The late Friday afternoon sun sank slowly as a line of people began to form outside the doors of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. The midwinter chill clung to soon-to-be worshippers as they chatted, laughed, shifted their feet, turned off their cell phones, glanced over at the noisy rush-hour traffic on Broadway, and occasionally gazed at the clear, indigo blue sky beyond the apartment buildings and skyscrapers along Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Sandy Abramoff shoved her hands deep into her long winter coat and moved around to keep warm. An Owings Mills resident who attends Stevenson’s Chizuk Amuno Congregation and teaches at the Day School at Baltimore Hebrew, she was visiting her daughter, who recently relocated to New York to work for a publishing house. While there for the weekend, Ms. Abramoff and her husband, David, decided to “scout out” B’nai Jeshurun, hoping their daughter might eventually choose to attend services there and continue to be actively Jewish.
“We’re here to see what the big deal about this place is,” Ms. Abramoff said, staring at the synagogue’s gothic exterior and Moorish archways, as the line continued to stretch in an almost rock concert fashion. “I’ve never seen a line to get into a service before!”
Once inside, Ms. Abramoff watched closely as the predominantly middle-aged crowd — some in business suits, others in jeans and T-shirts — and young families packed the ornate, softly lit sanctuary and upper-level balcony area.
A hush fell over the congregation as Rabbi Marcelo R. Bronstein and rabbinical student Chen Ben Or Tsfoni stepped to the lectern. “Shabbat Shalom!” Rabbi Bronstein said in a booming voice, with worshippers echoing the sentiment, and he began chanting a niggun, or wordless melody, in a soft, pellucid voice. The congregants immediately joined in.
Then, nodding in the direction of a cluster of musicians nearby (a cellist, pianist, accordion player and drummer), Rabbi Bronstein led worshippers in singing a prayer until at one point, he smiled at a particular group and yelled, impishly, “Yidden! Shabbos!!” and began to laugh.
A few minutes later, the rabbi clenched his eyes tightly and thumped his siddur with his hand like a conga drum as he and the congregants — many of them rocking back and forth — sang in unison such prayers as “Et Dodim” and “Hine Ma Tov.” During a particularly spirited singing of “Lecha Dodi,” an older, casually attired couple walked behind the lectern and began dancing. Suddenly, the entire congregation was on its feet and clapping wildly — black church-style — and many people linked hands and began dancing around the sanctuary as if they were attending a bar mitzvah or wedding reception. The music and dancing accelerated to a frenzy, until everyone seemed a bit fatigued and satisfied and ready to return to the rest of the service. Curiously, the entire scene seemed spontaneous and yet expected.
A while later, after more singing and prayers and a short d’var Torah on accepting the slow nature of change in one’s life, Rabbi Bronstein called on worshippers to remember it was the Shabbat before the national annual observance of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The Abramoffs soon found themselves arm-in-arm with strangers, swaying and singing “We Shall Overcome,” with the civil rights anthem reverberating in the sanctuary with unabashed emotion, drama and a sense of fellowship. People afterward turned to each other, offering “Shabbat Shalom” wishes and hugs, even to complete strangers.
Ninety minutes after first walking into B’nai Jeshurun, Ms. Abramoff stepped into the cold New York night and noticed a long line of largely 20- and 30-somethings snaking down West 88th Street, waiting to enter the synagogue for the 7:15 Shabbat service.
A couple of weeks later, back in Baltimore, Ms. Abramoff described attending B’nai Jeshurun as a spiritually transformative experience. A Baltimore native, she said B’nai Jeshurun reminded her of her early teen years at the old Moses Montefiore-Woodmoor Hebrew Congregation, in the mid-1960s.
“We didn’t have a cantor then, so we all sang together, and it was wonderful,” she said. “Then, the congregation hired a cantor and he sang for us, and everything changed after that point.
“What I loved about B’nai Jeshurun was that this was a congregation-run service in unison. In some ways, we didn’t really need the rabbi or a cantor there. It all seemed spontaneous and full of joy. I like a service where I am praying, I am singing, I am participating. The congregation led this service. We were the choir. It wasn’t the rabbi’s service or the cantor’s service but our service, and I left feeling energized.”
That kind of energy, that feeling of exuberance and ecstasy and seeking communion with God, Ms. Abramoff charged, is woefully lacking in local synagogue and temple life.
