University Synagogue History

For over 60 years, University Synagogue has been a vibrant pillar of the community as a center of cultural, spiritual, and social awareness. 

Serving the West Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood since 1943, University Synagogue is:

  • A beacon of Torah, a spiritual home, and a welcoming loving community, infusing the presence of God into our congregants' daily lives.
  • A Reform synagogue where ritual rings true - where learning runs deep - where members matter - where compassion counts - and where love and care are real.
  • A summit of the highest aspects of human life, where from every side we see promise, hope, and meaning.
  • An oasis of spirituality and healing in the complex world of greater Los Angeles; a sacred site for celebrating Shabbat and Holy Days; and for observing the cycles of life.

Rabbi Julian Feingold

1947 - 1948

The first permanent home, formerly a church, is purchased at 11806 Gorham. Rabbi Julian Feingold is engaged as the first full-time rabbi. Maurice Goldman serves as part-time cantor. A young adult league is established at the temple along with a "Mr. and Mrs. Club" for young married couples.

Cantor Sam Broude

1949 - 1950
Nursery school begins and a parent-teacher association is formed. Membership includes 300 families which puts a strain on the Gorham facility. Cantor Sam Broude serves full time and becomes one the first cantors to study at Hebrew Union College to become a rabbi.

1951
A building campaign is launched to raise $650,000 for a new building that would meet the needs of a rapidly growing congregation. The campaign is chaired by Reginald Robbins. 

1952
A day camp is established. A 2.5-acre lot is purchased at corner of Sunset Boulevard and Saltair Avenue for $65,000, however the City of Los Angeles Planning Commission rejects proposed plans to build a synagogue at the site. 

Left to right, Linda Leavitt, Leonard D. Rosin, congregation president; Rabbi Julian F. Feingold, spiritual leader; and Mrs. Lillian Lipofsky, Sisterhood president. 

1953
City Council overturns the planning commission’s decision after it hears an impassioned plea from Rabbi Feingold and receives letters of recommendation from Rabbi Edgar Magnin and others in support of the synagogue.

1954 - Architect Arthur Froelich unveils a scale model of a planned 33,000 square-foot building with a sanctuary, wedding chapel, classrooms, social hall, kitchen, offices and gardens.

1955 - First service is held in the synagogue building. It was just a shell with folding chairs and portable ark. First executive director was Jerry Berg.

1956 - 1957
Youth groups are launched. Rabbi Harvey Fields and Rabbi Sanford Ragins were early advisors of the youth groups known as UNISTY and JUNIOR UNISTY. First president of UNISTY is Don Singer and the first president of JUNIOR UNISTY is Steve Robbins. They both later become rabbis.

Membership is at 622 families. Social hall is dedicated to Bert Klein who spearheaded the building completion fund. 

1960s
After a booming growth spurt, tensions developed between rabbinic and lay leadership. By 1963, the synagogue was without a full-time rabbi and many congregants had left.

Rabbi Harry Essrig

1964 - Harry Essrig becomes the next rabbi and Max Roth becomes cantor. Max is the second cantor who goes to Hebrew Union College to become a rabbi. 

1965
The social hall is dedicated to the Seigel family which included four brothers who are all active in the life of the congregation. One of the brothers, David Seigel, also serves as president.

Late 1960s
Rabbi Don Singer sets up a coffee house event on Friday nights for teens and plays his guitar. Musical programming is coordinated by Judith Berman with Barry Hyams serving as cantor part time. 

Rabbi Essrig invites radical activist Angela Davis to speak at Shabbat evening services. The controversy sparked by this move nearly splits the congregation one more time.

1971
Rabbi Essrig leaves and a series of guest rabbis follow for nearly two years. Membership has now dwindled to less than 250 families and the synagogue nearly goes bankrupt. President Henry Rose, the Seigel brothers, and other leaders step forward to pay the electric bills. The decision is made to keep the synagogue afloat and find a dynamic new rabbi. 

