Synagogues Seek to Reignite the Spark


Across the region, synagogues are trying all kinds of things to reimagine Shabbat, part of the ongoing quest to make the synagogue relevant and meaningful.

Shabbat morning regulars at Tiferet Bet Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Blue Bell, are used to a fairly traditional service. But late last month, congregants experienced the mystical, Indian-inspired, call-and-response Hebrew chanting of Andrew Hahn, aka the “Kirtan Rabbi.”

Hahn, who also holds a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy, plays the harmonium — a kind of accordion that was invented in Europe but popularized in India — while chanting Hebrew phrases like Ivdo et Hashem b’simcha, which means “Serve God with joy.”

Nearby, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel’s Blue Bell satellite campus has instituted a new monthly program called “Re­imagine Shabbat.” This initiative includes offerings for tots, middle schoolers and adults looking to bolster their knowledge of the service.

And Temple Sinai, a Conservative congregation in Dresher, is promoting a Shabbat initiative that doesn’t even take place in the synagogue building. A volunteer has started “Guess Who’s Coming to Shabbas?” which has gotten hundreds of members to host or attend Friday night dinners.

Across the region, synagogues are trying all kinds of things to reimagine Shabbat and these efforts suggest that the ongoing quest to make the synagogue relevant continues.

“It’s doing Jewish in Jewish time,” said Rabbi Phillip Warmflash, executive director of the Jewish Learning Venture, a local organization seeking to spur innovation in synagogue life.

For the vast majority of Jews who don’t go to synagogue on a weekly basis, Warmflash said congregations need to figure out what’s meaningful for people “and make them say, ‘Oh God, I didn’t expect this. Maybe I will try it again.’ ”

Throughout the Philadelphia region, shuls have been shifting their speakers and educational programs from mid-week to Saturday and moving Sunday school to Shabbat as part of an effort to make the day of rest the most pivotal point in the communal week.

Several synagogues have also introduced yoga and meditation as alternatives to davening, and have experimented with different modes of musical expression.

The goal is as much about making participation more meaningful for those already connected to a synagogue as it is about trying to entice new individuals to become engaged.

The actions come as many synagogues are still struggling with the economic reverberations from the recession. Many communities have lost members and face budgetary difficulties. The present moment is also a time in which denominational loyalties have waned. In fact, many are arguing that the Jewish community is undergoing a dramatic transformation that will reshape how Jewish life looks and functions in the coming decades.

But, as the book of Ecclesiastes tells us, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Borrowing from popular culture and other religious traditions in order to modernize the service is as much a part of American Jewish life as giving out gifts on Chanukah or going for Chinese food on Christmas.

Operatic cantors and choirs, along with rabbinic sermons, were introduced in Reform and Conservative synagogues as a way to make worship services look and feel more like mainstream American Protestantism.

In the 1960s and ’70s, many Jews felt that type of grand service lacked spirit and emotion and left worshipers feeling more like they were watching a performance than participating in prayer. Figures like Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman brought folk elements — in Carlebach’s case, melding folk and Chasidic motifs — into contemporary Jewish liturgy and emphasized participatory, easy-to-sing melodies.

Hahn, the “Kirtan Rabbi,” said that there’s “an incredible spiritual and emotional energy in our tradition.”

But in the wake of the Holocaust, he said that the entire Jewish world suffered from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder and, partly as a result, services became more serious, then eventually dry and sterile.

He added that Friedman and Carlebach helped reinfuse Judaism with some of the spirit it had lost and he sees himself as continuing in that tradition.

According to Warmflash and other sources, the current local efforts to experiment with Shabbat can be traced back to 2005, when the Synaplex idea was introduced in Philadelphia.

Pioneered by a now-defunct national organization called STAR: Synagogue Transformation and Renewal, the Synaplex model focused on maximizing choice on Shabbat. Participating local congregations organized six to eight Shabbats a year under the Syna­plex banner that would feature everything from yoga to tot Shabbats to Torah study.

Beth Sholom Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Elkins Park, was one of the first in the region to experiment with Synaplex and, four years ago — after STAR shut down due to lack of funds — stayed with the concept of choice but created something of its own called the “Shabbat Experience.”

