Over The Wire

April 26, 2013
BY By Maayan Jaffe
B’nai Israel is raising the bar on synagogue engagement. What can others learn?

active Empowerment
It can’t stop with the rabbi. Today’s young adults want to be heard. And that’s the second item on which B’nai Israel and Rabbi Mintz focus.

“I think we are doing well in creating space for young people to take on significant roles and have greater impact in shul. Young people look for deep, meaningful experiences to make a difference. They aren’t wanting just to write a check, they want to engage in a serious way,” said Rabbi Mintz.

Elisheva Goldwasser says at B’nai Israel, she feels comfortable practicing Judaism the way she wants.

Elisheva Goldwasser says at B’nai Israel, she feels comfortable practicing Judaism the way she wants.

Take B’nai Israel Young Adults, BIYA. The group is spearheaded and operated by the young adults themselves. At its helm is Elisheva Goldwasser, who took on the role about a year ago because at the time “nobody else wanted to do it.”

Today, BIYA is seeing steady growth.

“I think we have five to 10 new people a month,” said Goldwasser. “We see on average one or two new couples who are joining the synagogue per month because of the young adult presence and activities they are doing through BIYA.”

BIYA offers a monthly B-more Shabbat that recruits up to 80 people for services and Friday night dinner. The services that night are full of singing and dancing — “Carlebach style.”

B’nai Israel Young Adults host happy hours and other events.[/caption]

Each Sunday, there is BIYA Boot Camp. For $5, young adults can take a self-defense course in Patterson Park. The class is taught by a BIYA member. BIYA does happy hours and trivia nights. During the summer, it takes in Orioles games.

“Whatever people want to do, that’s what we do,” said Goldwasser, a young adult herself.

B’nai Israel Young Adults host happy hours and other events.

B’nai Israel Young Adults host happy hours and other events.

A feeling of empowerment certainly attracted Stephanie Hague and husband Aryeh Pelcovits to join. She described B’nai Israel as “grass roots.”

“The beauty of B’nai Israel is that as a young member you are a driver in making changes and deciding the future of the shul. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to assume formal and informal leadership roles and to influence the shul’s priorities and focus,” said Hague in an email interview. “The B’nai Israel community is overflowing with dedicated and committed volunteers.”

strong focus on Social Justice and spirituality
Volunteerism is another component. Fred Shoken, for example, opens the shul prior to services and closes it up afterward. He said he is the shul’s unofficial historian and is responsible for changing any of the 208 light bulbs in the main sanctuary when they go out, among other things.

The members do everything to keep the shul going,” said Rabbi Mintz. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
There are older members — some in their 80s — taking out the trash. The congregants set up the weekly Kiddush, wipe down the tables when it’s through.

It’s a help-out attitude that isn’t unique to downtown but is likely more prevalent there, said Dr. Fishbein. She explained that people at B’nai Israel share common goals and values and one of them =is a focus on social justice, something she thinks “people in the suburbs are not dealing with as much.”

Challenges to stodginess come about in waves, and the Jewish community is in a particularly strong wave of challenge right now, explained Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, a Reform rabbi and a prominent scholar of Jewish liturgy.

“Historians tend to call these moments religious awakenings. You can think of ourselves as living through a new religious and spiritual awakening affecting churches and synagogues equally,” he said. “In moments such as this, individuals feel empowered to challenge churches and synagogues of their youth — or their parents’ synagogues — and strike out on their own.”

But in their search, they are not running away from Jewish ritual, but rather returning to it. Rabbi Hoffman said “good, regular ritual” leads to a successful community.

“When the Mintzes came and word spread, people were attracted,” said Klein. “They want it — and it wasn’t there. The Mintzes came and created what people are looking for. They created a place where there is Tot Shabbat every Saturday, where there are children running around.”

The Mintzes provide a menu that strikes a balance between ritual and spirituality. At B’nai Israel, the atmosphere is one Rabbi Mintz describes as “Open Orthodox,” a commitment to Torah, chesed, spirituality and inclusivity.

Rabbi Mintz said he is in process of building an eruv, an enclosure that allows Orthodox families to carry from within their homes to public spaces. He said he sees one of his roles as making ritual Judaism accessible in downtown.

“One goal for me is to really facilitate and build Jewish infrastructure down here,” said Rabbi Mintz. “We have one kosher restaurant, Van Gough Café , but I want to bring more. An eruv, a preschool, these are all necessary for Jewish life.”

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