- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2008

Much has been said of Washington’s historic and innovative Sixth and I Synagogue but little of the marketing genius behind its success.

When Esther Safran Foer left a successful career in public relations in early 2007 to become the synagogue’s executive director, she knew she was betting her livelihood on working for a start-up at the age of 60.

But, “This came along and I fell in love with the idea of it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” except, she added with a laugh, marrying her husband, Albert, and having three sons.

Sixth and I - named after the street intersection where it sits - started out as a synagogue in 1905, became a church in 1951 and was on the verge of becoming a nightclub until two Jewish real estate developers bought it in 2002 and remodeled it for $5 million.

She came on staff after one of the developers, Sheldon Zuckerman, gave her a call.

“He was a distant cousin,” she said, “and he said, ‘Could you think about it?’ They told me to experiment and not make too many mistakes.”

Mrs. Foer’s savvy management skills have made the temple into what it is today: the District’s go-to spot for young Jews. The temple does not charge dues, so she has to raise its annual $1.5 million budget.

“Esther is one of the most remarkable women I know,” says Roger Bennett, senior vice president for the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. “She has more vision per square inch than people three times her size.”

Step into the synagogue’s spacious precincts on a Friday evening, and there is bound to be a family Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner for couples with small kids upstairs and a wine-and-hors d’oeuvres meet-and-greet for singles in the basement.

The brochures given out at the door call it “the place for 20s and 30s to experience Shabbat.” Copies of the edgy and often-raunchy Jewish monthly “Heeb” are passed out at the side entrance. Fashionable dark-blue T-shirts with the synagogue’s name on it in a flashy red-and-white script are also available.

The synagogue’s December brochures have a long list of pre-Hanukkah workshops, concerts and speakers. Author Toni Morrison showed up on Dec. 4. Photographer Annie Leibovitz breezed in on Dec. 9, both to sold-out houses. Lots of events, such as rocker Matt Nathanson or a political panel with the editors of the New Republic, aren’t directly related to Judaism, but they create the aura of Sixth and I being a cool spot in which to hang out.

Nearly every idea seems to find a home there, ranging from prayers for Darfur, Bible studies on King David, a “Martin Luther King shabbat” and a “yoga shabbat.” Because Hanukkah begins tonight, there are classes this morning on how to prepare for the Festival of Lights.

Mrs. Foer estimates 150 to 300 people are there Friday nights, but more than 1,000 people drop by in any given week. Sixth and I draws enough people to its events that the Slingshot Fund, a Jewish philanthropy, named the synagogue this year to its list of the top 50 most innovative Jewish projects in America.

“It has a lot to do with her enthusiasm and general ebullience in that she not only has a real passion for the project, but an infectious passion for it,” said Franklin Foer, her oldest son and editor of New Republic.

“At a lot of synagogues, you have to contend with a board and members who’ve been around for a long time who like the old way of doing things,” he added. “She does not have to contend with that so she gets to go out and do what works.”

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