A physician might be queen of the operating room, or a lawyer king of the courtroom, but put them up on a bimah, and without some serious background, they'll feel fumbling, foreign and clueless.
And if that's the case, chances are they'll avoid feeling stupid by avoiding the bimah, or the synagogue, altogether.
The Board of Rabbis of Southern California and a coalition of synagogues and community organizations have just received a $50,000 grant to help remedy that through an adult education program called Lomed L.A.
"Many people stay away from synagogues or are less involved because they don't have the basic vocabulary of Jewish life," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis. "The goal of this program is to instill within adult Jews basic Jewish literacy."
Lomed L.A. involves synagogues of all denominations, the L.A. campus of Hebrew Union College, and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and its Council on Jewish Life, all under the leadership of the Board of Rabbis, also a Federation agency. The program will train knowledgeable lay leaders to teach classes or tutor on practical subjects, such as how to follow along for Friday night services, how to chant the Torah portion or how to lead an entire service. Classes, set to start next fall, will be held six nights a week all over the city.
"I can't think of anything more important to do as a community," Diamond said. "One of the greatest precepts we have is the mitzvah of talmud Torah -- continuous Jewish learning."
Participating synagogues include Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Valley Beth Shalom, Adat Ari El, Beth Jacob Congregation, B'nai David-Judea, Kehillat Ma'arav, Congregation Ner Tamid of the South Bay, Kehillat Israel, Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, Sinai Temple, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Temple Aliyah, Temple Beth Am and Temple Judea.
Lomed L.A. is one component of Kochav: The L.A. Jewish Living Network, the program that received the grant from Synagogue Transformation and Renewal (STAR).
The other component is No'am, roughly translated as serenity, a networking and idea-sharing consortium which will allow synagogue leaders to share creative and successful approaches to spirituality, healing, prayers and celebration. Still in the early stages of formation, No'am may include a resource directory, retreats and seminars for rabbis.
"There are some incredibly cutting-edge projects going on in L.A., and we want to begin sharing that with each other and other people," Diamond said. The Board of Rabbis will work with Jewish Family Services on No'am, and Diamond hopes it will encourage synagogues to "take a holistic approach to Jewish life."
Kochav, Hebrew for star, is one of 25 new efforts to benefit from STAR, a new $18-million philanthropy that hopes to help synagogues reach -- and positively impact -- more American Jews.
STAR is allocating a total of $565,750 this year, in amounts ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. All the grant recipients must raise matching funds, and all the programs funded are collaborative efforts among more than one stream of Judaism.
The philanthropy, one of several new initiatives focusing on synagogue transformation, was founded in December 1999 by mega-donors Charles Schusterman, Michael Steinhardt and Edgar Bronfman.
Although Schusterman died in late December and the organization has not yet found an executive director, STAR is nonetheless moving forward with the projects it announced at a special gathering in September.
Metivta: A Center for Contemplative Judaism, based in West L.A., received a $10,000 grant to expand its Spirituality Institute. The institute will now offer to lay people what it has already offered to rabbis worldwide: a venue for understanding and following their own spiritual paths, which they can then pursue in their own synagogues.
"Metivta is all about not only encouraging people to discover and deepen their own spiritual practice but about trying to make the Jewish world have more open arms to people who are out there trying to follow spiritual practices," said Judith Gordon, Metivta's executive director.
The STAR grant will allow Metivta to develop a program for lay leaders from Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills and Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. A group of about 30 will meet for seminars and discussion about once a month.
"Hopefully these participants will be able to be agents of change within their own synagogues and provide a setting that will make spiritual practice easier for other congregants," Gordon said, adding that the Institute is eager to enroll other synagogues in the program.
Along with participating in both Kochav and the Spirituality Institute, Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades, received a $10,000 grant to explore the possibility of creating JewishAliveandAmerican.com, a virtual synagogue capable of embracing individuals at all stages of Jewish learning through creative uses of emerging technologies.
In addition to awarding grants, STAR also is meeting with leaders of the religious movements to determine whether their synagogues need consultants to help them improve, and if so, how best to train them.
STAR is also bringing together a group of 25 rabbis to design something called Star Tech, Internet-based professional development courses for rabbis.
So far 170 rabbis have expressed interest in participating, said Sanford Cardin, executive director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
For both the consultants and the Internet project, STAR will work closely with the religious movements and not compete with services they already offer, Cardin said.
That approach may in part be an effort to overcome some bad feelings that surfaced at STAR's summit for a hand-picked group of 150 Jewish leaders, when Steinhardt ruffled feathers with a declaration that the Reform and Conservative movements were "accidents of history."
At that event several rabbis and communal professionals privately bristled at the philanthropists' blunt criticisms of synagogues but nonetheless expressed hope that the new initiative would draw needed attention and funds to congregational life.
At the time, several critics questioned whether STAR's grants would draw many proposals, since it allowed only a month for applicants to put such proposals together, required that all projects involve more than one stream of Judaism and obligated them to pull together matching funds in five weeks.
The matching fund requirement is to ensure that the projects have local support, Cardin said.
In the end, with 140 proposals requesting almost $7 million, STAR appears to have suffered no shortage of interest.
Some grantees said STAR's requirement that different organizations collaborate on projects has already spurred them to develop better relationships with other organizations.
STAR is a remedy for the fact that "in the synagogue world, we don't generally think about what's going on in the next community," Diamond said. STAR has "helped us think outside the box" and "given us added incentive to think this way," he added.
Other beneficiaries in the recent round of grants are:
The SAGE Leadership Institute in Boston, a multisynagogue effort to provide a yearlong educational and leadership training for Jews in their 20's;
Lilmode V'Laasote, a communal learning cooperative in which newly ordained Orthodox rabbis conduct workshops and serve as educational resources to the Jewish community of Boca Raton, Fla.; and
Panim Online, a demonstration project in Seattle to create customized Web sites for four synagogues, train congregational staff to maintain and market their sites and launch at least three mini-courses on the Internet.