“All of my friends and I belong to different synagogues, and we all say the same thing — we’re not getting much out of this, that we want to participate, we want to feel the joy,” she said. “These places are basically offering the same service. We’re numbing our congregations, and we’re losing many people because the services are not as enjoyable as they should be.
“My friends and I talk about this all the time,” she said. “‘Can we talk to the rabbi about changes?’ ‘Can there be an alternate service?’ ‘What can we do?’ We’re all looking for something. People just want joy and connectedness. They don’t want to go and sit in a seat and wait for it to be over.
“If B’nai Jeshurun was here, I’d go all the time,” Ms. Abramoff said. “We can learn a lot from B’nai Jeshurun, and we need to do it now. Otherwise, we’re going to lose an entire generation of Jews.”
B’nai Jeshurun, known by its congregants and admirers simply as “BJ,” has been viewed as a national model for Jewish rebirth and rejuvenation for more than a decade. The synagogue of approximately 1,850 families and individuals — which was previously Conservative but now is unaffiliated, although it is closer to Conservative in practice and observance than any other branch of Judaism — was the focus of a $160,000 ethnographic study undertaken by Synagogue 2000, a national, trans-denominational project aimed at revitalizing congregational life in the United States. Synagogues around the country regularly send emissaries to the shul to determine if any of BJ’s practices or elements can fit into their own services.
What they find is a congregation reverential toward tradition, while open to experimentation and innovation; committed to inclusiveness, authenticity, universalism and egalitarianism; and devoted to the values of community, worship, social action and study.
All in the midst of the well-heeled bastion of progressive, left-wing New York Jewish intellectual elite culture, the Upper West Side, where nearly every thoroughfare and side street brims with synagogues, shtieblach, Judaica stores, delis or other Jewish centers.
“BJ’s success rests not only in the charismatic message of a questing, religious community engaged in the world,” Jewish sociologist and academic Dr. Shaul Kelner wrote a few years ago in a case study of the synagogue. “Key to the congregation’s emergence as a ‘phenomenon’ is the manner in which the message is articulated. ... The feeling of participation in something of ultimate significance emerges from the immediate encounter with the community. ...
“B’nai Jeshurun has touched people’s lives and made them feel that their participation in this community is itself an act of transcendent meaning.”
At the heart of the BJ experience are the two Friday night services, held at the congregation’s 91-year-old home at 257 W. 88th St., which usually draw collectively between 1,000 and 2,000 worshippers weekly.
(For space reasons, the more conventional Saturday morning service — including junior congregation and “Tot Shabbat” services — is held at the nearby, 1,200-seat St. Paul and St. Andrew, on 86th Street.)
The earlier Friday night service tends to attract families and older adults, while its later counterpart generally attracts college students, singles and young married couples. Both services are infused with kavanah, or spiritual intention, and ruach, spiritual joy, albeit with a good deal more socializing and hormonal rubbernecking during and after the later service.
“A lot of people have gotten married and demographics in the Upper West Side have changed, so there’s a bigger family population now,” said Rabbi Felicia L. Sol, who originally came to BJ in 1996 as a family and youth director. “Families are more of a priority now than when I first came, but the later Friday night service is a more transient population looking for a more social outlet.”
Music is paramount to all of BJ’s services, serving as the major drawing card for worshippers of all backgrounds and the physical manifestation of the congregation’s spiritual quest and petition.
With the accompaniment of musicians, some of whom are congregants and others who are hired by the synagogue, BJ employs a constantly evolving repertoire of prayers and melodies to engage worshippers. The prayers and songs, selected by BJ’s three rabbis and musical director, Chazzan Ari Priven, derive from a multitude of sources, even from outside of Jewish circles, such as ancient Sufi melodies. The songs, all in Hebrew, are completely participatory and easily accessible, even for the synagogue service neophyte. BJ even sells CDs of its musical offerings.
“Music opens the soul,” said Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, BJ’s longest-serving spiritual leader. “It’s a sledgehammer against our armor. It penetrates and breaks the walls of your soul. In some ways, God lives in the music, if you let God in. You have to make an opening for God to reside there, and prayer is an effort. It doesn’t just happen. Singing, music, helps make that happen.”
Simply put, Chazzan Priven views music — which is virtually non-stop at BJ’s services — as a tool of the trade.
“Music is one of the most important vehicles for prayer for a community, and also it’s one of the most inviting qualities for someone who comes [to a service] for the first time. It’s the tip of the iceberg for many people,” he said. “Music helps build a community and a bridge to other cultures. We purposely don’t use only one type of music or composer, so that you might only be familiar with some of the melodies.