Rabbi Allen Freehling

1972
Rabbi Allen Freehling is elected as senior rabbi after serving as assistant rabbi in Toledo, Ohio.

1973
A new period of growth and activity is heralded by a successful original theatrical production "Love Is Harry Shapiro." 

Cantor Jay Frailich

1974
Cantor Jay Frailich begins a long tenure following his graduation from Hebrew Union College Cantorial School.

1975
Membership is up to 500 families. Cantor Frailich begins an ongoing series of commissions that make University Synagogue a leader in new liturgical music. Membership and activity levels increase.

Deborah L. Raboy

1977
Deborah L. Raboy is elected as the first female president.

1980
The 35th Anniversary Fund is launched to raise funds to refurbish the social hall and kitchen, build a new chapel, reconfigure the back entrance to the building, and add air conditioning.

1982 - 1986  
Rabbi Joel Oseran serves as Rabbi/Educator. TAG is formed in the mid-1980s and is an active constituent group, providing acting classes for members and several productions.

1983
The Grey Family Chapel and entrance plaza are dedicated. The 1980s were marked by great prosperity and activity for University Synagogue. The synagogue budget had been in the black for more than five years. Social justice contributions included the AIDS project, Soviet Jewry, Sova food drives, and Rabbi Freehling's work in AIDS awareness. Adult b'nai mitzvah classes are started by Rabbi Freehling and Cantor Frailich. Theatre arts and sisterhood groups are thriving, and membership is growing.

1986 - 1990

Rabbi Scott Sperling serves as Rabbi/Educator. Expanded ECLC facility dedicated in 1989. Emily Feigenson becomes the first Assistant Rabbi in 1990.

Kopelson Family Sanctuary prior to 1991

Kopelson Family Sanctuary after remodeling

1991
Sanctuary is remodeled to its current configuration. The first service was held in March 1991. The 1990s are marked by a relative stability in the congregation. Membership hovers between 800 and 850 families. 

Rabbi Zachary Shapiro

1994
Membership peaks at around 1100 families. 

1997
Rabbi Zachary Shapiro is engaged as the Assistant Rabbi and later becomes Associate Rabbi. During his eight-year tenure he launched many activities for young families, singles and children. 

2000
The year 2000 begins with the premiere of a new composition by Michael Isaacson for the cantor and youth choir. A synthesizer-based accompaniment CD is conducted by the composer and it is simultaneously performed by 39 other congregations around the country. It is the largest commissioning of Jewish music ever undertaken and is coordinated by Cantor Frailich. A small but very influential group of lay leaders begins the process of looking ahead to the future of University Synagogue.

2001
Rabbi Freehling announces that he will retire on June 30, 2002.

Rabbi Freehling with Elie Weisel

2002
A gala event at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel honors Rabbi Freehling for his 30 years of service to the synagogue. Elie Weisel is the evening's keynote speaker with popular actor David Schwimmer acting as emcee. 

 

Rabbi Morley Feinstein

2002
Rabbi Morley Feinstein begins his service as the congregation’s fourth senior rabbi. His tenure begins an era of increased adult learning opportunities, a commitment to Israel, a new style of services, new leadership, cooperation and consensus building, and a renewal of vision. 

2005
A capital campaign - started in the late 1990s - is reinvigorated to refurbish the entire building and is officially launched. 

Rabbi Joel Simonds

2007
Demolition of existing administration center and lobby occurs. Membership is at 715 families. Rabbi Joel Thal Simonds becomes Assistant Rabbi and later becomes Associate Rabbi.

2009
The renovated building is dedicated during Hanukkah.

2011
The Joshua Project is undertaken as an opportunity for synagogue transformation. It results in an expansion of Havurot - groups of families and individuals who study, celebrate and socialize together, more focused programming from social justice to Israel to spirituality, an intense look at our schools, growing our membership, better communications and a greater use of social media in synagogue life.

Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro

2014
Cantor Frailich retires after 40 years and Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro becomes the new cantor.

2019
Rabbi Morley Feinstein announces he will retire June 30, 2019. Rabbi Barry Lutz serves two years as Interim Rabbi.

2021 
University Synagogue merges with Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Clergy History