Kehillas Torah, Carmel Mountain Ranch

— Denomination: Rabbinical Seminary of America

Address: 14133 Via Alisal, Carmel Mountain Ranch, 858-613-0222

Founded locally: 1998

Senior pastor: Rabbi Baruch Lederman

Congregation size: 50

Staff size: 1

Sunday school enrollment: 8

Annual budget: $100,000

Weekly giving: $6,300

Singles program: yes

Dress: casual to dressy

Diversity: Jewish

Worship time: Saturdays, 9 a.m.

Length of reviewed service: 2 1/2 hours

Website: http://www.kehillastorah.org

"If someone at our synagogue becomes religious, don't blame me. I just teach the Torah," said Rabbi Baruch Lederman of Kehillas Torah. "I am passionate about helping people see the beauty of the Torah. I want to help raise them to a higher level of understanding and increase their acts of kindness to others. This is what life is all about. It's about a relationship with your creator." I asked Lederman about his relationship with God. "I pray and talk to God all the time. Life is one giant conversation with God. I love, revere, and fear God. It is very similar to how a child thinks about their parents." Fred Wolf, a member of the synagogue, said Lederman helped change his life. "In recent years, I've gone through a lot of trials. I went through a divorce with two children and a parent dying. It made me think about what is important in life." Wolf said this process led him back to his Jewish roots. "I was struggling with the divorce. I entered a period of darkness and depression. Rabbi Lederman helped me out during this time. He was warm and open-minded. He doesn't lecture people; he enjoys teaching people and letting them make their decisions for themselves. He doesn't care where you came from; it's where you are going. He is the most unorthodox orthodox rabbi I know," said Wolf.

Kehillas Torah's Saturday service meets in a small conference room at the Double Tree Hotel in Carmel Mountain Ranch. Inside the room, a partition wall divided the eight men from the five women in attendance. The men wore traditional yarmulke and white-and-blue prayer shawls. In the front of the room, a wooden box on a plastic folding table housed the Torah scrolls. Inside, the scrolls were held in a burgundy-velvet covering with gold-embroidered decorations. Rabbi Lederman conducted the service from behind a plastic foldable table covered with a velvet-blue cloth embroidered in gold. The service, conducted in English and Hebrew, began with the reading of several Psalms. "We praise God with the Psalms, and then we profess our love for God. After we've been all buttered up to God, we pray to him," said Lederman. The climax of the service is when the Torah is brought out and read. Several men took turns reading the story of Jacob from Genesis. Lederman's message connected the text with the need to pass Jewish traditions on to the next generation. "It's like a football team. We can't focus on the Super Bowl; we have to focus on one game at a time, or we will lose the game," said Lederman. "These traditions have been handed down for centuries and we are the link in the chain to pass these traditions forward. We need to give them to our children. What happens after our children is not in our hands." Service ended with several prayers.

"I worry about the loss of the Jewish culture," said Julie Goldman. "More and more [Jewish] kids are marrying non-Jews. It makes me sad. We will start to lose our culture." Goldman views her Jewish faith primarily as a cultural heritage. "I believe in living a good life. It is the Jewish teachings that provide good values." Goldman recently moved to Kehillas from a Reform Synagogue. "We had grown tired of the Reform Synagogue we were attending, and we were looking for something deeper than that. We call Kehillas Torah home because of Rabbi Lederman. We fell in love with him."

"Religion in general does more bad than good. It leads to bigotry, hate, and death. It even stops scientific progress," said Mark Goldman. "We are entering a new Dark Age with the Religious Right in leadership." Goldman cited stem-cell research and creation science as areas in which scientific progress was being hindered. "People are willing to die for creation science; it's nuts." Goldman says he struggles with his belief in God. "When I look at my children, I have to believe there is a higher being. Yet, if there is an omniscient, all-powerful being, and if He loves us so much, why does He make us live like this? I don't think a just and loving God would permit what is going on in the world -- Holocaust and the Middle East." Goldman still sees his faith shape how he lives. "I believe we are here to make the world a better place."

I asked Rabbi Lederman what happened to a person after he dies. "After someone dies, they get buried," replied Lederman humorously. "A person who dies goes on to the next world. No one knows exactly what happens. Everyone starts by going to Gehinnom, a temporary place of purgatory where their sins and imperfections are cleansed. For some, this is a simple flicking off of dust. For others, their sin is a deep stain that is harder to cleanse. After this, there are different opinions, but we will bask in God's radiant presence and a lot of other cool stuff. As Jews, we don't think about this much; our emphasis is the here and now."

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