- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2008

A lot of Jews are barely aware Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, begins Monday night. “Most American Jews are so ill-educated, they think Rosh Hashana is a party,” Roger Bennett, senior vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies — a heavy hitter in the world of American Judaism — told me. “It actually is a time to begin reflecting on your sins.”

Mr. Bennett, a young guy with a British accent, helps locate organizations that are thinking outside the box in terms of getting Jews to act like, well, Jews. We talked about how my recent book on the post-church Christian relates to his work on the unchurched (his wording) Jew.

“It’s a post-synagogue generation,” he said of the under-35 set. “They’re not frustrated with synagogue. Synagogue is not even a factor in their lives. When these kids are asked to name a Jewish organization [like B’nai Brith or the Hillel], they can’t. They don’t even know these organizations exist.”

Bronfman Philanthropies began funding “Slingshot,” an annual directory of 50 edgy nonprofits that do out-of-the-box work in the Jewish world. One is the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue (named for the street intersection where it sits) in downtown Washington, where there is everything from “yoga Shabbats” (Sabbath services on yoga mats) to “Hebrew-in-a-flash” classes.

“The old models are not working,” Esther Foer, its executive director, told me. “The whole idea of the pay-to-pray model does not work for young Jews.”

She refers to synagogue membership dues that are required if you want a seat at any of the High Holiday services in a local synagogue. So, Sixth and I is having free multiple services in its stately building in Chinatown. Some services are for families, some are multicultural and others are so traditional that men and women pray on separate sides of the room.

Somehow it all works, and 1,400 Rosh Hashana tickets have been reserved and 700 are on the waiting list. These are all people who know Sixth and I for its concerts, lectures, comedy nights, symposia and reputation as part worship space, part community center and all-around fun place in which to hang out.

“We try to bring young Jews into the space to feel their Jewishness in lots of ways,” she said. “Not every Jew wants to express themselves through Friday night services.”

There’s a ready audience for this. The District has the country’s sixth-largest Jewish community. According to a 2003 demographic study by the Charles and Mary Kaplan Family Foundation, the Greater Washington area has the highest rate of unaffiliated Jews — only 44 percent of 110,000 Jewish households encompassing 267,800 people are on the mailing list of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

Seventeen percent of these households are young singles living alone. So here’s a young, disenfranchised population looking for things to do and people to do them with.

Sixth and I is not alone in its innovation. Temple Israel of Boston, which has 1,700 members, has moved many of its services outside the synagogue and into peoples’ living rooms or to local businesses — anything that seems familiar and comfortable.

They have Friday night services in Hebrew and English in five neighborhoods in an outreach called the Riverway Project.

“It’s an interesting change from the Judaism I grew up with, where you went to the synagogue and got bored,” an attorney attending a Riverway service told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. JTA called the effort an “extreme shul makeover.” (Shul is the Yiddish word for synagogue.)

Reform Judaism, with 900 synagogues and 1.5 million members, is the largest of four main branches of Judaism in the United States, but it has the largest synagogue dropout rate at 38 percent.

Fifty-four percent of America’s nearly 6 million Jews don’t belong to any synagogue, according to San Francisco’s Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

Some call this a crisis. Others, like Mr. Bennett and the folks at Sixth and I, call it an opportunity.

• Julia Duin’s column Stairway to Heaven runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at [email protected]

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