High Holiday Feature: Reform, Conservative Synagogues Developing New Methods of Worship
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High Holiday Feature: Reform, Conservative Synagogues Developing New Methods of Worship

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Walk into services at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., and a member of the Shalom Squad will greet you warmly — maybe even with a hug.

You’ll be handed a prayer book, shown the correct page and escorted to an open seat. After services’ end, you will be approached and engaged in conversation.

“It has improved the ambience and reception, and created a haimishe feeling of warmth,” Joel Sperber, president of the congregation, said of the 65 Shalom Squad volunteers who take turns greeting congregants and visitors to the Reform temple.

Congregants from Washington, D.C.’s Temple Micah, gathered recently at the home of a fellow synagogue member on a Saturday afternoon for their inaugural Zip Code Havdalah service.

“I met people who live near me and I didn’t know they did,” said Joyce Winslow, a member of Temple Micah. “We figured out who needed rides to temple, who was sick and needed help, who could use a meal. Now we know what’s going on with each other. I’ve made three new friends.”

The Reform temple plans to organize similar Havdalah services this fall.

Both initiatives were born out of the congregations’ participation in Synagogue 2000, a national project created to transform the way American Jews worship.

Now in its third full year of operation, Synagogue 2000 has brought together 16 congregations — half Reform, half Conservative — to develop ideas that could make synagogues more appealing to baby-boomers and members of Generation X.

The project is the brainchild of Ron Wolfson and Larry Hoffman, who had both been researching and thinking about transforming synagogue worship. Rabbi Rachel Cowan, an executive at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York, brought them together in 1994.

Wolfson runs the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future at the Conservative movement’s University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy at New York’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary.

Armed with a seed grant from the Cummings Foundation, they convened focus groups in several cities composed of Jewish lay leaders, professionals and clergy.

Out of these sessions emerged a few themes, including a longing for a sense of community and healing, a desire for more teamwork between the laity and clergy, and a need to create more stimulating services.

Wolfson and Hoffman also found that the elements that have made large Protestant churches so successful — tailoring services to a range of interests and needs and posting greeters at the entrance to the sanctuary — could also work for Jews.

Launching Synagogue 2000, Hoffman and Wolfson invited pioneers in Jewish healing, dance, music, art and architecture to be on the Synagogue 2000 national resource team.

Each of the 16 congregations selected created a team of 20 to 30 members, a combination of active veteran members and people on the periphery of congregational life.

The protocol and curriculum for the monthly team meetings were designed by Wolfson and Hoffman to spark and enhance relationships between participants and God.

Each meeting begins with members sitting in circle and engaging in a silent prayer. The cantor leads them in song and the rabbi gives a brief sermon, all of which help set a spiritual tone.

Members then “check in” with each other. They share the highs and lows of their lives since the last meeting and, in the process, learn about each other’s lives.

“When I hear their stories I don’t feel like I’m hearing gossip or kitsch, but the inside of somebody’s soul,” said Winslow of Temple Micah.

“As I connect to them, I feel connected to something bigger, something more transcendent. It’s hard to stay away from a place where that happens, and I think that’s what Synagogue 2000 is about,” she said.

Study of Jewish liturgy and primary texts is a key component of the meetings, as is brainstorming new ideas for the congregation.

The very qualities that Wolfson and Hoffman want to permeate each congregation — the sense of community and spirituality — are developed in microcosm at each meeting.

Participating congregations have already implemented changes as a result of the team discussions.

At Town and Village Synagogue in New York, congregants redesigned the building’s interior space to ensure that it is welcoming and comfortable as a result of the spiritual exploration.

A “spiritual ski group” has started at Temple Micah. Each meeting begins with a prayer and study before members go on to talk about upcoming adventures on snow. While traveling, participants recite the blessing over bread before sitting down to eat together.

At Congregation Ner Tamid there is an increased focus on kavanah, or conscious intention, in prayer, and on making worship more personal. Each week one congregant prepares a personal prayer. A teen-ager thanked God that she got accepted into the college of her choice. Adults have thanked God for keeping their families healthy.

Ner Tamid has also put together “Jewish journey” groups, each focused on a specific theme. One is a bereavement support group and another is a course on Jewish history led by its members.

A physicians’ group is in the works in which health care workers will study and examine the ways in which their Jewish and professional lives intersect.

But change hasn’t been easy for any of the congregations, say participants.

“I was dead set against Synagogue 2000 after my first meeting” with the teams, said Sperber. “I thought it was a marketing approach bastardizing our religion. I realize now that it’s a way for people to find meaning in their lives, and temple is a vehicle for that.”

At Temple Micah, resistance arose to the idea, put forward by the Synagogue 2000 team, that prayer should kick off each congregational event, even occasions that are purely social. Four congregational meetings were devoted to discussing the issue.

The experiences have prompted Wolfson and Hoffman to add a team of specialists in the dynamics of change to their roster of experts, mostly consultants culled from the business world, to work with the pilot synagogues.

But now that its pilot program is well established, what’s next on Synagogue 2000’s agenda?

Wolfson and Hoffman just received their $400,000 in annual funding renewed for another three years from the project’s supporters: The Nathan Cummings, Righteous Persons and the Whizin foundations.

The Synagogue 2000 team is now working more closely with the Reform and Conservative movements in the hope that the denominations will adopt some of the practices they’ve developed.

It is also starting work with an interdenominational group of five congregations in one city — in this case, Washington, D.C.

The project in Washington is funded by the Jewish federation there in cooperation with the regional offices of the Conservative and Reform movements, and will bring Synagogue 2000 resources to one community for the next two years.

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The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
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