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Southern Jewel

Eytan Kobre

When Rabbi Jeff Wohlgelernter landed in San Diego 30 years ago to lead a start-up shul, he discovered there was no shul at all. That didn’t stop him

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

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OLD FASHIONED PASSION There wasn’t even a minyan, but that didn’t stop the high-energy rabbi from creating a vibrant, Torah-observant kehillah from scratch, the old fashioned way: by sitting down and teaching the ancient wisdom to one postmodern Jew at a time (Photos: Yoni Oscherowitz)

T he drive south from L.A. toward San Diego is scenic and smooth as I make my way down the Southern California coast, the route punctuated by one Spanish-named town after another — Rancho Palos Verdes, San Pedro, Encinitas, San Clemente and more. And then, at journey’s end, there is La Jolla, Spanish for “the Jewel.”

It’s pronounced “La Hoya,” which for a yeshivah guy evokes the Gemara’s phrase lo hoya v’lo nivra, meaning “it never was.” As it happens, this beautiful suburban community in the hills high above San Diego never did exist, at least not Jewishly, until 30 years ago last month. That’s when Rabbi Jeff Wohlgelernter showed up and, with siyata d’Shmaya and an indomitable will, made a proverbial Jewish desert bloom.

Pulling up to Congregation Adat Yeshurun on La Jolla Scenic Drive North, I’m immediately taken by the expansive, contemporary structure that stretches out on a multi-acre campus — the shul’s striking physical exterior seeming to hint at an equally unique spiritual interior. Maybe it’s the modernist look and affluent suburban setting, or the idea of a rav named Jeff — or maybe I’ve been in New York too long, too — but I’m just not prepared for the big, red-bearded yeshivah man, a big black velvet yarmulke atop his balding pate, who greets me exuberantly at the entrance. Welcome to La Jolla —where unapologetic Torah authenticity meets easy California living.

Rabbi Wohlgelernter gives me a quick tour of the Adat Yeshurun premises, beginning with a nod toward the massive, gnarled tree dominating the adjacent plaza that he identifies as a Torrey pine, indigenous to the San Diego region. Since it’s a protected species, the shul campus had to be built around its hoary, imposing presence, a fitting metaphor for a kehillah centered around the eitz chayim of Torah study.

As we sit down to chat in Rabbi Jeff’s study, I admit to having grown up hearing my father often quip how rabbanus “isn’t a job for a good Jewish boy.” He laughs, adding that a rabbi from Manchester once told him the same thing, except that he finished the sentence with, “but the goyim are too smart to take it.”

More seriously, he adds, “But my rabbanus is a teaching rabbanus. I do a tremendous amount of one-on-one teaching and I give a lot of shiurim. What makes this different from other places is that we offer so many more classes on a weekly basis. Early on, I went to an AJOP convention and I’d hear rabbanim wonder how to maintain their learning and I never understood it. Teach, and the more you teach, the more you learn. The shul doesn’t realize that they’re actually paying me to sit in kollel. There’s an intensity to your learning because you don’t have five hours to sit on a daf — you’ve got 20 minutes — because you’ve got three other things you need to be preparing to learn with people, too.

“When you walk into the shul it looks like a beis medrash; it has that feel, so that’s what people identify it with. It’s not just a shul where people happen to come to learn. Learning is what the shul represents.”

His point about the shul’s unusual design is immediately apparent upon entering the building. It’s a cavernous space, without a single wall in sight. The davening area is bounded by bookcases, some filled with siddurim and Chumashim but many more stocked with hundreds of Judaica titles on every imaginable topic. The message is clear: We don’t just daven here, we learn too. The aron kodesh and bimah were both designed by the rabbi’s late father, David Wohlgelernter, who was both an art teacher in New York yeshivah day schools and a theatrical set designer whose woodworking and stained glass artistry also grace several synagogues back East.

From the pews it’s just a few steps up to an even larger, wide-open area that rings the davening space, with ample room for lots of tables and chairs. Not far from the front entrance sits a long conference-room table surrounded by many swivel chairs, where numerous shiurim take place weekly. At that table, Rabbi Wohlgelernter has for many years given an in-depth daily Gemara shiur that has learned numerous masechtos covering not only Gemara, Rashi and Tosfos, but Rishonim, Shulchan Aruch, Tur/Beis Yosef and Mishnah Berurah. And not one of this shiur’s participants had any background in learning when he joined.

“You have to love the people.” Reb Jeff says the individual breakthroughs are what keep him going, and you never know how they’ll happen

Over the last three decades, Adat Yeshurun has become a model for other communities in how to create a highly successful kiruv shul, and although he declines to quantify how many of his congregants have made the move to Torah observance, Rabbi Jeff allows that the number is “pretty staggering.” There are even, by his count, close to 35 individuals who became geirei tzedek over the years, many of them now the heads of their own frum families. Even today, with a strong nucleus of Torah-observant families in place, he estimates that of the nearly 200 people in shul on a Shabbos morning, about 60% of them are not yet shomer Shabbos.

When people ask how an Orthodox synagogue in suburban California is able to attract so many unaffiliated Jews, Rabbi Wohlgelernter’s answer again focuses on learning: “It’s all about Torah learning. There’s tremendous encouragement to join shiurim. When the ladies came back from the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project trip, we added three new shiurim for them.”

The rabbi also teaches every bar mitzvah boy his parshah and learns with all the bas mitzvah girls too, studying a topic like chesed once a week over the course of a year. But isn’t that something he can easily delegate to others? “I think to myself, how can I ever give that away? Here’s a kid who might not be so connected Jewishly, yet is sitting and schmoozing with his rabbi for 45 minutes, with no fear or discomfort. And while this doesn’t usually make them frum, you know what it does do? When they’re in college and looking to get married, either they come back to me or they go to a guy that looks like me, because to them that’s how a rabbi looks. The whole thing of ‘the rabbi’ is demystified.”

If Rabbi Wohlgelernter’s approach to rabbanus is unconventional, his initial entry into the field also took a rather unpredictable route. He never spent a day in a semichah shiur, nor did he even contemplate a rabbinic career. Instead, he says, “I backed into it.” (excerpted)

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