Redefining the Synagogue

It’s a Friday evening in the middle of summer and casually attired worshipers – many of them young singles – are lining up on Manhattan’s West 88th Street to enter the large Gothic-inspired edifice that is B’nai Jeshurun.

Virtually every seat in this large, recently restored Moorish sanctuary is occupied even before the rabbi approaches the bimah, leaving those who arrive as the service begins to settle for tattered siddurim and the balcony.

Soon the brightly painted sanctuary is pulsating with singing, organ music, clapping. In the middle of the song “Lecha Dodi,” the atmosphere is akin to a wedding reception, with the rabbi and cantor swaying and singing joyously and strangers linking arms to snake dance through the aisles and onto the bimah.When services are over, it takes a good 15 minutes to leave the balcony, as hundreds of people clog the stairs and entryway and hundreds more spill out onto the street to chat.

This is B’nai Jeshurun in the quiet time of year, when one of the rabbis is on leave and Manhattan is relatively quiet. When it’s not summer, the congregation has twice as many people every Shabbat, forcing it to rent space at a nearby church and offer two separate Friday night services.

“B.J.,” as it is known to insiders, was a location for the recent Ben Stiller film “Keeping the Faith,” about a hip young rabbi who livens up services and draws in new blood with unorthodox music.

It was fitting to shoot the movie at this synagogue that is now world-renowned for its lively worship but just 15 years ago was an aging, demoralized synagogue that could barely pull together a minyan on Shabbat.

Most credit the shul’s transformation to the leadership of its late rabbi, Marshall Meyer, who died in 1993.Synagogue lay leaders brought Meyer – an American who was instrumental in founding the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Latin American campus and active in organizing Jewish resistance to repressive political regimes in that region – to B.J. in 1985 in hopes he would revitalize it.

A charismatic leader, Meyer attracted congregants with his passion for social justice, his openness to innovation and the vision he articulated, which is still displayed prominently on the congregation’s Web site: “A community synagogue which responds to the authentic questions of life, death, love, anxiety, longing and the search for meaning can, once again, attract Jews – families and individuals – if it is willing to grapple with the great issues of life.”

B.J., which was originally Conservative but is now unaffili-ated, has become a regular desti-nation for many Jewish visitors to New York. It is arguably the most-talked-about shul in the United States. Congregations around the country want to replicate at least some of B.J.’s rags-to-riches success.

But is B.J. a recipe for reinvent-ing American congregations or simply a fluke, a lucky combina-tion of circumstances?

The leading synagogue renewal engine, Synagogue 2000, is banking on the notion that the shul has something to teach. That organization, which works with congregations seeking to change, recently launched a $160,000 ethnographic study of the synagogue.

“We hope to find out what makes B.J. the place that it is and then to invite other congrega-tions to employ the principles in their own case – not to become a B.J., but to become their own kind of spiritual success story,” says Rabbi Larry Hoffman, one of the co-founders of Synagogue 2000.

“We have 900 congregations and can’t ask them to start from scratch. They have to go through incremental, slow change,” adds Freelander.

Through a recently discon-tinued project called Friday Night Alive, the Jewish Federa-tion of Greater Philadelphia actually imported the all-Hebrew B.J. service to several area congregations in hopes that it would attract unaffiliated Jews.

While hundreds of people attended the services – held once a month at rotating Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations – and many praised the project, it did not work well in Reform congregations where congre-gants were less accustomed to Hebrew or unfamiliar with the melodies.”We felt like a one-size-fits-all isn’t the way to go,” says Ellen Bernstein, who coordinated the project. She notes that while Friday Night Alive energized the participants, it was less successful at engaging the unaffiliated in any ongoing way.

Ilana Eberson, a 39-year-old natural medicine student, says she found B.J. after years of trying out other Upper West Side synagogues and was so happy her first time at services – where a stranger welcomed her right away and she instantly fell in love with the music – that she burst into tears.

“Where else are you going to find 1,200 Jews on a Friday night happy to go to shul?” she asks, adding, “If there were more B.J.’s, there would probably be more affiliated Jews.”