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Extreme Shul Makeover No More One-size-fits-all Judaism: Shuls Offer Expanded Shabbat Menu

On a recent Saturday morning at The Brotherhood Synagogue in downtown Manhattan, four Shabbat activities are going on simultaneously. Downstairs in the sanctuary, Rabbi Daniel Alder leads a traditional Conservative service. Upstairs are two youth services and a “life-enhancing spirituality” workshop.

Susan Lax, who leads the spirituality workshop, says at first she “didn’t feel comfortable” holding her session at the same time as services. She didn’t want to suggest that people should explore Jewish meditation and spiritual visualizations with her instead of praying.

But the eight people in the room say this is their way of worshipping. One woman, who declines to give her name, says she had stopped coming to the synagogue on Saturdays because it “didn’t touch my heart,” and only started again because of Lax’s workshop.

The Brotherhood Synagogue is one of 100 congregations taking part in the Synaplex initiative, a three-year-old program created by Star, a Minneapolis-based organization dedicated to revitalizing synagogues.

Synaplex acknowledges that today’s Jews have very different ways of engaging in Jewish life. The program focuses on Shabbat, which Star’s executive director, Rabbi Hayim Herring, calls “Jewish prime time,” and urges congregations to offer a variety of concurrent activities one Shabbat every month. In addition to multiple prayer options, they might include concerts, films, nature walks, discussion groups, social action projects, arts and crafts for the kids, yoga or community meals.

The goal is to draw in unaffiliated Jews, and to make Shabbat more meaningful for current members, particularly those who rarely attend synagogue.

“It’s an upbeat evening, a fun way to come in for the first time and get your feet wet,” says Lauren Weinberger, Synaplex co-chairwoman at East End Temple, a Reform congregation in lower Manhattan not far from The Brotherhood Synagogue.

At East End Temple, where membership has increased 10 percent this past year, Rabbi David Adelson says the program has had a subtle but important impact on congregational life as a whole.

“We’re creating community where people are regularly engaged in more and deeper ways,” he says. “Our younger members have been galvanized, so they don’t leave in a year or two.”

At East End’s Synaplex service one recent Friday, every seat was taken and the atmosphere was very high-energy, as three musicians, the rabbi and the cantor led the congregation in singing and clapping.

Dozens of young adults, including a sizeable contingent of college students, had shown up to see what all the fuss was about.

David Gabay, 34, and his wife Marla, 27, were out synagogue shopping. “We didn’t know what we were getting into,” Marla says with a laugh. “The music was loud and fun. I liked it.” But she wouldn’t want it every week, she adds.

Sam Schwerin, 34, moved to New York recently with his wife, Sara, 35. They have visited several synagogues, and plan on joining East End. Sam thinks the musical service “is great; it attracts more people.” At Brotherhood, a committee of volunteers plans and runs special monthly Shabbat programs that explore topics that congregants might find useful and interesting. In May, Brotherhood held a health-themed weekend. A congregant who is a physician once led a workshop on training for a marathon.

At East End, a physician has volunteered to give a workshop on medical ethics next year, and a therapist has offered one on dream therapy. “We have had great success with the homegrown events,” Weinberger says. “When our members lead discussions or play music, it really goes over well.”

Elaine Kleinman, Synaplex coordinator for the New York region, says the targeted programming isn’t just a marketing ploy. Being involved in a Jewish social action project is, she says, just as legitimate an expression of Jewish identity as studying or praying.

“We want people wherever they are on their Jewish journeys,” she says.

Herring agrees, to a certain extent. Admitting that he’s “not sure” that every Synaplex option “is equally valid” in Jewish terms, he maintains that it’s up to each congregation to decide what is important to its members.

“People grow and change,” he says. “Someone who wants a book club today might want prayer tomorrow. And the synagogue needs to be there.”

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