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Extreme Shul Makeover Bringing the Shul to the People: an out of Synagogue Experience

September 21, 2006
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With 1,700 members, Temple Israel of Boston is New England’s largest Reform congregation. Founded in 1854, it’s also one of the oldest. But some of its most vibrant Shabbat services aren’t held in the synagogue. They take place all over greater Boston — in outlying neighborhoods, in people’s living rooms and in the lobbies of downtown businesses.

And the attendees form a demographic that most congregations would kill for: Jews in their 20s and early 30s.

This is the Riverway Project, created by Temple Israel five years ago. Although several other organizations have taken Judaism to the streets over the past few decades, Temple Israel is believed to be the only pre-existing synagogue in America to incorporate this kind of mobile Shabbat programming into its permanent schedule.

“It’s been a success,” says Temple Israel board member Roger Tackeff, a fourth-generation member of the synagogue. Noting that the temple’s membership was “aging and declining” by the ’80s and ’90s, Tackeff says the synagogue was eager to reach out to the young professionals and empty nesters who had begun moving back to Boston’s revitalized downtown. In 2001 Temple Israel hired Rabbi Jeremy Morrison, a Brookline native fresh out of seminary, to find those young Jews and bring Judaism to them.

“It’s thrilling how many of them responded so enthusiastically,” Tackeff marvels.

One Friday evening in early June, close to 60 young Riverway participants sit in a circle in the lobby of the Electric Carriage House in downtown Boston, singing Shabbat songs.

At the center of the circle, strumming a guitar, is 35-year-old Morrison, a curly-haired man with an infectious smile, who is at the heart of this outreach effort. Assigned exclusively to the Riverway project, he is one of four Temple Israel rabbis.

Almost everyone in the room is a professional: lawyers, doctors, research scientists, public policy analysts, hi-techies and a handful of post-docs. Some are married. A few are carrying babies.

Attorney Jason Brown, 33, has been coming to Riverway’s free services for more than two years. “It’s an interesting change from the Judaism I grew up with where you went to the synagogue and got bored,” he says. Now he and his wife — whom he met at Morrison’s home — have joined Temple Israel as dues-paying members.

This is Sara Rosin’s first time at Riverway. A social worker at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, she was raised Reform, and says the singing and camaraderie in the room reminds her of youth group. “My husband and I will be back,” she says. “He’s not really into Jewish stuff, but he likes this. It’s the only service I’ve ever managed to get him excited about.”

Morrison didn’t create Riverway on his own and wait for folks to show up: He held meetings in private homes in various neighborhoods through most of 2001, asking young Jews what they wanted from the temple.

“They said, ‘We want Jewish learning, ritual and social justice,'” he relates. But they didn’t want to go to the synagogue. They wanted something more personal and less institutional.

So Morrison began leading Friday night services in five neighborhoods, on a rotating basis. The services are short and almost entirely sung, in Hebrew and English.

Midway through, Morrison leads a discussion on the weekly Torah portion. At the June meeting, the Torah portion talks about building the tabernacle in the desert.

“What’s the difference between a minyan and a synagogue?” he asks the group, referring to a prayer quorum of 10 men. One young man shouted out, “It’s the people who make a minyan.”

Yes, Morrison answers, the Torah teaches that 10 people have the power to create holy space, which God then chooses to dwell within.

“But it’s interesting that God didn’t come down and dwell among the people until they built a tabernacle, a place for him,” one young woman interjects.

Indeed, Morrison responds. And that’s the power of a synagogue, “a Beit Knesset, a house of gathering,” but one must never forget that the building’s power “is defined by the people who come there.”

After services, everyone shmoozes. Friendships form. The same people come back again and again, because they know they’ll see others like themselves.

Beth Cousens, the director of campus advancement for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is writing her doctoral dissertation on Riverway. She considers it one of the more exciting experiments in synagogue transformation.

“Most synagogues are reluctant and perhaps afraid to go outside their walls, and that’s where they need to be going,” she says. “Fewer and fewer people are going to go inside a building to get what they want from synagogue.”

Morrison has always viewed Riverway as a gateway into synagogue involvement. “In the neighborhoods we’ve created circles of folks doing Jewish activities, but it’s always seen as an extension of the synagogue,” he says. “We use the same Siddur, I’m the rabbi, most of the tunes are the same. My goal was to get people across the threshold of Temple Israel, to connect them with the synagogue community.”

The Riverway regulars know what he’s up to, and they support him. Twenty-nine-year-old Brian Shoemaker says he and his wife come to Riverway and finally joined Temple Israel because, he says, “I felt we should give back. And we love Jeremy. He helps people our age make connections.”

Hundreds of Riverway participants have joined Temple Israel these past five years, thanks in part to an appealing dues policy: New members under 35 pay just $36 their first year. Morrison says some 200 people take advantage of that discount every year. When the year is up, each member is asked what he or she is able to continue paying.

And these new young members are active: Some are on the board, others lead social action projects, still others send their kids to the temple preschool, which has become crammed with members’ children. Recently, the temple created Riverway Tots, a Friday morning play group, to serve people who started with Riverway five years ago.

This year, Temple Israel will begin applying the same living-room model to empty nesters in downtown Boston. They expect similar results.

“Jeremy tapped into something no one imagined would be that large and that enthusiastic,” Tackeff says. “It’s having an enormous impact on the future of the congregation.”

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