With Yoga, Comedy and Parties, Synagogues Entice Newcomers

April 4, 2006

A hipster synagogue grows in SoHo, drawing large crowds with its “Torah cocktail parties” in fancy loft apartments and user-friendly prayer services designed especially for the uninitiated.

A group of New York-area congregations, along with others across the country, refashion their synagogues into religious multiplexes on the Sabbath, featuring programs like “Shabbat yoga” and comedy alongside traditional worship.

Several synagogues on Long Island — as well as in Seattle, Tucson and elsewhere — station volunteers in supermarket aisles as part of a national program that started several years ago to reach out to Jews who are buying matzos for Passover but do not belong to a house of worship.

These are just some of the ways that Jewish religious leaders, driven by fears about shrinking numbers, are becoming increasingly sophisticated and aggressive about marketing Judaism, turning to the same kinds of outreach techniques that evangelical Christians rode to mega-church success.

In some cases, Jewish groups are explicitly borrowing from the evangelical playbook to reach those who do not attend synagogue; in others, the parallels have been largely coincidental. Although the efforts to market Judaism have drawn criticism from some corners, Jewish leaders across the theological spectrum are realizing what evangelicals have long concluded, that the faithful are easily distracted in America’s spiritual marketplace and religious institutions have to adjust if they hope to survive.

“I think what’s going on is a product of the consumer-driven nature of this culture and the need to compete for people’s time and attention,” said Jack Wertheimer, provost and professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. “Christians do it from the imperative of evangelizing. Jews are doing it far more because they see their community shrinking.”

The evangelical pastors who built the mega-churches that rose to prominence in the 1980’s and 90’s absorbed lessons from the secular marketplace to repackage church services to appeal to people who found traditional church boring or intimidating. In a similar fashion — although their goal is not necessarily to produce “mega-synagogues” — Jewish leaders are revamping worship in their synagogues to make the experience more lively and participatory; they are reconfiguring their sanctuaries to make them less intimidating; they are rethinking how to welcome newcomers; and they are getting increasingly creative about getting people in the door.

“There’s a feeling that all the old structures aren’t working,” said Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., who was part of a group of synagogue leaders that gathered recently in Los Angeles at the University of Judaism to get advice from the Rev. Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life” and the evangelical pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., which draws more than 20,000 on weekends.

The event was organized by leaders of Synagogue 3000 — formerly Synagogue 2000 — a national effort to revitalize Jewish congregations. The program, which has attracted about 100 synagogues across the country, has sought to learn from both the evangelical and corporate worlds.

“The world is a different world,” said Rabbi Jacobs. “There’s a greater marketplace of spiritual options for people. If synagogues are not compelling places, who’s going to bother to join and be involved?”

Jewish leaders are grappling with the vast numbers of Jews who do not belong to a synagogue, along with shrinking numbers over all. According to the 2000-1 National Jewish Population Survey, 5.2 million Jews live in the United States, a drop of 300,000 from 1990 despite a wave of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The survey also found that a majority of Jews do not belong to a synagogue. Those who fail to affiliate with synagogues or other Jewish organizations are much more likely to intermarry, according to researchers, and much more likely to have children who do not identify themselves as Jewish.

As a result, with Passover, one of the most significant holidays on the Jewish calendar, coming next week, subtle and not so subtle efforts to lure Jews, especially members of the younger generation, back to services are in full swing.

The Town and Village Synagogue on East 14th Street in Manhattan, affiliated with the Conservative movement, is organizing a coffeehouse for Friday night, with people sharing poetry on the Passover theme of freedom. Attendance on Friday nights has increased to 150 from 50. The National Jewish Outreach Program, an Orthodox organization best known for its heavily advertised Shabbat Across America project, which has become a national phenomenon with its radio jingles, toll-free numbers and billboards, is helping synagogues across the country advertise and put on seders geared to those unfamiliar with the holiday’s rituals.

Volunteers from Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, Calif., are setting up tables at two nearby supermarkets before Passover.

