It may be a matter of being new and wanting to explore various options for being connected with the Jewish community. It could be a desire to find people of a certain age with common interests for sharing informal Shabbat celebrations. It might be a yearning to try something new while remaining part of an existing congregation or to provide an option that may not exist in a certain location.
Sometimes the traditional bricks-and-mortar structure of congregations as conceived by previous generations is not enough to engage everybody all the time. This brings about the opportunity for the phenomenon Barry Camson and Debra Brosan describe in their E Jewish Philanthropy article (“Observations on Networked Congregations and Communities: The Present and the Future,” July 15, 2013). Whether congregations ally themselves with community organizations or whether a like-minded group of people creates anything from a loosely affiliated worship experience in the park to a synagogue without a building, there are many new choices that appeal to people of various ages and beliefs.
Judaism for a
Changing demographics have spawned independent minyanim, or prayer groups, all over the country. With people getting married later and younger people not as concerned about fitting into a particular movement of Judaism, the Nefesh Minyan is the group of choice for many 20- and 30-somethings, both married and single. Conceptualized in 2008 by Rabbi Jocee Hudson, then director of lifelong learning at Temple Beth Sholom, and funded by Jewish Federation & Family Services as part of the Young Leadership Division, the group is “a community of young adults that people enjoy, because their peers are in attendance,” according to its chair, Julie Amster.
“It’s very fulfilling,” said Amster, who described Nefesh Minyan participants as “not yet affiliated,” adding, “It helps people to connect on a religious level.”
Initially attracting 25 to 30 people for a Shabbat evening service and dinner every other month, the Nefesh Minyan now has more than 100 people attending regularly. Usually, the services, with an amalgam of Reform and Conservative melodies, are led by local song leaders and/or the group’s own choir, Shir Energy. Sometimes, as in July, Nefesh Minyan brings in people such as Jewish blues artist Saul Kaye from San Francisco to lead services. Kaye “is pioneering a new genre of music – Jewish Blues – and is extraordinarily talented,” according to Jackie Menter, JFFS director of professional philanthropy and leader of the Nefesh Minyan since its inception.
In addition to its regular services, the organization is planning a Rosh Hashanah dinner. “We did this last year, and the response was tremendous,” Menter said. “There is an obvious niche to fill for young professionals wanting to connect for Jewish holidays. They don’t belong to synagogues yet, but still want some type of Jewish connection to honor the High Holy Days.”
Evolving out of the same age cohort but with somewhat different needs is Shalom Family, also sponsored by JFFS. Its goal is to foster collaboration with Orange County congregations, to bring more people out to engage Jewishly, without any bias toward any organization, Menter said.
“Shalom Family is not trying to program as much as it’s trying to partner,” said Stephanie Epstein, Shalom Family coordinator. “Our constituents want to get to know other young families and connect with the community. We want to help them navigate on their Jewish journey.”
Still in its early stages, Shalom Family enables young families to have a religious experience outside of institutions but welcomes collaborations. Shared events give people a chance to get acquainted with synagogues or simply explore shared experiences, such as being expectant or new parents, having an intergenerational seder for Passover or picking apples for Sukkot.
About 45 families, mostly unaffiliated, participated in the Shalom Family Shabbat dinner in Tustin in May. The next one will be Friday, August 23, and Epstein anticipates that they will be held quarterly.
Also in August, Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot, a Reform congregation in Irvine, will partner with Shalom Family for a Tot Shabbat in the Park (August 10 at 10 a.m. at the Las Lomas Community Center, across the street from the Samueli Jewish Campus in Irvine). “It will be a way to open the doors and walls to welcome young families,” said Marissa Kaiser, director of education at Shir Ha-Ma’alot (SHM). “Kids will dance with the Torah and have toys, and young families can enjoy the service without barriers.”
Kaiser added that SHM has a variety of initiatives to be welcoming to young families, including a cry room during regular services, a free religious school program for grades kindergarten through 2, a Torah Time for Tots program for 2- to 4-year-olds and a Torah Time for Tiny Tots program for 1- to 2-year-olds. According to Kaiser, “There’s a lot of energy around here. It’s a great place to be.”
