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No More Cineplex on Friday Nights: ‘synaplex’ Could Come to a Local Shul

March 7, 2003
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On most Shabbats, the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia buzzes with hundreds of congregants praying to very different scripts.

In the building’s main sanctuary, Rabbi Leonard Gordon sermonizes in a traditional Conservative service. In another room, a group conducts egalitarian prayers, while in another room a more informal Reconstructionist chavurah gathers.

More than 300 of the synagogue’s 540 members typically attend on Shabbat. That shows how far the synagogue has come since the 1970s, when nearly half of its 650 members fled to the suburbs over the course of the decade.

"There’s a sense that if there’s Jewish vitality in the community, let’s get it into the building on Shabbat," Gordon says.

STAR will award 12 synagogues nationwide just over $1 million in grants this spring in a new initiative dubbed "Synaplex," designed to make Shabbat as appealing to congregants as the local multiplex is to moviegoers.

Synaplex is based on the premise that synagogues will draw bigger, more diverse crowds if they feature a variety of Shabbat-related activities beyond simple Friday night and Saturday services.

The title of Synaplex could be "more Jews, more synagogues, more frequently," says Rabbi Haim Herring, STAR’s executive director.

By evolving from houses of worship to community spiritual centers on Shabbat, synagogues will undergo a "reactivation" of their traditional roles as centers of Jewish life, Herring says.

In addition to prayer, synagogues can offer spiritual experiences such as Torah yoga classes; cultural events like Jewish storytelling and cooking classes; classes on topics ranging from Israel to business ethics; and even video conferences hosted together with other shuls.

"The purpose is not just to boost attendance, but to validate the synagogue as the only institution that can shape Jewish values, attitudes and behavior," Herring says.

That goal reflects STAR’s overall mission. In 1999, mega-philanthropists Edgar Bronfman, Charles Schusterman and Michael Steinhardt created STAR, putting up $18 million for a five-year plan to revitalize synagogue life.

Their project joined other synagogue renewal initiatives such as the multidenominational Synagogue 2000 and the Reform movement’s Experiment in Congregational Education.

STAR initially focused most intensively on building online and real-world networks between synagogues that would allow synagogue personnel and professionals to share information and resources.

With a focus on technology, STAR awarded 21 challenge grants of $575,000 to synagogues and institutions in 2001 and 2002. Participants had to provide matching funds, Herring says.

STAR is discontinuing the challenge grants and instead is betting on two major ventures. One is Synaplex; the other is a network for continuing education for rabbis, Herring says.

While STAR has "no magic bullet" to transform synagogues, Herring says, by zeroing in on Shabbat, Synaplex will help synagogues open wider to more Jews.

"It’s to create community on Shabbat, which is prime time on the Jewish calendar," he says.

Much of the pre-production work for Synaplex focused on studying role models, such as the Germantown Jewish Centre and Congregation Emanu-El, which is San Francisco’s largest Reform congregation.

A decade ago, Emanu-el hosted two Shabbat services, one on Friday night and the other on Saturday morning.

The shul now holds eight services aimed at different groups, each with its own spiritual style, Rabbi Stephen Pearce says.

One Friday night service caters to singles and young couples attracts about 1,100 people every week, Pearce says.

Emanu-el hosts a traditional Shabbat service, a participatory family service and a Shabbat minyan with Conservative trappings, he adds.

Meanwhile, the Germantown Centre is among the dozens of synagogues that have applied to STAR for the Synaplex grant, which would provide funding for three years.

Gordon has penned an action-packed Shabbat formula that he hopes Synaplex will produce.

These activities provide "multiple gateways" into Shabbat, Gordon says.

Part of each grant package includes marketing materials to help synagogues reach a broader viewership.

For example, the Germantown Centre’s proposed coffeehouse would be advertised in Philadelphia’s local alternative weekly newspaper, Gordon says.

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, author of "Finding a Spiritual Home" and founder and president of Panim, an organization dedicated in part to synagogue renewal, gives Synaplex a thumbs-up.

"The Synaplex idea is novel," he says. "What’s interesting and alluring about it is the premise that we should get more people into shul on Shabbat.

"For more American Jews, the word ‘tefilah,’ " or prayer, "is a non-starter," he adds, "so Synaplex is a creative approach."

And, he notes, "once you get people into the building, they might give stuff a try that might otherwise not have."

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