Beth Sholom’s education director, Allison Sasson, said that “unless there is a serious Bar Mitzvah, this is the program that pulls in the most congregants for Shabbat.”

The synagogue has about five or six “Shabbat Experience” programs a year. The goal, she said, is to engage the entire congregation, from religious school students to seniors. During these days, the synagogue offers traditional morning services along with an abbreviated, alternative service.

But the real idea is that the entire congregation takes part in educational programming that revolves around a particular theme or topic.

The stated theme runs across every “Shabbat Experience” program for an entire year. The overarching topics have included Shabbat, Israel, prayer and Jewish life cycles. For instance, this year’s focus on life cycles has featured days that have highlighted brit milah and the Jewish wedding (see related cover story.)

“We found that if we are teaching something on Shabbat, people want to be here as part of a community. It’s fun and experiential,” said Sasson.

Choice and soulful musical offerings are the key to making Shabbat relevant again for the vast majority of Jews who don’t feel commanded by God to step into shul, said Rabbi Baruch HaLevi, co-author with Ellen Frankel of Revolution of the Jewish Spirit: How to Revive Ruakh in Your Spiritual Life, Transform Your Synagogue & Inspire Your Jewish Community, one of several books written on the topic (see related story on Page 7).

“There has never been and there never will be one size fits all Judaism,” said HaLevi, religious leader of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, Mass. “As Jews, there is no substitute for Shabbat; it is the focal point of our week.”

Rabbi Joshua Kalev of Tiferet Bet Israel attended rabbinical school in Los Angeles with HaLevi and is looking to HaLevi’s book and synagogue as a model for how to re-energize Saturday morning services in Blue Bell.

“The cantor and I have frustrations about service attendance. As clergy, you want to have a full sanctuary,” said Kalev.

The Tifereth Bet Israel clergy invited the “Kirtan Rabbi” to be scholar in residence as the first step in what they envision as a two-year process. The congregation is examining its services and questioning how far members want to go, or not to go, in experimenting with liturgy and music.

“We want to explore: What is prayer? What is meaningful prayer? How can we reach the most people?” said Kalev. “With Kirtan, we tried something a little more meditative and wanted to see how people would connect to that.”

Some people said they liked it, others hated the experience, noted Kalev.

“This is the hard part about Jewish prayer — it’s so personal. Its going to be hard to find a path that fits everyone,” he said.

Rabbi Sigal Brier, religious leader of Kesher Shalom, a boutique, Abington-based congregation that is not affiliated with any movement, has been teaching meditation, chanting and body movement for years. She’s traveled the country and teaches in Jewish and non-Jewish settings. The Israeli-born Reconstructionist rabbi has long pushed congregations to incorporate some Eastern practices into the Saturday ritual.

She said that, on the whole, Philadelphia congregations have been more hesitant to experiment than in other big cities — but she hopes that’s begun to change.

“People are looking for something that is more spiritual, then when you introduce new methods they don’t know what to do with the new and it feels like they are resistant to it,” said Brier. “We can do a better job of facilitating experiences in the Jewish world. An integrative approach is a gentle way to introduce changes, but we need to be patient and open-minded.”

At Temple Sinai in Dresher, a Shabbat program has caught on in a big way that has nothing to do with alternative prayer — or even traditional praying.

Member Deborah Albert was looking for a way to honor her late father, Bernie, who died suddenly last year. He cherished having Shabbat meals with his family, and his daughter came up with the idea of “Guess Whose Coming to Shabbas?”

The notion involves the time-honored tradition of families and communities, but in some ways, observers said it is highly innovative because it’s a synagogue program that takes place completely outside of the shul building.

So far, more than 60 percent of the synagogue’s 500 members have either hosted or taken part in a Shabbat meal.

Albert said she wanted more families to show their children that Friday night means something special. An added bonus is that many members who only knew one another in passing have now socialized in an informal setting.

“The synagogue has never seen numbers like this for anything,” said Albert. “It is reimagining Shabbat because people don’t do it anymore. A lot of people are too busy.

“It’s one thing to reimagine Shabbat with yoga, but to me, you are taking people away from what Shabbat is,” added the mother of two. “But I’m taking it back to what it should be — dinner. This is what we do because we are Jewish.”