Sometimes, congregations want to provide alternative programming in a satellite location, as did Congregation B’nai Israel (CBI) of Tustin. More than 5 years ago a small group of families led by CBI member Arie Katz initiated what the Conservative congregation called the “Wandering Minyan” at south Irvine and Newport Beach locations. The participatory base was largely 40-somethings with school-age children, according to Rabbi Elie Spitz of CBI.
“These were nearby for our families and guests who live in the coastal areas, and provided a more informal minyan for those interested in a grassroots prayer experience,” explained CBI president Beth Elster. “Each month services alternated between Friday night in a home one month, and Shabbat morning the following month in a community center. Every service was followed by a potluck meal. The CBI clergy and board of directors supported the Wandering Minyan by providing siddurim and use of a Torah. Donations were accepted to help cover the costs for the venues and other expenses. Attendance grew and the minyan was seen as a positive extension to CBI.”
In the summer months, the Friday services are held at Mason Park from 6 to 9 p.m., and families bring a picnic dinner, according to Katz. He added, “We have really grown over the past 12 months and now get between 30 and 40 people regularly with some services now reaching more than 75. We are a traditional, egalitarian and participatory service with most families who are members of CBI though we welcome anyone who wants to join us.”
Last year the CBI board decided to build on the Wandering Minyan’s success in providing Shabbat worship in the coastal areas by providing funding to increase the number of services and to also provide religious education close to the families who live nearby. Children in the religious school have the option of attending the weekday session at the synagogue in Tustin or at Tarbut V’Torah in Irvine, where the synagogue rents classroom space. “Due to afternoon traffic congestion and many families’ time constraints, this has been a popular alternative,” Elster said.
The concept of “CBI Coastal” was created to formalize CBI’s commitment to provide programs in the coastal areas and encompasses both the Wandering Minyan services and religious school held there, according to Elster. All CBI members are invited to participate in CBI Coastal events, regardless of where they live. Many CBI Coastal Shabbat worship attendees live outside the coastal area, but enjoy the informal participatory service. There are members who find spirituality in the grassroots informal feel of the service and others who enjoy the smaller, more relaxed setting, because “deeper connections can be made with others,” Elster said. In addition, many young families feel more comfortable in the informal setting with their children.
Elster believes that “CBI Coastal enriches our congregation. It furthers our goal of providing opportunities for transformative Jewish experiences for our members and the community, and engages people in a different way than the more formal synagogue worship experience. The more avenues we can provide toward meaningful Jewish practice, the better it is for CBI and for the entire community.”
Rabbi Spitz described CBI Coastal as a “different kind of experience, and a complement to the synagogue in Tustin.” He believes that the parallel activities are all within the congregation’s mission and credits Katz for being the creative spark. “The CBI Coastal group has gained and grown and brought back ideas that we use at the synagogue itself,” he said.
Also populated by young families, in 2004 Surf City Havurah became Surf City Synagogue. “This group of young families created this local, spiritual community to fill a need within the area for a modern Conservative synagogue,” said Bill Boodman, the congregation’s president since the beginning.
For the first eight years Surf City Synagogue held High Holy Day, Shabbat and various holiday services at the Huntington Beach Central Library. Its Torah U’Masoret religious school met at Pacific Coast Community Church. Currently, the synagogue meets at The Livingstone Campus, 2987 Mesa Verde Drive East, in Costa Mesa with services and religious school all in one place.
While Boodman acknowledged that the congregation does have walls now, he explained that leasing a facility keeps the overhead costs low, while providing “freedom to move around and explore creative places for services such as the beach and congregants’ homes.” The congregation’s High Holy Day services will be led by Eric Dangott.
“Our family has grown and includes families, singles and seniors,” Boodman said. “Together we have celebrated many life cycle events, including many B’Nai Mitzvah, two of whom were adults. We are a warm, welcoming community and we invite all to join us as we celebrate Judaism.”
