When Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, who announced Thursday that he will be leaving Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation, recalled what he wants to be remembered for at the prominent Conservative synagogue, he described one of his first meetings with the synagogue staff.
“I said I wanted to get rid of this really bad coffee we had, and the whole room busted out laughing; they thought I was joking,” said Steinlauf, who is 48. “But when you make a tiny change like that, it can create a slight aesthetic shift that begins to change culture over time.”
“The problem,” he said, “is that my generation often associates synagogues with really bad decaf.”
Steinlauf has stepped down as senior rabbi to launch an initiative that he says will bring the “paradigm shift” that has occurred at Adas Israel — symbolized by the coffee upgrade — to the broader Conservative movement. Steinlauf will remain on the Adas Israel staff in an advisory role through June 2018.
In concrete terms, his legacy at the Cleveland Park congregation will include his “vision of renewal,” which included a retrofit the congregation’s building; hosting big names including the Dalai Lama in 2009 and President Barack Obama in 2015; and increasing the congregation’s size from 1,350 households in 2013 to 1,550 households today, according to numbers provided by the synagogue.
“There are people who have very personal memories of their time with Rabbi Steinlauf,” said Adas Israel President Debby Joseph. “But for us as a congregation, his legacy will be his vision of renewal and the transformation this congregation underwent of physical space and the way that translated into a feeling of community.”
In 2014, Steinlauf received national attention when he came out as gay despite having been married to a woman for more than 20 years.
Steinlauf, whom the Adas Israel website describes as the first senior rabbi at a major Conservative synagogue to come out as gay, praised his congregation for the support it gave him at the time.
“My total embrace by the congregation is a testament to what Adas has become,” Steinlauf said. “This was one of the most extraordinary moments in my life. It was truly something I don’t even have words for, and as a rabbi, we always have words for things.”
Joseph said that her congregation is “in the process of convening a taskforce” to find Steinlauf’s replacement and that in the meantime, Adas Israel’s two other rabbis, Lauren Holtzblatt and Aaron Alexander have assumed joint responsibility for the congregation’s primary rabbinic duties. She added that the congregation will also bring in guest rabbis during its transitional period.
In his new initiative, Steinlauf will work with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the two Conservative seminaries and other institutions to “shape the next generation of the Jewish experience,” as the USCJ described in a statement on its Facebook page.
The Conservative movement has been confronting a long-term decrease in its numbers. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of Jews who identify as Conservative and belong to a synagogue has fallen by 21 percent, JTA reported, using statistics from the 1990 Jewish Population Survey and the 2013 Pew Study. In the same period, the number of Jews who identify as Conservative and don’t attend a synagogue fell by 47 percent.
“Essentially what we’re going to do is see if we can distill some of the core features of what makes synagogue and Jewish life successful and we’re going to intentionally disrupt some of the current patterns in Jewish life,” said Steinlauf, who explained that the program would consist of talks, workshops, learning sessions, individual consultation and research.
During his time at the synagogue, which was founded in 1869, Steinlauf put into place the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington, which launched in 2012 and offers meditation, yoga and what the Adas Israel website describes as “soulful Shabbat services.”
“This was a new thing and at the time many people thought was strange and hippy dippy,” Steinlauf said. “It was an extreme thing for Washington, which is certainly not known as the spiritual capital of the world.”
Steinlauf pointed to the creation of Adas Israel’s beit midrash as one of his most important achievements. He said that when the synagogue needed to undergo a renovation he and others decided to transform the building’s chapel into a place where people could engage in traditional text study and modern learning. He added that the beit midrash was part of a larger goal of changing the way people see synagogues.
“I want the synagogue not just a place you associate with services, b’nai mitzvah and Hebrew school, but I want it to be a place where you can come and hang out and come together to create this wonderful messy cacophony of a beit midrash.”