Carole Levine had been a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood for 28 years. During that time, she attended temple only during the High Holidays. Recently, Levine has started going to temple more often. As a flautist for The Chai Tones, a 10-piece temple band, Levine finds herself at the temple now at least once a month, playing jazzed-up versions of the regular synagogue melodies.
"I've felt more connected to the temple since I started playing there," said Levine, a professional musician. "I know all the songs now and I know all the prayers I didn't know before."
To counter declining attendance during regular services, several temples are regularly holding arts-enhanced services -- such as The Chai Tones at Temple Israel, Friday Night Live at Sinai Temple in Westwood, Shabbos Fest at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and services at Temple Shalom for the Arts -- to get the crowds in the door. Typically, these services increase the temple attendance by at least 25 percent and, for many, they facilitate an entree into synagogue life that they might not have experienced before.
"Friday Night Live [FNL] has made a tremendous difference," said Rabbi David Wolpe, who started FNL with musician Craig Taubman as a way of appealing to the single and childless post-college population to attend temple. With its mixture of live music, Israeli dancing, singing and speakers, FNL now draws about 1,500 people to Sinai Temple once a month.
"It gives a lot of people the chance to be part of our community, and most come to other events at the temple as well," Wolpe said.
"[These programs] attract people who are peripheral members of the temples, Jews-by-choice, people on their way to conversion as well as active members," said Cantor Aviva Rosenbloom of Temple Israel of Hollywood.
In fact, these ventures have been so successful that there are two Los Angeles synagogue revitalization organizations -- Synagogue 2000 and Breeyah -- that are devoted to helping synagogues and temples develop arts-based services. Synagogue 2000 has already consulted with 95 synagogues in Los Angeles and 23 in other cities, and they use the arts as one of the ways to help synagogues give their congregants a more authentic spiritual experience. Breeyah, which was started by Cantor Steven Puzarne, has already assisted in the creation of 10 temple bands around the country.
"We have a theory that every synagogue should be a Jewish arts center," said Puzarne, whose experiences at Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica -- where only 30 people would attend regular services, but 300 came to the musical services -- led him to start the organization. "The synagogue should be an extremely creative place that uses the arts as the center of that activity.... Every cantor should be the artist-in-residence."
Arts-based services tend to be held in Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues. Although halachic restrictions prevent Orthodox synagogues from having live music, the success of congregations like The Happy Minyan in Pico-Robertson, where standing-room-only crowds regularly enjoy the extended singing and dancing, suggests that there is a place for a less traditional service in the Orthodox world as well.
"A lot of artists are soul-searchers and dreamers, and so, too, are people on a religious path," said Rabbi Zoe« Klein of Temple Isaiah. "There are lots of different windows into the soul, and one of them is creativity."