“We have our act together in using material that makes sense to us and inspires us,” he said. “I’m a proponent of participatory prayer and not passive listening. The experience with [congregational singing] has the opportunity to go higher spiritually.”
In part, Rabbi Matalon attributed the emphasis on music to the Argentinian roots of himself, Rabbi Bronstein and Chazzan Priven, as well as the air of informality at BJ. The synagogue’s clergy tend to be referred to by congregants simply by their first names.
“Some of the Latin American spirit and approach to Judaism and music is here. That’s part of the ethos,” said the soft-spoken Rabbi Matalon. “Not being so uptight, that attracts people, to let yourself go without going completely crazy, to believe, to pray, to have faith, to be a Jew. You can’t be too guarded. In too many of our synagogues, there is too much formality, an absence of the ability to fly, to dream, to let go, to not be like you are in an office.
“In a synagogue, you have to make yourself vulnerable. Too often, synagogues are cold places where people don’t clap or sing or put their arms around the person next to them or let the prayer book touch them. You shouldn’t know exactly what’s going to happen next at service. You need to let God move you.”
But that sense of spontaneity and unpredictability has dissipated to a certain degree at BJ over the years, according to Sue Fishkoff, the West Coast correspondent for JTA Wire Service who belonged to the synagogue in the early to mid-1990s.
“[BJ] became very popular very quickly, especially with young single Jews,” she recalled. “You would go there on a Friday night and there would be 1,500 people attending. They were one of the first congregations to have the vibrant singing in a mainstream synagogue. It couldn’t have been done outside of the Upper West Side, where you had and have a critical mass, physically and emotionally, of learned Jews who are willing to dance in the streets on Simchat Torah.”
BJ, Ms. Fishkoff said, became a victim of its own success. “When I went there last year, I found that the singing felt more forced,” she said. “They institutionalized the vibrancy. They had to. Otherwise, you can’t sustain yourself. Like Lenin said, ‘Every successful revolution contains the seeds of its own destruction.’”
In some respects, Rabbis Matalon and Sol agreed with Ms. Fishkoff’s critique.
“Everyone knows when the moment is,” said Rabbi Sol, alluding to the tradition of congregants dancing wildly during the singing of “Lecha Dodi.”
“So we try to downplay the rigidness around the dancing. But the truth is, that’s what BJ is known for. So we try to play with it a little, and make it more playful.”
Said Rabbi Matalon: “Sometimes, I’d like it to be spontaneous, like it was the first time. You get used to it. But we have spontaneity in that people don’t always know what we’re going to sing. Some stuff is predictable, so you put kavanah in the repetition, and sometimes there’s a surprise in the tefillah [prayer].”
Rabbi Matalon gave the example of the Saturday morning Shabbat service during the recent MLK observance weekend. After leading the congregation in the silent reading of the Amidah prayer, he suddenly began chanting a niggun to the tune of “We Shall Overcome,” and worshippers followed suit. The result was a poignant moment in synagogue that bridged Jewish prayer and universal activism — all without the utterance of a single word or phrase.
“I wasn’t programmed to do that after the Amidah,” Rabbi Matalon said. “I didn’t plan it when I woke up that morning. It just came to me — a civil rights niggun.
“What we’ve done is institutionalized change. People here expect and demand it, not change for change’s sake but where it makes sense.”
Rabbis Without Fear
Early one gray Friday morning in January, a yellow taxi pulled up to B’nai Jeshurun. A well-dressed, middle-aged woman, carrying a briefcase and two suitcases, jumped out, paid the cabdriver and dashed toward the synagogue’s side entrance.
“Can you hold that door, please?” she yelled to a visitor, as church bells chimed in the distance.
Inside, about 25 men and women were getting ready for the morning Shacharit service. Taking out their tefillin bags and kippot, they greeted the woman, who threw down her luggage on a chair. Most of the worshippers were dressed in business attire, although a few wore tattered jeans and even tie-dyed shirts. (Most live on the Upper West Side, but some came in from other parts of Manhattan, and even from Westchester County, N.Y., and northeastern New Jersey.)
Suddenly, a small man in his mid-40s with a beard, metal-rimmed glasses and a colorful knit kippah rushed into the sanctuary. A red-and-white sign hung high over the aron kodesh: “A call to your conscience SaveDarfur.org .”
