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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Michael Barclay

Westlake Village Rabbi bets the Temple on change

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

For Rabbi Michael Barclay, a leap of faith and a high-stakes gamble are one in the same.

As the Jewish High Holy Days approach, the spiritual leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village is betting on a bold, out-of-the-box slant on generating revenue.

Is he showing chutzpah or merely acting mashugana? You decide.

The 54-year-old Barclay believes it’s a sin to gouge at the synagogue. So last year, his became perhaps the first and definitely among the first non-Orthodox congregations in the country to shun the nearly century-old model whereby temple members must pay annual dues that can run thousands of dollars. So pervasive is this model in this country’s 1,500 Conservative and Reform congregations that fewer than 60 temples across the nation are experimenting with the no-dues approach, according to a recent article in Jewish Week.

“Is it challenging? Yes. Is it scary? Yes. Is it necessary? Yes,” Barclay told me.

He cites a statistic that 85 percent of Jews do not enter a temple even two days a year and faults mandatory dues as the biggest barrier. Studies find millennial Jews even more likely to rebel against what Barclay calls “pay to pray.” Temples do offer hardship discounts, but the required financial disclosures can be invasive and embarrassing, Rabbi Michael Knopf wrote last year in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Barclay also ended the custom of selling tickets — which can run hundreds of dollars — to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services.

“Attendance is limited only by the fire marshal,” he said of Ner Simcha’s High Holy Days services, which start Thursday at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills.

Every family has its lore, and one story always stands out to Barclay. After his father returned from his World War II service as a Flying Tigers combat pilot, he was turned away — in uniform — from a temple because he lacked a ticket for the Yom Kippur service. His dad did not darken the door of a synagogue for years after that.

A Los Angeles native and theology professor at Loyola Marymount University, Barclay came to the Conejo Valley a couple of years ago after a stint at a congregation in Beverly Hills. His intention always was to eliminate the mandatory fees, he said. At that time, Ner Simcha membership ran $1,200 a year, and a High Holy Day ticket for nonmembers cost $225.

First, he needed to build up a critical mass of 500 regular worshippers at the young congregation. He planned to appeal to the estimated 25,000 Jews in the Conejo who rarely or never attend services by making the liturgy more accessible and taking some novel approaches.

Barclay drew inspiration from the late Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, who reached out to Jews in any number of ways, including setting up a booth on Venice Beach to give Jewish astrological readings to passing skateboarders. At Ner Simcha, Barclay started “Tobacco and Talmud” sessions, where men smoke cigars and study Scripture.

He also kicked up the music by bringing in celebrities like Ana Villafane, who is starring on Broadway in “On Your Feet!” He invited a Mormon choir to back up the cantor as he sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Sam Glaser, who was named one of the top 10 Jewish performers in the country by Moment magazine, serves as cantor for the High Holidays.

Fundraising is confined to a couple of the High Holy Day services, Barclay said, when a lay leader asks congregants to make a pledge to support the synagogue.

As a churchgoer who sees the freewill offering system at work on Sundays, I found that a very tight window of opportunity. It’s the rare Christian congregation that doesn’t at least occasionally get guilted by the priest or minister when the collection plate feels a little light.

So far, it seems to be working. The doors have remained open 18 months into the experiment, and Barclay estimates more than 1,000 people currently involve themselves with the temple.

To other spiritual leaders contemplating changing their business models to one like this, Barclay advises: “You have to have faith Jews will step up and support a community.”

With God’s help, the rabbi doesn’t believe the only way is dues or die.

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