ATLANTA (JTA) – A crowd of 4,500 gathered recently at the ornate Fox Theatre here for a celebration of Jewish spirit and synagogue life that can accurately be described as a Jewish tent meeting.
“Hallelu Atlanta” was an extraordinary moment in the history of one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in North America. The afternoon gathering held significance, meaning and purpose far beyond what may have appeared to be simply a concert featuring a who’s who of Jewish music.
One of the greatest cantors of our generation, Alberto Mizrahi, opened the program with a Sephardic version of “L’cha Dodi” and a Yiddish lullaby. Theodore Bikel, a sprightly 80-something, transfixed the crowd with his set, while a 20-something Joshua Nelson led a 200-voice community youth choir in a song about the Jewish future.
The actress Mare Winningham stunned the crowd when she shared the tradition’s teaching that all converts to Judaism are to be considered as if they, too, were present at Sinai as she launched into a country music “Convert’s Jig.”
Nelson, a third-generation black Jew from New Jersey who teaches Hebrew school when not performing, sang a gospel-infused “Adon Olam” that raised the roof. Neshama Carlebach channeled the legacy of her late father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebah.
Rounding out the roster were Debbie Friedman and Craig Taubman, perhaps the two most influential composers of contemporary Jewish music. Taubman, the producer, assembled an array of talent reflecting the diversity of age, gender, race and background of the audience, itself a mirror of the current demography of the American Jewish community.
It was the purpose of the event that made the difference between a Jewish hootenanny and a celebration of synagogue and spirit. It was the culmination of a yearlong series of Synagogue 3000 workshops on membership outreach and inreach for the clergy and lay leadership teams of 20 Atlanta-area congregations from across the denominations.
Virtually all 4,500 tickets were sold exclusively in blocks of seats by the congregations themselves to enable synagogue members to sit together, much like a political convention. This created a “community of communities” in the hall.
The transliterated words of all the songs were projected onto a huge screen to facilitate the “congregation” to sing along. The themes of the songs – “From Generation to Generation,” “Return Again, “Sing a New Song” and “One People” – were carefully chosen.
A live blogger, Yo Yenta (www.yoyenta.com), documented her reactions to what was transpiring on the stage. A tribute to the late Yitzhak Rabin on the anniversary of his assassination, which included the singing of “Hatikvah,” left many in tears.
Videos of congregants sharing their often hilarious reflections on synagogue life tickled the audience of mostly synagogue members.
The climax was the honoring of professionals who serve synagogues and the blessing of those who support synagogues, led by the combined choirs of the Atlanta congregations and their cantors and soloists.
Certainly when 4,500 Jews experience something together, there are bound to be at least that many opinions about what happened. Some complained about their seats; others worried about security. One critic thought there was too much “1980s music,” while some wanted more nostalgia. Others could not believe that the artists sang only two songs when each could easily carry a full concert.
They didn’t get it.
But many of the community leaders of the community did. They stood among the core memberships of Atlanta synagogues who had assembled to celebrate the joy of being Jewish – not to commemorate past tragedies, not to debate why our numbers are declining, not to evaluate responses to a crisis, not to demonstrate for a cause, but to celebrate.
They witnessed hundreds of children and adults from individual choirs join their voices in a communal choir. They gathered in a popular and venerated public venue, not in a sanctuary. They brought their friends and prospective new members to witness the new spirit that animates many synagogues today.
They left the event elated, uplifted, honored and energized to continue the important work of transforming our synagogues into sacred communities of spirituality, committed to deepening the relationships between the members and their congregations and between each individual and God.
“The workshops and ‘Hallelu Atlanta’ celebration were truly a gift to our community,” said Mark Jacobson, executive director of The Temple. “Moreover, the project has challenged and stimulated a conversation at all levels of communal leadership about how to sustain the ‘Hallelu’ spirit in the synagogues and community.”
Something else is at work here. In our study of the evangelical mega-churches, we have observed the power of large-scale gatherings. While a congregation such as Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., holds six religious services on the weekend – attracting 5,000 people at each – our congregations rarely have more than several hundred people at a service.
The exception, of course, is the High Holy Days, when we offer many hours of worship to large crowds. Even then we hardly ever sit together in one “tent,” experiencing the thrill of feeling part of a larger community of communities.
I commend the synagogue leadership in Atlanta for having the courage and vision to create a more welcoming community. And for those communal leaders and funders who ask why we cannot develop ways to emphasize the joys of Judaism, the meaning and value of community engagement, and the new spirit animating those congregations who are working hard at becoming welcoming sacred communities, the experience in Atlanta is worthy of consideration and emulation.
Dr. Ron Wolfson is the president of Synagogue 3000, a national institute for congregational leadership and synagogue studies research. He is the best-selling author of “The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community” and “God’s To-Do List,” both from Jewish Lights Publishing).