The shades were drawn in the classroom at the Skirball Cultural Center. Lights dimmed. A white cloth anchored by softly glowing candles covered the center of the room. Sitting cross-legged on the floor or on straight-backed chairs, a group of men and women kicked off their shoes and closed their eyes as Rafael Harrington guided them in meditation.
At the same time in adjoining rooms, Mike Mason was leading a circle of fervent drummers, while Naomi Ackerman conducted a series of theater games focusing on Jewish identity.
These workshops, presented as possibilities for enhancing Shabbat offerings, were part of an afternoon organized by Synaplex, an initiative of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Family Foundation.
About 150 people, including rabbis, cantors, lay leaders and staff from 40 congregations representing all denominations -- Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Renewal -- attended the Oct. 25 event, which was also sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. The capacity turnout -- some congregations got no farther than the waiting list -- was a clear indication that Synaplex, with its promise to help build membership participation through innovative Shabbat programming, is addressing a need.
Rabbi Hayim Herring, STAR's executive director, emphasized that most people are not currently happy with their Shabbat observance.
"We don't want to lose the minority who are satisfied, but we have to add to what we're offering, so more people have rewarding experiences," he said. "We know there is no magic bullet.
"People have all kinds of yearnings," Herring continued. "Some are looking for God, some for prayer and meditation, some for community. I don't want to impose my definition of spirituality on anyone else. We all go through different stages; what fits us today might not fit us tomorrow. If you think of Shabbat as the destination, Synaplex provides many paths to get there. Synagogues take what we have to offer and imbue it with their own creativity and energy."
Ready to expand beyond the 120 congregations it now works with throughout the country, Synaplex offered the afternoon as an opportunity for interested congregations to sample a variety of activities, as well as to hear from veteran participants in the program.
"Synaplex gave us the scaffolding to create an expanded Shabbat community," said Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Judea in Tarzana and West Hills, which has been involved in the program for three years. "We were interested in bringing in groups that weren't participating in Shabbat. During our monthly Shabbats, we now have a Saturday luncheon for seniors that draws 50 people and a Shabbat romp for 30-45 families with small children.
"We've created a fusion service on Friday nights. We've gone from an average of 75-100 participants to well over 200. During a Synaplex Shabbat, there's always something going on. We initially had simultaneous offerings, but the congregation didn't like missing any of the activities, so our events are now sequential.
"Synaplex provided us an opportunity to experiment and explore and suggested new ways to create a sacred community," Moskovitz reported. "In a sense, it's completely transformed our service. Our Synaplex Shabbat was like a stone dropping on a calm pool of water. The ripple effect continues to reverberate in a positive and profound way across our temple community."
Rabbi Laura Geller, describing the four years of evolution of Synaplex at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, said, "There are many different doors to Judaism. For some it's spiritual, for some it's cultural, for some it's community, for some it's learning, for some it's social justice," and the genius of Synaplex is that all those doors open onto Shabbat.
"Our Shabbat Unplugged Services were our most successful, but we wanted to add to that," she said. "We wanted to bring in the most underserved segments of our population -- families with young children, singles and older people. From the beginning, the project had a playful quality as we began to imagine new kinds of programs."
Geller described a typical Synaplex Friday, which might have 300 people in attendance (the regular Friday night services draw 70-100.) There is a Tot Shabbat and a healing service, as well as dinners for families and empty nesters and a wine-tasting for young adults, followed by the Shabbat Unplugged Service. The evening concludes with a festive oneg, complete with cappuccino cart, and a program that might include a guest speaker, film or music.
"There's tremendous energy," she said. "That energy makes people proud to be connected to Temple Emanuel. It's still a work in progress. Shabbat was created to let people take a deep breath. Our Synaplex Shabbat reminds us how important a connection to a synagogue can be. It can be a connection of joy."
Elana Centor, STAR's marketing consultant, had the task of convincing the audience that the language of marketing and branding is not just appropriate but necessary for the revitalization of synagogues. Acknowledging that many in the group might not have the most positive feelings about "marketing," she urged them to think of it as a "process of exchanging something of value for something you need."
Her confidence in the efficacy of her approach and the importance of emotional connections appeared to melt most resistance, even for those who weren't quite ready to think of their congregation as a "brand."
When a congregation signs on to Synaplex, she assured them, they'd have access to the experience and resources of those who have been working successfully with the program for several years.
As the afternoon wound down, many lingered for a summing up. Sandy Calin, president Temple Kol Tikvah of Woodland Hills, reflected the enthusiastic consensus, saying, "We have a small congregation, about 250 families. We need both to grow and to revitalize ourselves. Synaplex provides an enormous variety of ways to participate."