Inside Northridge’s Conservative Shul Ramat Zion

The Jewish Advocate of Boston reports Dec. 30, 2004:

WHEN Congregation Mishkan Tefila of Chestnut Hill gathers next fall for the High Holy days, Rabbi Michael Menitoff will not be leading their services for the first time in 13 years. Voting by closed ballot on June 16, board members of Mishkan Tefila, one of the Boston area’s venerable religious institutions, voted not to enter into negotiations for renewal of Rabbi Menitoff’s employment agreement that expires on Aug. 31, 2006. During his tenure, Menitoff has also served in many community roles in Jewish and rabbinic organizations in Boston. But,…

The Jewish Journal reports in its June 28, 2007 issue:

Last week, the board of the Northridge congregation of Temple Ramat Zion decided to move forward by bringing back a figure from its past. Rabbi Michael Menitoff will replace Rabbi Steven Tucker, whose death in 2005 was ruled a suicide by police.

Menitoff was young and ambitious when he arrived at Ramat Zion in 1973. With long hair and a proto-feminist Conservative attitude, Menitoff led the synagogue for seven years before its board decided not to renew his contract, never publicly explaining the reason for the decision.

Menitoff moved on to a successful career in New England, for a time serving as president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and for 13 years leading the oldest Conservative synagogue in the Boston area. He will rejoin Temple Ramat Zion on Aug. 1, when interim Rabbi Michael Graetz completes his one-year commitment and returns to Israel.

"It sort of is a closing of the circle for us," said Bob Rosen, temple president. "My wife and I joined in ’78, and we joined because he was the rabbi."

When Menitoff left in 1980, the synagogue had about 700 member families. It now has 470.

"I see myself coming back with considerably more experience, hopefully with much more maturity and insight, and with no less energy though than I had when I left," said Menitoff, 64, who returned to Los Angeles in September 2005 and joined the faculty of the Academy of Jewish Religion, California, a non-denominational seminary housed at UCLA Hillel.

"Ramat Zion is going through hell this past year since Rabbi Tucker died," said Rabbi Gerald Hanig of Am Hayam in Oxnard, who was Ramat Zion’s cantor from 1960 to 1980. "Rabbi Menitoff has the ability to heal those wounds and move the congregation forward."

Later in 1980, after leaving Ramat Zion, Rabbi Menitoff began work at conservative shul Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.

The Jewish Journal reports in its Jan. 28, 2009 issue:

Rabbi Michael Menitoff has been notified that his position as spiritual leader of Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge will be terminated effective March 31. The termination would come 20 months into a five-year contract.

Menitoff previously led Ramat Zion for seven years before its board decided not to renew his contract in 1980; he returned in August 2007 to help the congregation heal from the loss of Rabbi Steven Tucker, whose 2005 death was ruled a suicide. Menitoff replaced the synagogue’s interim rabbi, Michael Graetz, who returned to Israel.

Ramat Zion, whose membership consisted of 470 family units in 2007, now has approximately 400 and is struggling amid the current economic downturn, board president Barbara Leyner says.

“As with many other synagogues, we are experiencing some financial difficulties,” she said. Leyner said the board has held discussions with several organizations and has been exploring arrangements to shore up its finances. However, she would not answer questions about Menitoff’s dismissal or his contract, saying that it was Ramat Zion’s policy not to comment on personnel or contractual matters.

Menitoff said he has a most profound affection and love for Temple Ramat Zion, and he intends to fully cooperate during the transition. 

From the Feb. 18, 2009 Jewish Journal, Sylvia Plotkins emails:

There was a brief in The Jewish Journal about Temple Ramat Zion’s breaking the contract of its rabbi, Michael Menitoff (“Ramat Zion Breaks Contract With Menitoff,” Jan. 30).

As an active member of the temple, a regular attendee of Shabbat services and a teacher in its Hebrew School for more than 14 years, I must reflect that the rabbi’s departure will be a staggering loss for the synagogue. For Rabbi Menitoff is truly a rabbi’s rabbi: a gifted teacher and dynamic preacher and a superb pastor, who harnesses his professional training as a psychotherapist, along with his rabbinic expertise, in serving the adults and children of the synagogue with selfless devotion.

While the president is quoted as describing the synagogue’s current financial challenges, unfortunately they are likely to be even greater, because large numbers of us, my own family included, will leave the temple and go elsewhere because of this terrible decision of the synagogue’s board.

The irony is that Rabbi Menitoff will urge us not to leave. That is indicative of his greatest virtue: He is a true mensch.

Rabbi Menitoff was hired in August 2007, two years after the firing (related to charges of sexual misconduct with at least one synagogue member) and suicide of its rabbi Steven Tucker.

