We’ve all heard the old Jewish joke about the man alone on the desert island who builds two synagogues — one where he prays and the other where he wouldn’t walk in, even if you paid him.
The story is all too true when it comes to many of our Jewish communities. We can’t get along and we duplicate resources, inconsiderate of the overall communal impact. It is as if we have taken the dictum of Noah’s Ark — two-by-two — to mean that in every Jewish endeavor there must be more than one of what is being offered whether or not it makes economic or communal sense.
Case in point: the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side are less than one mile apart. Yet Central Park creates more than just a geographical divide in Manhattan. For many of the city’s Jews, it creates two very separate and distinct communities. In a time when social networking makes it easier than ever to connect with people across the world, programming that brings together people from both sides of town is conspicuously absent on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays.
We are two individuals professionally engaged in reaching out to unaffiliated Jews, not-yet-affiliated Jews, and Jews in search of something more meaningful. We are on two different sides of town, one on the Upper East Side and one on the Upper West Side. Both of our institutions, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and Kol HaNeshamah, deeply value outreach and make it a priority to reach out to all Jews young and old. While the two neighborhoods are indeed very different, when you look beneath the surface you will find some similarities that unite. One commonality is the thousands of Jews who are still on the periphery of the community — those that have not yet been engaged or who have fallen out of touch with their community. Last summer, in the midst of a conversation about what could be done to try to reach more of our fellow co-religionists we wondered: What would happen if, instead of trying to reach out only through our own institutions, we joined together to offer a unified program that would not only merge East and West Sides, but different ages and stages in life?
We both have noticed a very disturbing trend of the Balkanizing of the Jewish community. In a quest to make everyone feel comfortable and maximize their religious group experiences, Jewish programs and synagogue activities have broken down into smaller and smaller divisions — young professionals, older professionals, senior groups, children’s groups, etc. While this bifurcation certainly has a role to play, the increased divisions of religious services according to one’s age or status in life serves to divide people. It robs younger people of the exposure to older people and their life experience, and it deprives the older people from contact with those younger, often more youthful souls.
With this in mind, we designed and piloted a program, which we hope to expand, of Friday night services geared towards beginners. The inspirational Kabbalat Shabbat services are augmented by the pairing of the inspiring cantor and an a cappella group, adding ruach, or spirit, and making the davening, the praying, more accessible. Through the sharing of our explanations and Divrei Torah throughout the service, people are touched both intellectually and emotionally. The hot buffet kiddush afterwards allows time for socialization and a meal in honor of Shabbat, for those that might not ordinarily have the chance to participate in the Friday night rituals. Those attending the services are from across the age spectrum. Some married, others single, older and younger, babies and toddlers. The services speak to the beauty and totality of our community and are a sensible use of communal resources. We hope that this type of alliance can become a model for synagogues of all denominations and independent minyanim across the country. At the very least it adds a new definition to what a partnership minyan can be about.
It’s just the beginning.
Dr. Adena Berkowitz is a cofounder of Kol HaNeshamah, where she is scholar-in-residence. Follow her at @DrAKBerkowitz.