oct. 1.
This year the Rosh Hashanah services will be held at Electric Lodge and have limited seating — for good reason.
“We don’t need to be everything to everyone,” says Shapiro. “We are doing something specific. We’re a scrappy startup working toward a legacy institution for Venice. We’re inviting people to be co-creators. Tell us how you want to contribute. How can we create together?”
Sitting in her home office, fielding questions from staff members and caring for her two young children, Shapiro is wading through uncharted territory — a true pioneer, or polisotar.
“It’s humbling every day to wake up and go, ‘let’s do this,’” says Shapiro. “Open Temple happened at the same time as I was getting married and having my first child. I’m grateful for this community because it’s important for me to grow my children with a growing garden. Open Temple is a community garden.”
Open temple is at 1416 Electric Ave. in Venice. Call (310) 821-1414 or visit opentemple.org.