Here is his bio at the Academy of Jewish Religion website: "Dr. Michael Menitoff holds a PhD in Early Childhood Development from UCLA as well as an MA in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and did his undergraduate work at Harvard University as well as Boston’s Hebrew College. A psychotherapist with a private practice in Beverly Hills, Dr. Menitoff is also a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Judaism. He has served as a rabbi for congregations in both New England and California and has lectured widely throughout the United States. His interfaith work has included being selected as one of seven rabbis and seven Catholic bishops who participated in meetings with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican on the day of publication of We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah."

Ramat Zion is torn apart by this decision to fire Rabbi Menitoff. Those who want him gone say Rabbi Menitoff did not live up to his end of the contract. Rabbi Menitoff argues that he should get paid for the remaining three-and-a-half years remaining in his contract. He’s threatening to sue. He says the temple is ruining his name.

At his hiring, Rabbi Menitoff agreed to the type of temple Ramat Zion was then, featuring a light musical Friday night service. He said it was wonderful.

Then, when he became rabbi, he cut back the music and featured instead his long sermons.

The music services would draw several hundred. His long sermons cut the crowd in half and put many to sleep.

When he was interviewed for the job, Rabbi Menitoff was asked, ‘Can you read Torah?’ He said, ‘I can read Torah.’ They gave him a Torah portion. He came back and read it fluently.

Later it seemed that Rabbi Menitoff was not so good with reading Torah. One morning minyan, the regular reader was not there. The rabbi was asked to read the Torah portion and he said no. It appeared he could not read Torah unless he had extensive preparation for the portion in question.

A Google search revealed that Rabbi Menitoff had parted ways with three of his former congregations.

When Rabbi Menitoff served at Ramat Zion in the 1970s he was known as "Rabbi Mike." He was a leather-pants-wearing hippie rabbi.

Many of the temple members who remembered Rabbi Menitoff from the 1970s resisted the move to hire him again.

This time around, the rabbi was highly resistant to anyone using his first name.

Holly J. Andres writes for the Los Angeles Daily News:

NORTHRIDGE — It was a different world when Michael Menitoff first served as rabbi at Temple Ramat Zion in the 1970s: Disco. Leisure suits. Eight-track tapes.

But one thing that remains constant today is the desire for Jewish knowledge — and the rabbi, hired at the Conservative Jewish congregation last August, has created learning opportunities to satisfy that perennial quest.

"The greatest challenge for Jews in 2008 is embracing Judaism and making it a central part of your life. There are fewer than 6 million Jews in the United States. There are no more than 13 million Jews in the world," said Menitoff, a Boston native.

"We need to be especially concerned with Jewish continuity and help individual Jews appreciate the joys of Judaism."

"We were looking for a rabbi who could deliver a message eloquently from the bimah A bimah (among Ashkenazim, derived from Greek β?μα) or tebah (among Sephardim) is the elevated area or platform in a Jewish synagogue which is intended to serve as the place where the person reading aloud from the . He has insightful sermons. He’s able to spark interest and commitment," said Dr. Bruce Littman, who was on the temple’s search committee.

"He’s knowledgeable and a brilliant guy."

Menitoff graduated from Harvard College. He has a master’s degree in developmental psychology developmental psychology from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in early childhood development from the University of California, Los Angeles UCLA comprises the College of Letters and Science (the primary undergraduate college), seven professional schools, and five professional Health Science schools. Since 2001, UCLA has enrolled over 33,000 total students, and that number is steadily rising.

"He’s dynamic. If you weren’t Jewish, he would make you want to be," said Carolyn Wagman, a recent member of Ramat Zion.

"He’s very personable PERSONABLE. Having the capacities of a person; for example, the defendant was judged personable to maintain this action. Old Nat. Brev. 142. This word is obsolete. . He has the ability to make things lively and to energize en·er·gize us."

Temple Ramat Zion has Shabbat services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. There is a minyan three mornings a week on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays.

The Rabbi’s Breakfast Forum is one of three programs that Menitoff has started at Ramat Zion to foster adult Jewish learning. The two-hour forum is held after the Sunday minyan service and usually every other Sunday.

Some of Temple Ramat Zion’s office staff were uncomfortable with Rabbi Menitoff during his second time round. Following the Steven Tucker debacle, the temple encouraged its clergy not to meet with female congregants behind closed doors. Despite this, Rabbi Menitoff often met with female congregants behind closed doors.

Rabbi Menitoff has fought hard to keep his job, encouraging his supporters to speak out on his behalf.

Many members of Temple Ramat Zion found his sermons insulting. He’d say such things as, ‘And now I’m going to use a really big word…’

Eighty families left the shul during his tenure. The shul board found him duplicitious, saying one thing and then denying it later. Concerned shul members sought out meetings with the rabbi to work through these issues. Eventually everyone gave up.

Rabbi Menitoff was almost fired a year ago from Temple Ramat Zion. He finally left this year on March 31.

About Luke Ford

I’ve written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).

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