The impetus for congregant Dr. Ellen Hope Kearns to join Surf City Synagogue five years ago was “to join an egalitarian synagogue” as a Reform Jew married to a Christian and “to connect with a Jewish community.” She added that she and her husband feel “comfortable and welcomed by the leadership and congregants.” They attend High Holy Day services each year, as well as occasional Friday night services and special events. “As a small congregation we have had to accept the fact that we cannot afford to have a full-time rabbi or our own venue,” she said.
“The challenges that inhere in worshipping without a formal synagogue building are two-fold,” said Rabbi Dov Fischer of Young Israel of Orange County, a modern Orthodox congregation in Irvine. “First, without a formal street presence and curb signage, passers-by often do not find you, and you lose the opportunity to welcome ‘impulse shoppers’ who decide, while unexpectedly passing a temple, to ‘just drop in and check the place out.’ The other challenge is that the ‘bricks and mortar’ of a building convey constancy and quasi-permanence, while a shul without walls seems less established for the long haul.”
He added, “Yet we have found, as Young Israel of Orange County now enters its sixth year in Irvine, that people nowadays can find an ostensibly invisible congregation that has no walls. They can look online or read Orange County Jewish Life, so it is possible to reach more people than ever could have been contemplated by ‘synagogues without walls’ twenty years ago.”
Rabbi Fischer believes that what the congregation loses by not having a building is offset by the fact that members appreciate “the spirit, the culture of our group, the singing and the much more intimate camaraderie that comes without walls. So a different kind of shul takes shape, where the people themselves become the bricks and the mortar — the central building blocks — and therefore the congregation leads by finding its voice from within.”
The rabbi believes that every request stimulates new ideas with greater flexibility to implement them, because the people in such a congregation are socially more fluid and less focused on classic parameters. “When you worship without walls, you unexpectedly evolve a culture that is not bound by preconceived external limits and approaches everything as possible,” he added.
Congregants have hosted events and classes in their homes, while the synagogue’s main classes and services have a “home” at the Back Bay Conference Center, a banquet center above the Irvine Lanes complex. Rabbi Fischer concluded, “It will be nice someday to have our own building, but when that day comes we always will look back on these early years with gratitude that our start as a ‘shul without walls” empowered us to craft a unique congregation of people who were looking for something beyond walls, a congregation of people who sing warmly and who know each other’s names and genuinely feel the absence when a friend is out of town on a Shabbat. That is the culture that unfolds over time when you worship without walls.”
For the members of Friends Exploring Judaism, there is a desire to learn, connect and maintain relationships. “We’re just adults, mostly empty nesters, who want just the basics with less structure,” explained Mark Snider, who is coordinating the High Holy Day services in Irvine, where most of the congregants live. The congregation primarily meets at homes, then has kiddush, motzi, dinner and services. It has monthly Shabbat services 10 times a year, celebrates the High Holy Days and Passover and has a Havdalah service at the beach.
Friends Exploring Judaism draws most of its membership from the Irvine Jewish Community, a synagogue without walls that began in the 1970s. About 14 years ago, twenty couples came together at someone’s house to celebrate Shabbat. Members made a commitment to host one event every two years, bought a Sefer Torah, invited speakers to the monthly services and established a connection with one another.
Most members came from the Reform or Conservative movements, although some keep kosher and some also attend other congregations. Cantor Moty Ashkenazy, who served the Irvine Jewish Community, does the music, and lay leaders have done readings at Shabbat services.
For the High Holy Days, Friends Exploring Judaism has hired newly ordained Rabbi Robin Hoffman, who is also the education director at Congregation B’nai Israel. Rabbi Hoffman described Friends Exploring Judaism’s services as “intimate, egalitarian and musical in a way that is meaningful and inspirational for members, guests and the community.” She believes that “music is what reaches people’s souls” and is proud that her father, Robert Sudakow, will be playing the cello to accompany Kol Nidre. There will be Reform and traditional melodies, as well as “a lot of Debbie Friedman,” Rabbi Hoffman said.
The theme of the services is personal introspection and reflection, according to Rabbi Hoffman. “I want congregants to focus on making themselves better in a positive way,” she concluded.