When Rabbi Baruch HaLevi took over as spiritual leader of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, Mass., which is just outside Boston, Shabbat attendance was anemic and two small rival factions in the synagogue were always arguing over which group was being called to the Torah more often.
These days, 300 to 500 people take part in the Conservative congregation’s Shabbat offerings and the place is now considered among the most dynamic in the country. It has been mentioned by some as a suburban version of B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which is known for its lively musical services and its large crowds of young professionals.
HaLevi, a 40-year-old father of three, is the co-author, along with congregant Ellen Frankel, of the recently published Jewish Lights book, Revolution of Jewish Spirit: How to Revive Ruakh in Your Spiritual Life, Transform Your Synagogue & Inspire Your Jewish Community.
Frankel is a Jewish social worker who has long been involved in Buddism, but came to her interest in Judaism through participating in non-traditional worship at the shul.
In the book, the authors don’t necessarily argue that their model — or that of B’nai Jeshurun’s — can be replicated elsewhere. But by dialing up the options and revving up the spiritual energy on Shabbat, congregations can go a long way toward transforming themselves to fit the realities of a shifting Jewish landscape.
“In my neck of the woods, nobody can replicate B.J. because it is on the Upper West Side of New York, which is a world unto itself. I don’t think our book is about replication. It’s about inspiration. These are ideas. Some of the ideas will stick. Many of the ideas will not,” said HaLevi in an interview.
“The point is to open up the conversation of possibility. For too long, we have headed down the path of unchallenged assumptions,” added the rabbi, who grew up in Omaha, Neb., and experienced a Jewish, spiritual reawakening in his early 20s.
In fact, HaLevi places his spiritual journey — and his tragic past — at the center of his rabbinate. In the book and in shul, he talks openly about his maternal grandmother’s suicide while he was a teenager. Several years later, HaLevi’s father also took his own life. That prompted a deep spiritual crisis in the author that ultimately led him to Tzfat in northern Israel, where he experienced a mystical, ecstatic form of Judaism for the first time.
“My father, my grandmother took their lives. If they had an inspired, relevant Judaism, I think they would still be alive. Certainly that drives me,” said HaLevi in an interview. “I am like many — not all of my colleagues — driven by this mission to save Jews. I think we need evangelical Judaism: Be aggressive in our outreach and save souls.”
One of the first changes he pushed for at the congregation was taking out the bimah, so that the rabbi and the congregation were literally on the same level. Much of his work has been about breaking down barriers.
The authors urge synagogues to adopt an attitude of “radical welcoming.” Shirat Hayam has a category of membership for “spiritual friends” — non-Jews who are connected to the congregation.
The shul offers a Synaplex-style Shabbat every week, with lots of different activities offered, traditional and non. Sunday school was also moved to Saturday so the children could experience the day more fully.
“When I got here, it was an assumption that Jews do Sunday school,” said HaLevi. But the idea that Sunday school was supplementing Shabbat no longer held true. “The problem is that the Jews I knew weren’t doing Shabbat.”
Offerings on Saturday mornings typically include Conservative and Renewal services, Torah study with a guest teacher, yoga — the synagogue by-laws have officially thrown any dress code out the window — and a 15-minute closing musical session modeled on the intense davening practiced in the United Synagogue Youth movement. Usually, they close with the singing of “Am Yisrael Chai.”
Perhaps the most ambitious element of the program is that every Saturday, year round, at noon on the dot, the synagogue serves a free lunch to hundreds of people.
“One of the things we have challenged — we are not the first, we are certainly not the last — is the assumption of how money is generated or directed in the Jewish non-profit world,” he said.
Synagogues, he said, are realizing that the practice of funding programs through dues and High Holiday tickets is both lacking inspiration and failing to pay the bills. But there is another way, he said.
“We have examples out there like Chabad that have basically reversed the model and instead of charging people upfront, Chabad is notorious for giving people services rendered and then asking for money afterwards and I think that is part of a more inspired model,” he said. “Once you give somebody something inspired, they are eager, in my experience, to invest.”