“The idea is, ‘Listen, everybody goes shopping,’ ” said Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun of Congregation Beth David. “Even your average Jewish person that may be vaguely aware that it’s Passover, or may not be aware it’s Passover, or is just in the supermarket.”

The pioneers of outreach to secular Jews are the Chabad-Lubavitchers, members of an Orthodox Hasidic sect that is based in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Although their tactics have sometimes drawn controversy, their work has become a model for many Jews.

Dovi and Esty Scheiner, a young Lubavitch couple who moved from Crown Heights to TriBeCa several years ago, are trying to bring Judaism to the cool and hip in Lower Manhattan.

In order to reach the downtown audience, it was necessary to rethink the traditional synagogue approach, said Rabbi Scheiner. “This is a very anti-establishment, anti-organized-religion type of community.”

Instead of holding religious services, they gave fancy cocktail parties in art galleries and lofts. In the middle of the events, Rabbi Scheiner would offer a few words of Jewish teaching.

The parties have now given way to the SoHo Synagogue, which they believe is the first Jewish house of worship in the neighborhood. About 250 people attended a dedication party last month for the synagogue’s first home, on Varick Street near Canal Street. It is a stylishly decorated 5,000-square-foot space, complete with chic couches, a lacy flora-and-fauna-patterned curtain that functions as the mechitza separating the sexes and an avant-garde sheet-metal ark to store the Torah.

“We wanted it to be a place where somebody who had never been to synagogue before, or someone who went to synagogue as a child and had a bad experience, would come,” Mrs. Scheiner said.

The Manhattan Jewish Experience, an Orthodox outreach organization for young Jewish professionals on the Upper West Side, offers slickly advertised social events, including a regular “Monday Night Lounge” that features music and a lecture on topics ranging from dating to kabbalah.

Once inside the organization’s orbit, people are encouraged to attend a beginners’ worship service. There are also classes for the more advanced. Amy Gitlitz, 33, started attending the organization’s events two years ago. At the time, she was working 90 hours a week at a law firm. Today, however, she does not work from Friday evening to Saturday evening. She does not turn on the lights. She does not answer her cellphone. And she keeps kosher. She attributes her transformation to the Manhattan group’scontemporary approach.

“Everything in the world nowadays is about marketing,” she said. “If Judaism is really slow and boring and doesn’t try to do anything to compete with the parties and the music and the movies, it’s going to lose.”

Some 50 synagogues across the country have been experimenting with “Synaplex Shabbat,” a national program that began in 2003 that encourages congregations to enhance their Sabbath services by offering an array of nontraditional extras.

The Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist and Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, for instance, has organized Sabbath programs around tai chi and nature walks. Others have tried yoga classes and stand-up comedy as a means of Sabbath observance.

The program borrows in some ways from the mega-church concept because it offers people “multiple entry points” into synagogue life, said Rabbi Hayim Herring, the program’s executive director.

But just as critics have charged the purveyors of the mega-church movement with peddling a watered-down, consumer-oriented brand of faith, Jewish religious leaders experimenting with new ways to reach the nonobservant have been accused of promoting Judaism-lite.

“A lot of times these marketing approaches fool themselves,” said Rafael Guber, a Jewish researcher who wrote a recent column in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles entitled, “Selling Judaism: Let’s Make It Harder.” “They say, first, we’ll make it easy and get them in, and then after they get in, we’ll get the discipline and structure. The problem is nobody ever gets to Step 2.”

But Synaplex’s impact has been remarkable, doubling and tripling Friday night or Saturday morning attendance in many places. Although it is unclear whether people have gone deeper in their religious observance, for many rabbis it is enough for now that they are there at all.

“Truthfully, I’d rather have people in shul on Friday night, hanging out at the synagogue, than out at a bar,” said Rabbi Laurence Sebert of the Town and Village Synagogue and a Synaplex participant. “It’s all small steps.”




Correction: April 7, 2006


A front-page article on Tuesday about efforts by Jewish organizations nationwide to market Judaism referred imprecisely to one organization, the National Jewish Outreach Program. Although its founder and director is an Orthodox rabbi and it encourages “traditional” observance, it is not officially affiliated with the Orthodox branch of Judaism.