A coffee cup won’t replace the menorah as the emblem of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, but it does symbolize the changes underway at the 144-year-old Conservative synagogue.
In the beit midrash (the newly built “study house” and central gathering space), a coffee bar has a place of honor alongside study tables, comfortable chairs, bookshelves and worship area. The idea of the beit midrash “has not made it into non-Orthodox Judaism,” said Adas Israel’s senior rabbi, Gil Steinlauf.
With 1,400 families, Adas Israel serves multiple constituencies. (There are often four separate services on Shabbat mornings.) The congregation has reimagined the beit midrash “in a new cultural language” to try to answer the question of how to “create a synagogue where people whose lives barely intersect feel like part of one community,” he said.
“On Sunday mornings during religious school, the place is jammed,” he continued. “There are people sitting with coffee and laptops open, other people with Talmuds. There was a Jewish author researching her book, dads who want to talk about Judaism together and people who just want to hang out.”
The new beit midrash is one of a series of changes Steinlauf set in motion after he came to Adas Israel in 2008. Central to the goal of what the congregation calls the “vision of renewal” is to use synagogue activity to elevate relationships. The renewal required significant rebuilding, including a renovated sanctuary and chapel, as well as the beit midrash, at a cost of $14 million.
“Most congregations are running as if it’s 1965,” he said. “When I came here, I had a very specific message: The Jewish community is shifting radically. We must look at the fundamentals of what synagogues are.”
He said change at Adas Israel required a “paradigm shift” about what Judaism is. Most Jews grew up in “an objectified Judaism — an artifact Judaism. Judaism was a thing. Like a museum, you go and visit it, sometimes every week, sometimes at the High Holidays, and you must get access to make use of the thing.”
Getting access required knowing “the right amount of Hebrew. Knowing that you must rise on Page 52. It creates anxiety,” he said.
The point of the shift was to stop viewing Judaism as an artifact and “see all of it as a series of tools or technologies that are there for us. [Judaism] exists for the sake of human beings — to connect us to meaning, to God, to each other and to humanity,” Steinlauf said.
To encourage those connections, the mid-century sanctuary was redesigned to de-emphasize the predominance of the clergy on the high bima and increase the visibility of worshippers in the seats. The community instituted the Jewish Mindfulness Center, which has programs and workshops to deepen participants’ experience of the spiritual. And to sharpen the intellect, MakomDC offers ongoing educational activities in the beit midrash.
Steinlauf said the recently released Pew study of American Jews bears out the need for change. It found that the Jewish affiliation rate continues to drop and the Conservative movement continues to shrink.
“The reaction should not be to reinforce the 1965 model,” he said. “That’s an anxiety-based Judaism — we’re the ever-dying people. It’s a constant neurosis in the Jewish people.”
Instead, the Pew study is “a statement that the Jewish community in the United States is changing, and we have to evolve.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said Adas Israel now sees itself “as a communal institution and not a membership club,” and that new focus “is a key for success. It doesn’t just service the needs of congregants; it services the needs of Jews.”
He said the process Adas Israel went through to develop its innovations can be followed by other congregations.
“They’re a model of renewal and innovation. And they have the resources to do it as well. The challenging thing about it as a model is its size.”
Wernick said few congregations have the size, staff or resources to replicate what Adas Israel is doing. Still, said Steinlauf, “We have the responsibility to model programs and experiences that can be adapted in smaller congregations.”
Innovation is on the schedule of the centennial of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The gathering this weekend in Baltimore will look at new models for congregations. One keynote is called “Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community.”
On Oct. 2, some 1,000 people gathered in Adas Israel’s redesigned sanctuary for an evening of music, dance and drama to dedicate the congregation’s new spaces. Standing on the bima-turned-stage, synagogue President Arnold Podgorsky admired the congregation’s “more welcoming, more spiritual spaces.”
In the ceremony’s program booklet, Steinlauf spelled out the community’s vision this way: “With this renewal we are poised to become not just a synagogue for programs, services and religious schools, but a true spiritual Jewish community.”
Success for Adas Israel, said Wernick, will be a matter of more than just numbers. “It’s also, how many people are adding to their lives a Jewish experience, a Jewish opportunity, as a result of their vision and strategy.”
In other words, quality of Jewish life is important, too.