By the time Jonathan Nierenberg walked into the Young Israel of Woodmere one recent Saturday morning for shacharit in the main sanctuary, the men’s section, seating about 375, was nearly full.
He was a few minutes late: his 3-year-old son, Benji, had tripped on the way.
In the coatroom Nierenberg exchanged Shabbat greetings with congregants arriving for a second shacharit down the hall in an already crowded study hall: and with members coming for the "Not Just for Beginner" introductory service in the gymnasium/social hall.
The hashkamah, or early minyan, ended a few minutes later in a second floor beit midrash, just as junior congregation and a separate high school minyan were starting.
At Young Israel, which moved into a sprawling, two-story brick building three years ago, congregants have freedom of choice every Shabbat. On this day there were six morning services with a total of some 1,300 worshipers. Another service, for young couples, is held monthly in the Orthodox congregation’s social hall.
"I feel that the options we have really seem to build a sense of community," says Nierenberg, 32, a vice president for an Internet communications company.
Nierenberg and his wife, Alissa, moved to Woodmere seven years ago and joined the synagogue. The Young Israel of Woodmere has 710 member families, making it among the largest in the nationwide Young Israel movement. A steady influx of young families has moved in.
Last year Nierenberg was one of the founders of the young couples minyan, which regularly attracts more than 250 men and women. Alissa leads the four Saturday morning children’s groups that combine stories and play, allowing the parents to pray without distractions.
In a congregation that has expanded steadily since it was established 45 years ago as the South Shore Jewish Center-Congregation Etz Chaim, each Shabbat minyan now is SRO. The "Not Just for Beginners" service has outgrown its space in the synagogue library. The women now sit next to an impromptu divider, across from a kiddush for the early risers, while the men sit underneath a basketball backboard.
"Each minyan here has more people than other synagogues" in most communities, Nierenberg points out.
For Rabbi Danny Frankel, executive director of the synagogue for 17 years, the multiplex approach to Shabbat services (there are also five weekday minyans) is a constant juggling act, making chumashim and prayerbooks and Torah readers and other necessities available for each group of worshipers.
For Rabbi Hershel Billet, who is called on to approve every additional service, it is a matter of meeting congregants’ spiritual needs.
"There are a lot of people with a lot of differences," Rabbi Billet says. "People come from different homes, different traditions. People studied in different schools. Some people like a smaller minyan. Some people like a bigger minyan. Some people like a quicker minyan."
If a prayer service fitting one’s religious preference isn’t offered in Woodmere, it probably is somewhere else. A growing number of large synagogues have established alternative Shabbat minyans geared for immigrants, Sephardim and followers of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, among others.
"There’s a lot of room for everyone," says Rabbi Billet, who has served 20 years in Woodmere. "The job of a big shul is to embrace and serve as many people as possible."
The multi-minyan model of a synagogue, most common in areas with a burgeoning Orthodox population, combines the "economic advantages" of a large institution with "the intimacy of a small shul," says Samuel Heilman, professor of Jewish studies and sociology at the City University of New York.
"You have the character of a shtiebl," a small prayer-and-study group, usually housed in a storefront or private home, Heilman says. "Essentially it’s several congregations sharing a single rabbi."
While "the various minyanim take on the character of separate congregations," they "discourage" the formation of new or breakaway shuls, he says.
In Woodmere, Nierenberg and two other young members of Young Israel, Ari Schertz and Shlomo Zuller, brought the idea for a young couples minyan to Rabbi Billet about a year ago. "The rabbi endorsed it immediately," Nierenberg says: then the synagogue board gave its approval.
The first service took place within two months, with a few dozen worshipers. Some 100 worshipers came to the second service.
"We did not think it would grow this quickly," Nierenberg says. He says the minyan, in which he serves as gabbai, gives members the chance to lead services and lein the Torah: a chance they would be less likely, or less willing, to have in the main minyan.
"It gives the individual who might feel intimidated to daven from the amud in the main shul an opportunity to do it in front of their peers," he says "We’ve discovered some fairly nice voices that may not have davened [as congregational leaders] in the main shul before."
"I’m a different person," Nierenberg says, "because I feel more involved." He says his minyan helps his kavanah, or intensity of prayer.
The "Not Just for Beginners" service, part of the synagogue’s Gladys and Chaim Outreach Program, began as a standard beginners’ minyan in members’ homes seven years ago tailored for those who prefer a slower pace of praying and explanations of the tefilot.
"I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable walking into the [main] shul," says Shari Sloan, who joined the beginners’ minyan when she started attending Shabbat services regularly seven years ago. "This was a bridge for me."
One problem for a congregation with several prayer services: how to foster a sense of unity.
"Some of the old-timers have they said they remember when we had more of a sense of mishpocha," or family, Rabbi Billet says. It becomes harder for a member to know other members as before. "It loses its intimacy in that sense," he says.
The synagogue intentionally schedules several community events (classes, kiddushes, a Simchat Torah celebration, a shul dinner, a melave malka for the chevra kadisha, or burial society) during the year.
Nierenberg boasts that 80 couples in his young couples minyan attended the shul dinner last year.
Another unifying factor is Rabbi Billet and his assistant, Yaakov Lehrfeld.
"I used to go to every [minyan] every Shabbat," Rabbi Billet says. Now he goes to two or three; Rabbi Lehrfeld goes to the others.
Rabbi Billet gives a brief sermon (the same one) at each service. It saves preparation time but, the rabbi says, "It’s just more of a demand on my vocal cords."
Nierenberg, who grew up in a Young Israel congregation, says he would remain a member of Young Israel of Woodmere whether or not it adopted his young couples minyan.
"I would definitely be in the shul," he says. "I might not be as involved."