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Will Friday Nights Ever Be the Same?

Sinai Temple celebrates the first anniversary of its successful 'Friday Night Live'

by Michael Aushenker

May 6, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Call it the "Phantom Menace" of singles events.

Since its debut one year ago, Sinai Temple's "Friday Night Live" programming has evolved into a 2,000-pound gorilla not to be trifled with. Local Jewish organizations have tried to duplicate it. National media has swarmed it. And other synagogues, when planning singles events, schedule around it.

Every second Friday of the month, at 7:30 p.m., a procession of young Jews, hailing from as far as the San Fernando Valley and Orange County, floats into the sanctuary buoyed by the house band's music. Rabbi David Wolpe and musical director Craig Taubman serenade Shabbat with their mix of message and music. Afterward, singles are invited to indulge in Israeli folk dancing, light dinner, study and socializing.

At the core of FNL's success is its architect, Wolpe. With wit and charm, the rabbi delivers sermons aimed at his young audience, peppering bimah banter with pop culture references and good-natured gibes at contemporary life. Wolpe, who will turn 41 this year and slip out of the 25-to-40 age bracket he has targeted with the program, is currently planning an anniversary celebration for the May 14 gathering.

"I wanted to create a service that would engage and inspire young people," says Wolpe, "to bring them back to synagogue and make them realize that Judaism has a great deal to offer them."

The free event has thrived, thanks to its blend of spiritual and social communion -- on a scale previously unseen on a regular basis in Jewish Los Angeles. Drawing enough of a crowd to pack the temple's block-long interior, the FNL juggernaut practically owns the second Shabbat of each month. When Steve Epstein organized Traveling Shabbat Singles last November, he decided to incorporate FNL as a regular stop on his synagogue-hopping schedule.

"I think it's very impressive that so many single Jewish people turn out, when the normal numbers are so low at temples and synagogues," says Epstein.

Last June, FNL drew about 400 people to its inaugural service. Since then, fueled by a little advertising and a lot of word of mouth, that number has doubled several times over to rival its East Coast inspiration, Manhattan's Congregation B'nai Jeshurun.

"To put 2,000 Jewish singles in one place once a month is amazing," says Sinai's Rabbi Sherre Zwelling. Responding to critics who view FNL as overwhelming and lacking in intimacy, the 30-year-old rabbi says that the program works "if you see it as the beginning or the middle of the journey" in one's spiritual quest.

"Yes, it's a singles event. But I think it's a service at its core," says Taubman, "because, after a year, if they don't find a date, and the service isn't strong enough, they're going to [bolt]."

Sinai's monthly monolith has inspired other synagogues to ambitiously court young Jewry.

"Ideally, all synagogues should be able to attract this age as well," says University Synagogue's Cantor Jay Frailich, creator of "Last Friday Night," which targeted twenty- and thirtysomethings and incorporated live klezmer and mariachi music. "[Before FNL], the area between college and children in religious school has been traditionally an age group that has not been [reached]."

Epstein attributes FNL's success to a combination of variables: "A young rabbi who relates to singles.... It's a very musically oriented service, which makes people very comfortable who are not normally used to going to synagogue, because the tunes are catchy." He also factors in Sinai's location, reputation and organizational prowess.

"Their marketing has been amazing," says Frailich. "I'm the father of a 23-year-old daughter who has gotten at least a dozen pieces of mail. They've done their homework."

Despite the large numbers, Wolpe insists that FNL has not greatly impacted Sinai's membership roster. He says that putting together the monthly communion "takes a lot of energy," and he credits Sid and Ruth Pilot, Rose and Alex Farkas, the Jewish Community Foundation, Murray Cohen of Jem Caterers, and other patrons as instrumental during FNL's première year. The service's success has even sparked a side project: Taubman's Craig & Co. has just released a CD compilation of the musician's service sing-a-longs, appropriately titled "Friday Night Live" (all proceeds of CDs sold at Sinai support FNL).

In the coming months, Taubman would like to see the energy of FNL's youth channeled back into the community: "I would like to see outreach programs that participants can participate in, such as feeding the homeless, Habitats for Humanity...Jewish Big Brothers." For now, Wolpe will not shake up FNL's formula, because attendees are, in his words, "not only looking for something different but for the same thing." And stepping up FNL's frequency is not pending, since Taubman is unavailable on a weekly basis.

From the beginning, Wolpe has had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve. When Taubman suggested including young families, Wolpe -- who is married and has a young daughter -- insisted on keeping FNL's objective limited to young professionals, since, as he bluntly puts it, "these are the people we're losing." He adds that there is plenty of solid programming already aimed at families.

While the skeptics around him are now astounded by FNL's success, Wolpe confesses that he knew all along that it would work.

"I believed that if we did this right, we would draw a huge crowd," he says. "This was a service waiting to happen."

For more information about Friday Night Live, call Sinai Temple at (310) 474-1518. To order Craig Taubman's CD, "Friday Night Live," contact Craig & Co. at (818) 760-1077, or at www.craignco.com.

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