Synagogues to Fly on Wings of Song

The real measure of success for Hallelu will not be whether the Universal Amphitheatre is filled to capacity on Sunday, Oct. 20, or whether the audience leaves humming the songs performed by an unprecedented gathering of Jewish musical talent for what is essentially a giant kumsitz.

The important test will come the next day. That is when lay and professional synagogue leaders from across Los Angeles will gather on Oct. 21 with leaders of Synagogue 2000, a national initiative to revitalize synagogues, for the kickoff of what may be a long and systematic process of channeling Hallelu’s energy back into the community.

“If the concert really works, it will be inspiring in a way that is almost unimaginable going in,” said Marvin Schotland, president of the Jewish Community Foundation, which gave a grant to Synagogue 2000 for Hallelu. “I think the real challenge will be how to harness the energy in a systematic way, which will allow the implementation of a program we don’t currently have.”

Synagogue 2000 is a highly structured journey of introspection aimed at infusing synagogue life with spirituality, warmth and dedication to study and social action. The program, founded seven years ago by Ron Wolfson, a vice president at the University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles, and Rabbi Larry Hoffman, a professor at Hebrew Union College in New York, has been transformative for the handful of cities where it has been or is currently being implemented.

But while there are some isolated Synagogue 2000 projects in Los Angeles, and while the program enjoys significant support from Los Angeles funders, such as the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future at UJ, it has not yet been implemented on a communitywide level in Los Angeles.

“There’s a kind of energy that gets created when a number of synagogues from across the denominations come together for the purpose of envisioning the future of synagogue life,” Wolfson said. “It could help a very diverse or spread-out Jewish community to come together in a significant way.”

The idea for Hallelu was conceived three years ago. The aim of Hallelu is to use the concert and Shabbat events taking place at synagogues locally on the weekend of the program to raise the profile of Synagogue 2000 in an effort to jump-start it here.

“The event itself is designed to be a celebration of the spirit and of synagogue life,” Wolfson said. “We put a very high premium on getting people to sing together, since so much of the doorway to engaging people spiritually seems to happen through music.”

The show, with 4,500 of the 6,000 seats already sold, promises to be a uniquely uplifting event, sponsors said. It will feature some of the top artists in Jewish music, who have never before performed together at the same time. Debbie Friedman, Theodore Bikel, Neshama Carlebach, Danny Maseng and Alberto Mizrahi headline the show, which is produced by Craig Taubman, who will also perform.

Audience members will receive a CD with some of the music in advance of the concert, so that they can sing along with the performers. Transliterated lyrics will be projected on large screens.

“It’s the ideal concert,” Taubman said. “You’re not just a passive visitor, but you are an active participant, where you are as much a part of the process as the performers on stage.”

The concert will cost about $175,000 to produce. Tickets at an $18 suggested donation figure can be purchased through synagogues, or for $20 at the door. Hallelu boasts a long list of sponsors, including Disneyland, Los Angeles Family Magazine, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, The Jewish Journal and a host of Jewish and Hollywood institutions.

Along with the headliners, the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale will perform, as will a choir of 50 cantors assembled for the event. Taubman enlisted top Hollywood talent to put together a video on what synagogue means.

Local singer Sam Glaser, bandleader Rick Recht and Jewish reggae artist Alan Eder will also join the performance, along with the Keshet Chaim Dancers.

The dancers and some of the other performers will be outside the amphitheater at 3 p.m., warming up the crowd. The 4:30 p.m. concert, which Taubman said will also have surprise celebrity appearances, was scheduled early enough in the day so children could attend.

“We really want to give people the opportunity to feel different during this process, and afterward to go back to their synagogues and be invigorated to try new things,” Taubman said.

“It is an opportunity to really look at yourself,” said Rabbi Robert Gan of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, one of 16 pilot sites nationwide that started the program in 1996. “In the past, we had done a lot of things by rote, and [the program] helped us examine what we do and how it affects people.”

Gan said that while he had always pushed his congregation to be creative and innovative, Synagogue 2000 “gave us more opportunity and a structured way to open up those issues.”

Synagogues that participate in the program, which recently changed from a two-year to a four-and-one-half-year commitment, choose a team. Members of the team meet monthly to reevaluate every aspect of the synagogue, ranging from its underlying vision to the physical structure, and from the prayer service to how the board functions and whether people feel welcome when they walk in.

Aside from the monthly meetings, the program includes conferences and consulting services, and helps each congregation implement the basic principles of the program in a way that best suits the character of the congregation.

“For our congregation, it was a very positive experience, and one that invigorated a large number of people,” said Rabbi Ron Shulman of Ner Tamid of the South Bay, another pilot site located in Rancho Palos Verdes. “It spiritualized a lot of the business and process part of synagogue life.”

He said it also brought some changes to the service, and to how congregants related to newcomers and to each other.

“The process opened up a dialogue between the clergy and the membership that allowed us to experiment and feel safe with each other in opening up issues,” Shulman said.

For Temple Isaiah, Synagogue 2000 had a major influence on a redesign of the sanctuary that was already in the works. For example, Synagogue 2000’s sacred space specialist helped the Reform congregation think about the entrance to the main sanctuary.

“How do you design the area outside the sanctuary so people can anticipate they are entering a holy space?” Gan said. “That was something we never thought about — you couldn’t tell the doors to the sanctuary from the doors to the social hall. Nothing signaled you were entering a holy place.”

Out of that discussion grew a distinct entryway that guides congregants into the sanctuary, he said.

While these Los Angeles-area synagogues were pilot sites, and Temple Israel of Hollywood is participating in the program through a group sponsored by the Reform movement, Los Angeles has yet to sponsor a large communitywide body.

Synagogue 2000 usually works by enlisting 10 to 20 synagogues in one geographic area. Local federations, foundations and participating synagogues are expected to make significant investments in the project.

The cost of the program varies, depending on how much of the organizing Synagogue 2000 does. The group in Westchester, N.Y., with 21 synagogues and about 500 people at the conferences — including one coming up in November — will cost under $2 million over four years. The group in Detroit, with 12 congregations and more community-level organizing, will cost about $450,000.

So far, Synagogue 2000 has generated significant interest at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which has a long history of collaborating closely with synagogues through the Council on Jewish Life, and at the Jewish Community Foundation, which gave the grant for Hallelu. The grant was made on the condition that it be used to also set up a task force to explore getting Synagogue 2000 started in Los Angeles.

“I think the Jewish Community Foundation, either with discretionary resources or donors who could be encouraged to be interested, or through a combination of both, would certainly be interested in participating once we saw a plan that looked realistic,” Schotland said.

Getting started on developing a workable plan for Los Angeles will be one of the challenges addressed at the planning conference the Monday after Hallelu. Synagogue leaders will spend the day at a mini-Synagogue 2000 conference, getting a taste of what it is like to be part of the process. Wolfson also expects to set up a task force to get Synagogue 2000 going in 2003 in Los Angeles.

“I am very excited personally and professionally to see how the community responds to this,” Schotland said. “I think the talent coming is top quality and inspiring. But the show is just the beginning — not the end.”