Ohr Shalom’s Family Treeby Brie Stimson April 3, 2017
On the corner of Third and Laurel in Bankers Hill, Temple Ohr Shalom is a testament to classic Moorish box design. Built in 1925, the synagogue was originally owned by Beth Israel, but the synagogue eventually bought land in La Jolla and decided to move.
“A developer bought this entire block and was I think at one point was just planning to tear it down,” says Lynn Mendelsohn, the congregation’s vice president for programming. “There was a large group of people, some of them property attorneys, who got the building designated as a historical landmark so they couldn’t tear it down.”
The developer built on the other side, but left the synagogue untouched.
The origin of Ohr Shalom deserves its own family tree. It was a result of a merge between two separate congregations. Beth Tefilah in North Park and then the College Area was founded in 1962 and Or El, founded by Spanish-speaking immigrants in the 1980s who eventually started Temple Adat Ami in 1991. In 1998, the two synagogues merged and formed Ohr Shalom.
Mendelsohn remembers “the wedding” as congregants call it.
“They actually had a wedding with a party … and they had a young man and a young woman who were the bride and groom representing the merger of the two. It was a symbolic wedding marrying the Adat Ami group, the people in the Jewish community in Mexico, with the Beth Tefilah group who had been in San Diego.”
Ohr Shalom moved into the building around the year 2000 and in 2009 they raised $4.75 million for a full renovation, which they paid off last year.
This year the congregation chose to honor all of the past presidents of all the congregations for their annual Lights of Ohr Shalom event in April.
“Ohr Shalom means light of peace,” Mendelsohn explains. “We want to celebrate the fact that we made it all this way and that we all still love each other. And all of those people have been instrumental – those are the 14 who are still living. There are 13 who have passed away and we’re inviting family members of theirs to come have a little memorial at the event.”
The diverse congregation has about 350 member units who are deeply committed to Ohr Shalom.
“I think it’s the people,” Mendelsohn says. “Two things – the rabbi and the people. [Rabbi Meltzer’s] a real character. He’s a very, very knowledgeable, bright man and so he always has something new and interesting to say so whatever he’s doing is a draw.”
Mendelsohn says her son likes to tease her that she and her husband are the only people he knows that actually moved so they could walk to services.
“We lived in the College Area and my husband’s whole family is Orthodox and so we belonged to an Orthodox synagogue,” she explains. “As our kids and the other kids got older and went to college we were looking around for a place to go and we chanced upon Ohr Shalom one morning … We came in and we just liked the feeling, and so we used to come and stay in a hotel here once a month so we could come to Shabbat services, but two and a half years ago we moved so we could come here. We just loved the people, we loved the place, we love the rabbis so we just came and stayed.”
“There’s a lot of memories,” Administrative Director Debbie Suissa says. “I mean I’ve been here 25 years with the congregation … What made me stay is loving to work with all the people – it being a family more than just a job – especially having come from a small place and I was relatively new in San Diego so I really did find my family here.”
Ohr Shalom lost an important member of their congregation in September 2015. Lou Dunst, a Holocaust survivor, advocate and educator, was a founding member of Beth Tefilah. By the end of WWII, retells Mendelsohn, barely more than skin and bone, Dunst was thrown on a pile of corpses. His brother shouted to an American soldier on a tank that Dusnt was his brother and he was still alive.
After Dunst moved to the U.S. with nothing he eventually invested in real estate and became very wealthy, but he never spoke about the War and most people didn’t know he was a survivor.
“When all the Holocaust deniers starting coming out, it’s only then that he started actually talking,” Mendelsohn says.
Dunst made a contribution to have two art pieces installed in the sanctuary in honor of two of his best friends who had come from Adat Ami. A professional artist was commissioned from Chicago, and the pieces, a Pillar of Cloud on the left side of the Holy Ark and a Pillar of Fire on the right side, were installed and dedicated just after Dunst’s death. He was 89.
Dunst’s seat in the sixth row on the aisle stays empty every Saturday morning. His best friend sits in the next seat and drapes Dunst’s tallit over the chair, showing that in a tightly knit congregation like Ohr Shalom even death can’t separate family.
Find details on the Lights of Ohr Shalom gala at ohrshalom.org.