On Friday, July 19, 41 people gathered at a private home in Bridgewater to celebrate Shabbat with a casual potluck dinner. The informal evening began with a service that lasted 20 minutes and included plenty of singing. After dinner, the kids in the group went for a swim in their host’s pool.
It was the second “Share-a-Shabbat,” scheduled for the third Friday each month, held by the Chai Center for Jewish Life in Warren. Launched in May, the center is aiming to provide an alternative for Jewish life in the area.
There are no dues, services are mostly led by laypeople, there is little bureaucracy, and it is unaffiliated, although its leaders come largely from the Reform movement and the prayer book is the movement’s Mishkan T’filah.
Every Shabbat morning, the group meets in rented space in Warren for an hour of Torah study followed by a two-hour service. Starting Aug. 10, it is being led twice a month by Josh Goldstein, rabbi emeritus of Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, twice a month by a lay leader.
Although a majority of the initial group of 18 are former members and leaders of Temple Har Shalom in Warren, Chai Center president Wendy Merkin Piller and executive director Sharon Friedman agreed that they are attracting people who are unaffiliated — including interfaith families who have never been affiliated, empty-nesters who no longer belong to a synagogue, and divorced individuals who feel they don’t fit into couples- or family-oriented events at some synagogues.
While some have labeled the Chai Center a breakaway, Piller and Friedman insist that it is not that. They retain a love for Har Shalom, they say, and insist they established the Chai Center to meet needs that synagogues are not designed to meet.
“We wanted more casual worship and less bureaucracy,” said Piller. “I feel like we can be welcoming to people who feel synagogue life has nothing for them, like four divorcees who came to the most recent Friday night service. Because we’re so small, everyone is an individual.”
The center is also trying to provide a new option for religious school. Friedman, who served as director of Har Shalom’s religious school for 25 years until she retired earlier this year, was recruited to serve not only as executive director of the new congregation but also to run the Chai Center’s new learning center for children in kindergarten through 12th grade. So far the school has four teachers.
“It always bothered me that it costs so much money to be Jewish, and that families [usually] have to belong to a synagogue to send their kids to its school,” she said. “Every summer I would get inquiries: ‘Can my kids come to the school if we’re not members?’ I had to say no, and it always bothered me. Everyone should be able to get a Jewish education.”
So at the Chai Center, anyone who pays tuition ($950 per year, per child, flat fee, with no discount for additional children) is automatically a member of the Chai Center. (Dues at Har Shalom, for example, range from $975 to $2,800, while tuition costs from $595 to $952, although a temple administrator pointed out that people with financial hardships are never turned away.) Friedman was quick to point out that only three families with children registered for the learning center are from Har Shalom; most are interfaith families who had never affiliated.
And although there are no dues, supporters are informed that it costs about $1,500 per family to sustain the Chai Center, and then encouraged to give whatever amount they choose. The voluntary model is being tried at other congregations around the country; Rob Carver, a lay leader at Temple Israel in Sharon, Mass., told eJewish Philanthropy.com, “Because the commitment amount is presented as a personal financial decision that is not questioned by the temple administrative or finance staff, it is no longer a hurdle to affiliation.”
So far, said Piller, about 90 percent of participants have contributed $1,500 or more. “I was listening to so many conversations about people who just couldn’t afford to belong to synagogues. I felt it just wasn’t right,” said Piller, who has sat on the Union for Reform Judaism board and is a past president of Har Shalom.
‘Intimate and personal’
The Chai Center’s Share-a-Shabbat grew from 26 people who attended its debut in June to 41 in July. Saturday mornings have a regular attendance of about 20, and so far there are 35 supporters. By late July, about 25 students were registered for religious school.
“We’re shocked at how quickly this is taking off,” said Piller.
“We thought we would strike a chord — the numbers show we were right,” added Friedman.
In addition to Har Shalom, synagogues in the area include Conservative Temple Sholom in Bridgewater and Conservative Congregation B’nai Israel and Chabad Jewish Center in Basking Ridge.
Piller said Share-a-Shabbat is being held in people’s homes specifically to appeal to unaffiliated Jews who may be intimidated by entering a synagogue. “It’s similar to the model used by the Jewish Outreach Institute,” said Friedman, referring to the national organization that often encourages Jewish events outside the synagogue. “But instead of holding events in public spaces…we are meeting in homes. It’s just more intimate and personal.”
Not everyone is so sure that dismissing the synagogue model is such a good idea. Calling it “the most important Jewish institution since the fall of the Temple in 586 BCE during the Babylonian exile,” Rabbi Randi Musnitsky of Har Shalom said the synagogue “has served as a ‘house of assembly’ for Jews of every generation in every country in the world and is credited with keeping the Jewish people alive as the center for social and religious life.”
Furthermore, what makes the synagogue extraordinary, she said, is that it is not static. “It adapts with the changes in society and can be created as a home for anyone, anywhere.” Dubbing membership a “covenant,” Musnitsky said, “There is a mutuality in membership where both partners give and receive. The synagogue is a place to find faith, to find God, to share in each other’s joys, and to lessen each other’s heartaches.
“There is no substitute for the synagogue as the foundation of every Jewish community.”
Musnitsky said that “any attempt to engage and raise educated and committed Jews is to be supported.” However, she added, “the synagogue is not selling a product. Yes, money is a necessity to support infrastructure, facilities, and programming, but it is also a tool to fulfill the mitzva of tzedaka. Synagogues offer unparalleled support to local, national, and international community organizations, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.”
Among its other activities Chai Center has started are a book club and a social action arm and plans to add trips with an adult education component. The leaders are open to whatever new ideas arise from within the group.
“That we’ve done all this in such a short time absolutely takes my breath away,” said Piller. “It’s exhilarating.”