Rabbi returns to her roots at Temple Israel of Hollywood

| October 28, 2021 | 0 Comments


Mari Chernow

When young Mari Chernow, freshly graduated from rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, left in 2003 to take up a position at Temple Chai in Phoenix, she only planned on staying there a couple of years. Eighteen years later, the Southern California native has returned home with her wife Kara and family, and Phoenix’s loss is Temple Israel of Hollywood’s gain.

Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) is the storied synagogue where Martin Luther King himself once delivered a sermon. Their new senior rabbi calls the occasion “a major, formative moment in our history. The great game-changers in the social justice arena are people we want to continue to invite into our space.”

Founded in 1926 by a group of men prominent in the film industry, and dedicated from the beginning to social awareness and responsibility, TIOH has also served as spiritual home to some of the biggest names in entertainment history, including Al Jolson, Elizabeth Taylor, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Leonard Nimoy.

For decades, their annual “Monster Midnight” fundraisers at the Pantages Theatre — featuring everyone from Frank Sinatra to Lena Horne to Lucille Ball — were the stuff of showbiz legend. Today, the temple still prides itself on being a “beacon of social justice in Los Angeles.”

Mari Chernow cites this aspirational light as one of the main reasons she joined Temple Israel as senior rabbi in July. She says it’s a “great honor and privilege” to be at TIOH, praising its “rich, beautiful history of strong affiliation with the Hollywood community, an incredible arts program, an incredible social justice program. We want to build on all of that.”

At the same time, she recognizes that there are challenges ahead: “I think the entire Jewish world is aware that our universe is changing, and we need to make a compelling case — especially to young people out there — on why they should be engaged in Jewish life. That’s going to call for some creativity, and maybe even changing our language a little bit — changing the way we talk about prayer, the way we talk about God, the way we meet people. And I am very excited to be a part of that.”

It wasn’t an easy decision for Mari, Kara, and their three children to leave Phoenix and the lives they had built there, but the pull of family (“my parents live in Sherman Oaks”) eventually proved too strong, and they settled in Studio City. When asked what she’ll miss most about Phoenix, Mari doesn’t hesitate: “The human beings. Just a wonderful community and I love those people very dearly. There are very nice, enormous sunsets as well… but it’s mostly about the people.” When pointedly grilled, Lakers or Suns?, she draws on thousands of years of rabbinical wisdom and replies, “Suns. And Dodgers.”

Sports rivalries aside, her choice of vocation would seem to be a natural one — both her sisters are rabbis — but Mari says her plan at first was to go outside the family business and become a psychologist. What changed her mind was recollecting the many summers she spent at Jewish camp (“formative for rabbis and cantors and educators”), bringing strangers together through faith and elbow grease: “What started as a theory became a living, breathing Jewish community of people who cared about each other and wanted to be role models to young people and the world. That was such a compelling experience, I thought, ‘I think I’d like to do this with my life.’”

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, they’d say she made the right choice.

By Ron Mulligan

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Category: People

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