February 22, 2020

Emanuel’s Jumpin’ at the Synaplex

It’s erev Shabbat, and this joint is jumpin’. As dusk deepens, seniors who have just emerged from a talk on globalization mingle with new arrivals in the lobby of Temple Emanuel’s school building on Burton Way in Beverly Hills, where "Cafe Synaplex" has been set up. In the building’s social hall, young professionals sample hors d’oeuvres and chat before a catered dinner.

Meanwhile, across Clark Drive in the Reform temple’s main building, Emanuel’s associate rabbi, Jonathan Aaron, and its assistant cantor, Judy Greenfeld, are beginning the service that caters to families with small children. As families stand around a U-shaped arrangement of tables covered with Shabbat objects and flowers, Greenfeld and Aaron lead them in song.

This programming comes at a time when ever-higher proportions of unaffiliated American Jews are causing synagogue professionals and lay leaders to search for ways to make the temple a more appealing place to be Jewish. The leaders often look to "synagogue transformation" ideas devised by think-tanks and organizations that have sprung up in recent years within and alongside the major Jewish movements.

Since last fall, Temple Emanuel has been participating in a program called Synaplex, sponsored in partnership with STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), a nonprofit foundation. Offered once a month on Friday night and once on Shabbat morning, Synaplex seeks to bring members and unaffiliated Jews into the temple with different activities on Shabbat, much as a multiscreen movie theater caters to filmgoers with disparate tastes.

"We provide multiple entries to Shabbat," said Richard Tell, an Emanuel vice president who serves as general chairman for Synaplex. "To some, it’s prayer; to some, it’s study; to some, it’s Israel."

Accordingly, Synaplex starts at 4:15 p.m. with a current events/contemporary issues program geared to seniors in the mood for something to chew on intellectually. Gerry Nelson, coordinator for the current affairs program, arranges for speakers to facilitate "a host of economic, social and political discussions." Guest speakers are also brought in for the discussion program, "Israel Matters."

A recent addition to the Synaplex lineup is a healing service, added in response to calls from the Emanuel community after a much-loved congregant, Ilana Rosenberg, 16, was gravely injured in an automobile accident last month. More than 100 people, including many teenagers, sat in concentric circles as the afternoon light faded during the most recent Friday Synaplex to pray for Ilana, who is still in the early stages of a slow recovery.

Meeting the needs of the Emanuel community is an often-stated priority for Synaplex. "Sometimes we lead the congregation; sometimes the congregation leads us," Tell said.

The Shabbat dinner party has grown from a handful of couples last fall to up to 40 singles and couples, professionals in their late 20s to early 40s. Dinner chairperson Jody Podolsky said attendees typically include attorneys, academics, Jewish communal professionals, people in software, health care and politics, plus a variety of folks who work in the entertainment industry.

The centerpiece of the Friday night Synaplex is "Shabbat Unplugged," a mellow Shabbat evening service held in the round and featuring lots of singing led by Aaron and Emanuel’s cantor, Yonah Kliger. After the service, congregants are invited to share songs, stories and stand-up routines at "Open Mic Night."

Similarly, Emanuel’s Shabbat morning Synaplex is built around the temple’s New Emanuel Minyan and also offers classes, a mitzvah program, children’s programming and even yoga.

Twelve synagogues across the denominational spectrum were chosen by STAR for Synaplex funding, most of them in the Northeast or California.

Not all the Synaplex temples are nearly as large as the 1,000-household Emanuel, but they are synagogues that have an active volunteer corps and access to Jewish resources, such as professors and other rabbis, in the community, said Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of the Minneapolis-based STAR. The foundation also looks for temples that "are moving along a certain path: not just offering tefilot [prayers] but other programs" and are well-stocked with "risk-takers and innovators," Herring added.

Temple Emanuel, which had already established alternative Shabbat services and has a history of lively programming, was a good fit for Synaplex, said Rabbi Laura Geller, who made the match with STAR. She added that the temple’s board of directors, which embraced the program enthusiastically, is "willing to be playful and experimental" and, over the temple’s initial three-year commitment to Synaplex, to give the program "time to evolve and to grow and to take risks and make mistakes."

Ron Wolfson, vice president of the University of Judaism and co-founder of Synagogue 2000, the first of the "synagogue transformation" think tanks, lauded the Synaplex concept. "Any attempt to invigorate synagogue life is great, and I’m all in favor," he said.

Wolfson’s only caution was that "programming is essential but not the core of building a synagogue," explaining that a temple needed to create and maintain a culture in which congregants and potential congregants felt a strong emotional connection to the institution and its people. "My hope is that [Synaplex] goes beyond programming to address the issue of engagement with synagogue life," he said.

Whether Synaplex will result in more members for the already-thriving Temple Emanuel and a greater number of member hours spent in shul remains to be seen, but Geller sees the bustling rooms and halls of her temple as an answer to the question: "How do you turn Friday and Saturday into Shabbat?"

"How we reach people is a challenge," she said. "It’s been an interesting challenge and quite exciting."

For more information about Temple Emanuel and its Synaplex, call Yoni Rosenberg, director of membership and programs, at (310) 274 6388, ext. 236.