A Jewish temple with a national profile held a grand opening of its new location in the Water Court complex in Westlake Village on March 4. Temple Ner Simcha, led by Rabbi Michael Barclay, aims to become “the spiritual center in the Conejo Valley,” Barclay says.
“We want to provide people with the opportunity to gain information, to gain wisdom, to gain joy — all different ways of connecting with God,” says the rabbi.
If 2021 was any indication, they will reach that goal. Unlike most places of worship, Temple Ner Simcha bucked the trend during COVID lockdowns, staying open and never enforcing mask or vaccine mandates. As a result, people flocked to its services.
“While 2021 saw more synagogues closing in America than ever before, we have had to expand,” Barclay says.
The temple, which draws attendees locally and from around the state, including from the Westside, Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles, consistently ranks as the largest provider of free High Holiday services in the U.S., which they hold at the Canyon Club each year. They chose a new location in the Water Court Complex in Westlake Village for their synagogue that is near their former place but with one big difference: they are no longer subleasing from another tenant but renting a facility outright, giving the congregation much more freedom and opportunity.
Stan Levine moved to the area 10 years ago and joined the Temple Ner Simcha community seven years ago, after being a member of a temple in North Hollywood for more than 50 years.
“It really feels like we have our own home now,” he says of the new building. “To me, it’s a place to go and pray; it’s a place to go and study. It’s kind of our safe harbor, you might say. We’re looking forward to growing and expanding and becoming an important part of the community. We’re all family, and the family is growing, and that’s a very exciting thing to see and to be a part of.”
Temple Ner Simcha is the first non-Orthodox synagogue in the nation with no mandatory membership dues and free High Holiday services, religious school, bar/bat mitzvah training, adult education classes and other programming.
“There’s no mandatory charge for anything that we do,” says Barclay. “I don’t think a young family should have to decide between a car payment and educating their child Jewishly, or between going to High Holiday services, or being the member of a temple, and paying the mortgage that month. I don’t think that’s okay. We do not believe that anyone should be forced to pay to pray.”
He invites Jews who may have left their temple or synagogue for a variety of reasons to return and find a place to belong.
Sherry Wolvek, 60, of Simi Valley, discovered Temple Ner Simcha in 2016 after being without a home temple for two years.
“I walked away [from Temple Ner Simcha’s services] going, ‘Okay, not only did I sit in High Holiday services, but I understood the majority of it for the first time ever,’” she says. “The thing that sealed the deal for me was basically when they did the Kaddish, which is a prayer for the dead … He literally sat there and said one word at a time, and we repeated after him. I was like, ‘This is going to be my new spiritual home because I’ve never been to a synagogue where the rabbi took the time to do that so that every non-Hebrew-speaking congregant could participate in a prayer.’”
Wolvek is now President of the Sisterhood and is studying for her bat mitzvah through the Temple’s Adult B’nei Mitzvah Program.
“It really is a community where I’ve made great friends, and it’s turned out to be an awesome experience,” she says. “Now we have a home that’s totally ours. It’s incredible. We can hold classes and other programming and events, and we can do whatever we want, whenever we want. We don’t have to ask for permission. It’s perfect for us. It’s a perfect setting to really get more of our community involved.”
As the congregation roots itself anew, Barclay is inviting like-minded community groups to find a home in the new location as well. He says it will host monthly concerts with the Conejo Valley Youth Orchestra, evenings with best-selling authors, concerts with Grammy-award-winning musicians and lectures by high-level thinkers, among other things.
He also welcomes local citizens to hold meetings, classes, civic events and services of their own there.
“We’re going to have, God-willing, a lot of people helping us, bringing thinkers and musicians to the Conejo Valley that you typically do not have here,” Barclay says. “I’m looking forward, as we move in, to creating that intellectual and spiritual center for the rlocal community, as well as the many people nationwide who participate virtually.”
On Friday nights, the building is already alive with the sights and sounds of Shabbat. A hallmark of Barclay’s teaching is that while he is realistic about the presence of good and evil in the world — there is armed security at every event — he never talks politics from the pulpit and never bad-mouths Israel from the pulpit. Rather, his messages are biblical, encouraging and rooted in thousands of years of life-giving tradition.
“We try and make traditional Jewish wisdom accessible and joyous,” he says.
The temple’s Cantors are Sam Glaser and Benny Lipson. For more information, visit NerSimcha.org.