The Shabbat Service Game Changer @ Adas Israel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAReturn Again to Shabbat.  Nearly four hundred spiritual seekers descended on Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC this past Friday night for a new kind of Jewish experience.  It was a Shabbat service – with a twist.  The ritual team at Adas Israel called the service Return Again to Shabbat.  It was modeled on Adas Israel’s highly successful outdoor Yom Kippur evening service, which hosted over 600 people this past year on the front plaza of the 143 year-old synagogue.  It was a reflective, musical High Holy Day “journey,” which the community has been demanding more of ever since.  Using this inventive new model and a combination of reflective music, eastern sounds, and an enormous Israeli tapas-style feast, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt and Elie Greenberg of Adas Israel have left their mark on what it means to create a community Shabbat experience within a conventional synagogue setting.

Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, is historically marked by the treasured traditions of singing a series of psalms, the lighting of candles, and the eating of Challah bread.  This service took all of the successful ingredients of a standard Jewish Shabbat experience and added a new spice: just a touch of “soul.”  Rabbi Holtzblatt and Elie Greenberg of Adas Israel led the service with seating in-the-round and featured a group of seasoned musicians.  They employed reflective music, eastern sounds, and meditative remarks to infuse the service with modern meaning and spirituality.  The goal was to bring the DC Jewish community together for a profound and moving experience, while providing something easily accessible for Jewish beginners.

“We want to use the experience of Shabbat to make deep meaningful connections to each other as a community,” says Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt.  “We seek to provide an engaging environment in which our 4,000 year old traditions can come alive and the community can use them to find personal significance within a modern context.”

This innovative new Shabbat experience was the first of its kind for a large, conventional synagogue like Adas Israel.  The clergy, staff, and board of directors embraced it with open arms and see it as the first of many new and engaging programs of the Adas Israel Vision of Renewal – a multi-million dollar building and programming renovation aimed at changing the experience of synagogue life in the 21st century.

“I am so proud of the creative team behind the Return Again Shabbat service,” says Adas Israel Senior Rabbi Gil Steinlauf.  “There was a profound feeling of warmth and unity in the room.  I looked out at almost 400 hundred individuals who had all braved a cold and snowy DC night to come and rejoice with us in the power of Shabbat.  It felt like a congregation should; there were representatives from every community within our community: Hundreds of Young Professionals singing and feasting side-by-side with senior members, parents with young children, and everyone and anyone in between.”

On an average Friday night, most Young Professionals in Washington, DC can be found making their way to a bar or a club.  However, the buzz around this Shabbat service began weeks before it debuted.  It was the conversation of all the local community calendars and Social Media waves.  And the results were plain: More than half of the attendees of this unique Shabbat experience were in their twenties and thirties.  Partnering with the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington and Shabbat Hoppin’ – a Jewish Federation sponsored program for Birthright Alumni, Adas Israel continued to demonstrate leadership in the area of young people’s engagement by creating something new, rather than repeating something stale.

The implication is that rather than seeking to water down Jewish tradition in order to reach an under-served demographic, the staff of Adas Israel have put their creative minds together to build a series of authentic bridges into the community, so that each person can carve for themselves their own unique place within the synagogue and with Jewish practice itself.

“Engaging this next generation of Jewish Young Professionals is no easy task, and yet Adas Israel has risen to the challenge beautifully,” says synagogue President Johanna Chanin. “DC Young Professionals take leadership positions on building musical experiences, community-led holiday services, happy hours, and personal connections to the clergy and staff at Adas Israel. They have even developed a $99 full membership plan for people under the age of thirty – a first for any large conventional Jewish institution.”

Despite declining numbers in religious affiliation in America, general research indicates that cohorts of all generations are indeed seeking a deeper level of connection to their Jewish identity, and even their sense of Jewish spirituality. Adas Israel’s Jewish meditation sessions and yoga, new learning experiences, re-renovated worship spaces, and spiritually elevating Shabbat services like Return Again are all key components in the process of providing something just a touch off-center, new, and engaging for an emerging generation of Jews.

Adas Israel, a historic Jewish landmark for the nation’s capital, with its acceptance of musical holiday services, interfaith families, LGBT marriages, and mindful spiritual practices, is amongst the first prominent, American, Conservative synagogues to take these important initiatives to rebuild a currently dwindling population of affiliated Jews.

Return Again is a service that will likely go down in modern Jewish history as a game-changer for the Conservative movement’s understanding of what a congregational experience is. All signs point to it as step one on a path towards the renewal of the American Jewish community in the 21st century.