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Synagogue’s director plays by own rules

- 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."

His mom admits she is not the most religious person around - "I'm not that observant," she will insist.

"No, she is not the most observant person," her son agrees, "but she's always had a real commitment to the Jewish people and the idea of Jewish continuity. Being a Holocaust survivor has a lot to do with that commitment."

Her tale begins even before she was born to two Ukrainian refugees: Louis Safran and his wife, Ethel. Ethel was not his first love; before that, he was married to a woman called Zipporah and together they had an infant daughter. But one late summer day in 1942, the Nazi occupiers of the area sent the father off on a work detail.

While he was gone, they slaughtered the inhabitants of the village, including Zipporah and her daughter. Esther Foer's eyes tear up when she thinks about the half-sister she never knew.

"I'd love to have known her name," she says. "I'd just like a name, so I could honor her memory."

Louis Safran never talked about the incident and Esther herself only found out about the deaths about 20 years ago.

He met his second wife in Lodz, Poland, and they fled to Germany to escape the onrushing Russian army. Esther was born in a displaced persons camp and they lived in the barracks, speaking Yiddish. She still has a sweater given to her back then by a woman who could not have children.

"I actually have happy memories," she says. "I had parents who adored me. Children who were born at that time were so adored."

Her family applied to Brazil but was turned down. They arrived in the United States in 1949 when she was 3 1/2. She grew up in the District and attended the University of Maryland. Her first job was writing for Congressional Quarterly, and she was the press secretary in 1972 to Democratic presidential hopeful George McGovern.

But she ended up in marketing, eventually founding her own firm, FM Strategic Communications. She balanced this with the raising of three sons: Franklin, Jonathan and Joshua. They ended up at Columbia, Princeton or Yale universities as journalists or novelists. The younger two sons have gotten advances of more than $1 million for recent novels such as "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" and "Moonwalking With Einstein."

Glowing biographies of those sons have mentioned the mother's role in raising them.

"It wasn't that highbrow," Franklin Foer said. "We watched a lot of television as kids. It's not like we sat around playing chess or the violin. But my parents did place a lot of value on the life of the intellectual."

Ed Kopf, president of the Foer's home synagogue, Adas Israel in Cleveland Park, has known the family for 20 years.

"She's delightful, bright, outgoing, strategic when she's working on something and warm. Those are just some of the words to describe her," he says. "She knows how to communicate and how to create excitement. There was a surge in visibility at Sixth and I after she came on."

Her sons "experienced a rich Jewish life," he said. "Look at their work. Either their writings have substantial elements of Judaism or don't neglect it."

Now Esther Foer mentors her youthful staff of nine and the young people who drift through her doors, most of them unaffiliated with any house of worship. Friday night services are purposely kept at about an hour to keep things seeker-friendly. She knows Jewish staff for the new Obama administration are already here in Washington and checking out Sixth and I.

"My touch is nurturing people," she says. "People are coming to Washington from all over the country. Our people aren't observant people who want to go to synagogue every Friday night. We want to draw them in."

To the point where she's willing to break the rules on how a synagogue is usually run.

"What are the rules?" she asks with a smile and a shrug.

"This is really what she was meant to do," says her son Franklin. "It is a perfect combination of her passions and her skills. I think she's kicking herself for not getting into it earlier."