Around the Jewish World: Synagogue in Atlanta Charts New Path to Religious Pluralism
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Around the Jewish World: Synagogue in Atlanta Charts New Path to Religious Pluralism

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An experiment in religious pluralism is unfolding in Atlanta, where a new synagogue is bringing together, under one roof, Jews connected with each of the four main movements of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.

The newly established Congregation Shema Yisrael currently meets in a hotel and works like this: The various groups of worshipers gather, each in their own space, with their own prayer books and Torah scroll, in a ballroom divided into separate sections with movable walls.

After their respective prayer services end, they open the dividing walls, rearrange the chairs and, together, listen to each rabbi and prayer leader present a brief sermon. A discussion ensues, and then they share kiddush.

Orthodox/traditional and Conservative groups meet each week. The Reform group gathers three out of four Sabbaths. On the fourth, a Reconstructionist havurah takes its place.

Call it “multiplex Judaism.”

It is an idea whose time has come, says the rabbi and creator of the concept, Juda Mintz. “Everyone’s talking about Jewish pluralism but not doing anything about it,” he said. “This, I pray, will be a model for others.”

It is apparently the first such congregation ever created, though a similar approach regularly takes place on college campuses under Hillel’s aegis — the model that Mintz says inspired him.

A recent Shabbaton on the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts similarly brought together Jews from each of the movements — but it was for a single Sabbath, rather than as an ongoing effort.

To be sure, there are a few synagogues that accommodate two different styles of worship. For instance, in the wake of discord over the issue of women being called to read from the Torah, some Conservative synagogues have split off into egalitarian and traditional services.

But never have any of the sources contacted for this story ever heard of a pointedly multidenominational and ostensibly permanent effort like Shema Yisrael.

“There is a great hunger for unity,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom, in Encino, Calif., when called for comment. “There is a revulsion against the apartheid that exists among Jewish denominations.”

But it is also a sign of these tendentious times that when contacted, senior executives at two major Orthodox organizations, one centrist Orthodox and the other fervently Orthodox, both reacted with enthusiasm — privately, that is.

Neither was willing to say anything publicly supportive of the Atlanta effort.

“Mintz is a visionary. It’s a brilliant idea, though truthfully I can’t congratulate him publicly on founding non-Orthodox minyanim,” said the centrist Orthodox executive. “If I did, I’d be crucified.”

The fervently Orthodox executive said, with a shade of doubt, that “it sounds like a prayer mall. But it fills me with a good feeling that there’s a place where people are all sitting and being Jewish together.”

Shema Yisrael’s Rabbi Mintz, who was ordained in the fervently Orthodox Torah V’Daas yeshiva in Brooklyn, was for 17 years the spiritual leader of another Atlanta synagogue, a congregation affiliated with the Orthodox Union. He left in June with some 30 families in tow.

The other unique aspect of his idea in forming Shema Yisrael is that it asks for no dues.

Mintz expects congregants to pay what their heart decrees. That, he believes, will be enough to sustain them, though he also anticipates turning to the Atlanta Jewish federation and private foundations.

Between 125 and 150 followers have turned out each Shabbat for services, and so far, they are putting their money where their hearts are.

A congregant donated a suite of offices. And from the first paycheck his secretary got from Shema Yisrael, Mintz said, she wrote a $500 check back to the congregation.

Mintz, like the other rabbis and prayer leaders, are working without pay, for now.

Fifteen congregants are now each taking out $2,500 personal bank loans to provide Shema Yisrael with most of the $50,000 that it needs to pay its bills now through the High Holidays.

Some of that will go for ads, running each of the next three weeks, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and in the city’s Russian Jewish newspaper, promoting the congregation’s free Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

Services will be conducted in the Atlanta Civic Center, which can hold up to 4,000 people. Because just 30,000 of Atlanta’s estimated 80,000 Jews are affiliated with any Jewish organization, Mintz thinks it will be possible to fill all the seats.

In the course of bringing such diverse religious ideologies together, Shema Yisrael has already faced a few challenges.

One Shabbat morning the Conservative prayer leader could not come, so Mintz led an Orthodox service up until the Torah reading, when the egalitarian group took over. “There was some degree of discomfort, but there was respect. No one left, which was amazing,” he said.

And the movable hotel ballroom walls do not entirely block sound from neighboring sections.

When Cheryl Joss, a member of the Orthodox/traditional section, was setting up the joint kiddush on Shabbat morning, she could hear the sounds of the Reform guitar coming from one side, and the sound of the Orthodox cantor’s voice coming from the other.

“The sound of the instrument was absolutely foreign,” said Joss, who works in real estate, “but this whole idea is about acceptance and tolerance, and it made me feel great to think we are all Jews, but all doing our own thing. It was quite a moving experience.”

Another congregant, Alexandra Moore, goes to the Reform service. She had not been to synagogue for 20 years, she said, but is finding something at Shema Yisrael that she cannot imagine at any other congregation.

“I’m interested in seeing how this concept evolves, because I think it’s quite unique and a modernist idea,” said Moore, who teaches literature and performs modern dance.

Married to a non-Jewish man, Moore feels more comfortable here than she has anywhere else. “This environment is accepting, an unconditional acceptance of all people,” she said.

“Non-judgmental acceptance” is his goal, says Mintz. “In this tiny little way, it could happen, our coming together without judging each other. And if it could happen here, maybe it really could happen everywhere for the Jewish people.”

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