Anachnu: Phil Snyder

By Donald H. Harrison

Phil Snyder

Phil Snyder

Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO — Jewish Community Centers, Tifereth Israel Synagogue, and the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs all have played important roles in Phil Snyder’s Jewish education, while the entrepreneurial spirit let loose upon swap meets secured his financial base.

The West Side JCC in Los Angeles was Phil’s hangout when he was a boy; it was there that he joined clubs, played ball, learned how to swim, and found a peer group. His parents were secular; they didn’t care whether or not he had a bar mitzvah, but perhaps because his friends at the JCC were doing it, Phil insisted that he have one. He had to ride his bicycle ten miles for lessons with a tutor from the Magen David Synagogue, across the street from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “It was the first time I ever proved to myself that I could stick to something and have it come out well,” he reflected.

He obtained a bachelor’s degree at UCLA in political science, then went to Cal State Northridge for a teaching credential. His first school was an elementary school in an African American neighborhood; the second school was in a Latino neighborhood—rich experience, he said, in appreciating diversity. He had summers off, but needing to earn money, he followed an aunt to a swap meet in Saugus (near Magic Mountain) and began selling T-shirts and socks. The father of one of his friends was in the toy business, and “I said, ‘hey, can I buy some skateboards from you?’ Skateboards were first getting hot then, and I ended up getting not only into the skateboard business but also having a shop near the Santa Monica Pier, where we also rented roller skates.”

When the roller skate business took a down turn, Phil watched a fellow who was doing a great business at the Orange County Fairgrounds selling Nike running shoes. Phil arranged to buy the shoes from the fellow and sell them at a different location at the fairgrounds. “I ended up doing that for 14 years.”

As he became more expert in the economics of swap meets, he would work at one, his wife Sheryl would work at another, and employees would cover others. “We would fill up trucks with a lot of shoes (Nikes, Reeboks, etcetera) and we built up quite a business. It was phenomenal.”

In 1985 Phil and Sheryl moved to San Diego. They had met at a party in Los Angeles, which featured a belly dancer in costume. Some of the people at the party thought the belly dancer’s routine didn’t compare to Sheryl’s so they urged her, in street clothes, to demonstrate her technique. Phil was smitten, especially when he learned that the young woman who danced under the name “Sara Va” was in reality, Sheryl Stein. How much they had in common was brought home to him when he attended a High Holiday event at the Hillel House at UCLA and there she was.

Sheryl and Phil lived in Valencia, near Magic Mountain, for six years before they moved to San Diego. Immediately, Phil gravitated to the Jewish Community Center on 54th Street, where he played basketball and started making friends, some of whom were members of Tifereth Israel Synagogue. That led to him meeting Rabbi Aaron Gold and deciding to join the congregation.

Meanwhile, Phil purchased inventory and commuted to the Orange County Fairgrounds, where he made a healthy living selling shoes during the weekend swap meets. During the week, he would on some days substitute as an elementary teacher, and on other days purchase inventory – his weekday time being pretty much his own. Eventually, Phil decided to stop commuting to Orange County, and instead to open some San Diego County stores, trying retail without satisfaction, and later settling on a wholesale operation in which he sold large lots of shoes to vendors. Some of his customers sold the shoes at swap meets, others took them across the border to sell in Mexico.

Sheryl also developed a business with a friend called Art Safari, in which she and her partner traveled to various venues to teach art and to sell their art works.

Sheryl and Phil have two grown children: Daniel, 29, who works at an Applebee’s Restaurant and Julia, 21, who works at Yankee Candle.

In 1999, Joel Kriger decided to restart the Tifereth Israel Men’s Club, which had lapsed for apparent lack of interest. Joel recruited Phil to work with him on programming, and “we had a number of events, some successful, some not.” After a year and a half or so, Joel passed on the presidency to Phil, who put heart and soul into it. Looking back, he says he might have burned out totally, but for the inspiration he received from the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC), which has 12 regions across the country.

In his shoe business, Phil used a credit card for all his purchases, which earned him numerous mileage points on Southwest Airlines. When he was approached by FMJC leaders to attend a national convention in 2005, he figured “why not, I can use my miles” and so off he went to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where the talk of the convention was Keruv (from the Hebrew for bringing close). This was a program started by various chapter presidents of FJMC who shared stories of intermarriages in their families and in their congregations and how ill-equipped the Conservative movement then seemed to be in making intermarried couples feel welcome.

For example, said Phil, there once was a rule promulgated within the Conservative movement that people with non-Jewish spouses couldn’t vote for synagogue officers. Although it was thought such restrictive rules might cause people to marry within the faith, in fact the rules were counterproductive causing intermarried people to look elsewhere for synagogues.

“The Keruv initiative states that we don’t care where you are Jewish-wise, we just want you to be part of our community,” Phil said. “You are accepted. You are one of us. Please don’t leave.”

Phil said he was not certain why the Keruv cause resonated with him, but it did. There had been no intermarriages in his family, but two of his close friends had non-Jewish spouses, and “it just hit my heart.” He saw any restrictions on their being active, participating, recognized members of the Jewish community as an injustice.

With the help of rabbis, family counselors and other experts, FJMC’s Keruv organization developed programs and seminars to deal with the many kinds of issues that arise in intermarried families. For example, said Phil, “one topic is what to do when the father is Jewish and the mother is not (Conservative Judaism believing that religion is passed to the child through the mother). Another topic is how to deal with funerals, when a non-Jew can’t be buried in the same place as a Jewish spouse, although lots of cemeteries are creating special sections. We also talk about rules on the bima, bar/ bat mitzvahs, ‘Christmasukkah’ and dealing with the various holidays.”

An example of the kind of situations that arise, said Phil, was that of a young man with a non-Jewish mother who was raised as a Jew in a Reform congregation. He was engaged to marry a young woman from a Conservative Jewish family. The young woman’s father refused to participate in the service unless the young man first “converted” to Judaism, a religion which the young man felt he was already practicing. Phil said a rabbi was called in to mediate the dispute.

For several years, Phil wrote a “Dr. Phil” column dealing with such issues. It was circulated widely not only to Tifereth Israel Synagogue but to FJMC’s network of 200 synagogues across the country.

As an FJMC convention was very important to Phil, so too does he predict that the biennial conventions in odd-numbered years, or FJMC retreats in even-numbered years, will be inspiring to other Men’s Club members who participate. Besides offering the opportunity to make friends from all over the country, the retreats and conventions help to put important issues into perspective, according to Phil. “I would really like to see men meet people from other men’s clubs, and get an idea of what is going on in the movement. This year the retreat will be at Camp Shalom, in Malibu, in May.”

“The most important thing we can do is to learn about each other, whether we seem to have something in common or not. We are all Jewish men involved in a shul that we care about. It’s very important that we have Jewish men involved in Jewish life.” He said he wants Men’s Clubs not only to be functioning organizations, but also foster the feeling that the men are brothers.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected].

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