“Boker tov [good morning], everyone,” Mark D. Lehrman said, placing his knapsack on the boardroom-style table in the center of the sanctuary, which everyone was seated around. “I’m sorry I’m late. My bus broke down.”
A minute later, after catching his breath, Mr. Lehrman began leading the service with a niggun: “Di, di, di, di ...di, di, di, di.” Using the Sim Shalom siddur, prayers were sung in a spirited and decidedly non-“speed-davening” manner, with harmonizing on unconventional melodies and even such physical displays as clapping, dancing, table-banging and knee-slapping. At one point, a man placed his clenched fist to his forehead and rocked back and forth. Nary a yawn, nodding-off or bored expression was in sight.
“It’s a very joyous service,” said regular minyan-goer Sheldon Ostro. “It’s very different from my Boro Park, extreme Orthodox service background.”
An attorney who grew up in a Reform household on the Upper East Side, Mr. Lehrman could easily pass for a former yeshiva bucher, or student, especially with his davening manner of silently and intensely reciting prayers while rocking his body at a furious pace. But prior to coming to BJ, he said he could not read Hebrew or even daven.
“It changed my life,” Mr. Lehrman said of joining BJ in 1994 after taking a singles mission to Israel. “I was just blown away, transported by the intensity and focus. No one was looking at their watches, and everyone was participating. You can’t bottle this.”
When first attending services at BJ, Mr. Lehrman said he was astounded that there were not any rabbis in attendance. “It was all lay-led,” he said. “That was eye-opening because where I grew up, you delegated the rabbi to pray for the community. But here, you had to learn it and participate. So I started coming every Friday night, schlepping in from the east side.”
Mr. Ostro said the partnership between the congregation and the rabbis is what makes BJ unique and successful.
“Here, nobody even knows the name of the president of the congregation,” he said, laughing and looking around the Shacharit group, all of whom nodded in agreement. “There’s no men’s club, brotherhood or sisterhood. There are no big shots here. Even the rabbis are called by their first names. It’s just a different approach. We have a board of trustees, but it’s not a board-generated congregation. The rabbis don’t live in fear of satisfying anyone.”
Rabbi Matalon said, for the most part, the type of political maneuvering and acrimony that plagues many houses of worship does not exist at BJ. The clergy is largely left alone to determine the congregation’s direction, he said, with the board’s oversight and consultation (and without a rituals committee). This approach is largely a remnant of the early days of BJ’s renaissance in the mid-1980s, when the late Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer was hired by the synagogue to take over and alter BJ’s course of likely demise.
“We try very hard to convey the message that politics and exclusivity and infighting can destroy what we have built here,” Rabbi Matalon said. “It does happen on occasion, but usually very little. The board ultimately lets us make the decisions. We have made mistakes and have been arrogant, and we’ve learned what not to do. But the board supports us and rallies us.
“The vision is mostly ours,” he said. “It emanates from the rabbis, and the board helps us shape it. We debate and discuss, and they challenge and join us. The congregation helps us perfect our vision, and they internalize it, and we tweak it. Sometimes, we fail, but they give it a shot. They allow us to experiment, even if at first they’re not sure about it.”
Rabbi Sol emphasized that the congregation and its leaders are on a level playing field, as symbolized by the synagogue’s lack of a bimah or large, regal chairs positioned by the aron kodesh to be occupied by synagogue machers during services.
“We don’t want that kind of hierarchy and distance,” she said. “We don’t want the synagogue to be a staid place. Davening should be for everyone, not a show or performance. People should see me as a person, not a rabbi. Here, we all play the role of shlichut tzibor [emissaries to the congregation]. Everyone is a participant.”
If it all sounds (especially for stereotypically cynical, world-weary New Yorkers) a bit too congenial and “Kumbaya,” as one of BJ’s detractors summed it up, that’s just fine with Rabbi Matalon. He makes no apologies, while admitting that some more progressive congregations that he has visited make him uncomfortable with their physicality and excessive friendliness.
“Some people find it too touchy-feely here,” he said of BJ. “That’s OK. I don’t mind touchy-feely. Life itself is touchy-feely. We all have different boundaries. BJ is not meant to be for everyone. I don’t get offended. But as rabbis here, our job is help make the experience happen. It’s not about us. We’re here to make people aware and to try harder — wake up!”
Next week: Could B’nai Jeshurun “work” in Baltimore.