by Alisa Roberts.
Congregation Mogen David, one of the oldest shuls in Los Angeles, welcomed a new rabbi this past month. Rabbi Daniel Grama joined the shul in February as the rabbi of the Ashkenazi minyan.
Mogen David is home to both an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi minyan, the latter of which began about 10 years ago under the leadership of Rabbi Gabe Elias. Over the past decade, they have experienced substantial growth and success. While the Sephardi minyan has been thriving, the Ashkenazi minyan has recently begun its own revival, leading to the hiring of Rabbi Grama.
Rabbi Grama, originally from Englewood, New Jersey, has been in LA for almost 20 years. After several years studying in Israel and the US, he was ordained by the Israeli Rabbinate. He and his wife then moved to Panama, where he was part of a kollel group from 1994 to 1996 before moving to Los Angeles. He has a Master’s in Educational Leadership, and has spent his years in LA teaching at YULA and involved with NCSY and Aish HaTorah.
While he has only been with Mogen David for a month, Rabbi Grama already has strong feelings about the community. “The shul is really an amazing place, with a tremendous amount of energy,” he says. That energy has been vital to keeping the community alive for the past century. While the shul has had its ups and downs, there has always been a strong core to the community, including Rabbi Gabe Elias. Rabbi Elias serves today as the senior Rabbi and Executive Director, and has been with the community almost 30 years. In addition to this core group led by Rabbi Elias, there has recently been an influx of young people into the congregation. “They have infused the community with a lot of energy and a lot of life,” explains Rabbi Grama. The community is made up of congregants of all ages, and the energy of this young group seems contagious. “What I enjoy seeing is that the people are very happy to be in shul. It’s the type of shul where people want to daven there – that’s a very special concept.” What makes people so excited to be there? “Well first of all, I think the people who make up the community have a certain joy of life. They’re nice, happy people. Then the davening is a very exciting, energetic davening. We have a wonderful chazzan who has an amazing ability to get people into the spirit of the davening. But I also think that everyone takes pride in the fact that they are building a strong community. They have a vision and a focus of creating an atmosphere that is made for people of all ages, one that is very non-judgmental, very open and accepting of anyone who wants to come in.” It helps that congregants are from a broad spectrum of backgrounds. “It’s got every kind of flavor and everyone joins together in a very warm, loving way.”
While Rabbi Grama is happy with the community today, he has several goals in mind for the future. “My personal goal is to enhance and expand this sense of community. I believe that the best way to get people involved is if you can get them to feel the sense of community and belonging to the shul as their place. Then by nature they’re going to want to come.” One of the ways he wants to build this sense of belonging is very basic – simply connecting to his congregants. “Every adult and every child knows me and I know them. That’s the long term goal. To me growth is about the quality of the relationship, rather than the quantity [of members].We want to build membership, without a question, but we want to do it at a pace where it flows together.” And he isn’t encouraging this connection just with himself as the rabbi; he wants everyone to know the names of their fellow congregants. In fact, that was part of his first drasha as rabbi. “You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend or socialize with every person, but you shouldn’t have a shul where everyone does not know each other’s names. Your name defines and personalizes you, and I want everyone to know each other. That’s my goal.” While it seems simple, it makes an impact. In his first weeks, Rabbi Grama made a point of learning names and greeting people by them. After wishing one congregant a good Shabbos by his first name, the man came up to thank him for remembering. “That is what I want people in the shul to feel. That we’re really out to know each other and work together.”
Another goal is to make Torah learning a joy rather than an obligation. But he doesn’t seem to be facing much of a challenge on that front. “When I initially took the position, my first thought was not to introduce any Torah classes right away, because these things take time. Within the first week, I was asked by so many people, ‘When are you starting classes?’ I was very excited about that.” He is starting his first class, a Mishna class before Shachris of Shabbat, this week. “I’m very happy that these are things people want. I think that part of the charm is that it’s a group of people who want to grow, who are looking to be inspired, looking for inspiration, looking to become the best that they can be. And you feel it in everything they do.” As an example he describes kiddush after davening, where rather than milling and chatting, congregants sit down together to eat, sing, and listen to inspirational thoughts. “People love it. People who walk in and see it say, ‘Wow, this is unique.’ That’s what we’re trying to create.”
Rabbi Grama will also be focusing, along with Rabbi Moses, on creating a strong unity between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. Many of the congregants in each minyan are friendly with each other already, and the rabbis are hoping to strengthen and expand on these bonds. “We are planning and will be planning many joint programs and events together with the goal of appreciating each community while building a unified Mogen David. We all serve the same mission and the same goal.” Plans in the works include joint Shabbat meals and a communal Purim night event following each minyan’s megillah reading. “We’re doing things that will allow us to keep our independent personalities and customs, but as people and as a community interact in a warm and unified way.”
In Rabbi Grama’s perspective, these goals come together to form something more. “I call it a mission. We’re on a mission to create a shul that is truly welcoming and energetic, where people are happy to be there. I think that in a strong sense we are not just a shul where people come to daven, but a community and a family. That’s really what we want. The people here have a great camaraderie and respect for each other. There’s a great sense of belonging to a community. That’s very powerful.”
Even in this short time, that mission is progressing well. “I come back from shul energized and excited, looking forward to the next opportunity,” says Rabbi Grama. “I’m really blessed. Rabbi Elias is a wonderful person who has done a tremendous amount for our community over the years, and for the larger Los Angeles community. He’s very committed to the shul. I’m blessed to be working with Rabbi Moses, who’s a wonderful scholar. And I’m very blessed to have a group of congregants who are very supportive of this mission and goal, and who try to create a place where their family belongs as a family.” And his community is behind him. “We have a very responsive group of people who want to build something. They aren’t interested in just going along for the ride; we all want to build something.”