Can Shul Be Cool?
The synagogue, once dismissed as irrelevant, attempts a comeback for everyone from the fervently pious to the atheist humanist
BY: Howard Lovy
There is a renewed spiritual energy among young American Jews, and, surprisingly, the mechanism being used to harness it is the same institution from which many American Jews ran away after the age of 13. Yes, the synagogue, which once teetered on the edge of irrelevancy in the minds of young, self-described "spiritual" and "cultural" Jews, is attempting a comeback. Once written off for its boring and incomprehensible services and ineffectual religious schools, the synagogue was, not too long ago, considered a place of ritual and maybe nostalgia, but hardly of spirit. Today, that may be changing.
But while the various streams of Judaism are trying to harness the energy of the Jewish spiritual and cultural renaissance, this is no easy task, since this renaissance originated outside the major synagogue movements. The Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox labels are growing less meaningful, and we're entering a new "transdenominational" world, say Jewish leaders who study and attempt to tap into synagogue renewal.
The much-publicized recent acrimony between the ultra-Orthodox and the more liberal streams of Judaism, say many younger Jews, is largely irrelevant to them. They'll take what they want from any or every kind of Judaism--from Hasidim to humanism and anything in between--in this new spiritual salad bar.
What will replace the denominations, then? Jewish leaders seem to agree it has something to do with that word, "spirituality." But no one is quite sure what that means or how to create it. The most wonderful thing about this "spirituality" is that its definition can be bent, stretched, and morphed to fit any agenda.
Many Jewish leaders agree with three words spoken recently by Ron Wolfson, principal investigator for the Reform movement's Synagogue 2000 project. What defines great, spiritualdavening
(praying) experiences, he said, is "music, music, music."
Linda Freedman of Los Angeles is a thirty-something Jewish professional who ran away from Judaism when she was younger. She is now rediscovering a spiritual side she never learned in shul (synagogue) when she was growing up. Music that inspires--a kind of Jewish gospel music--would get her back into synagogue, she said.
The model everybody points to is Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Manhattan. It's filled to the rafters with Jews of all denominations at its music-packed Friday night services.
But even B'nai Jeshurun's head rabbi, Marcelo Bronstein, admits that he does not know where to go with this spiritual energy that his shul has unleashed. B'nai Jeshurun works for the young, trendy Upper West Side Jewish crowd in Manhattan, but may not work elsewhere.