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Rabbi's Message - Shabbat Goes Hollywood?

By Rabbi Rafi Rank

Dear Cyber Rav,

I recently came across an article about an organization, STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), which is the baby of Jewish philanthropists Edgar Bronfman, Charles Schusterman, and Michael Steinhardt who have put up a whopping $18 million with hopes to revitalize the synagogue. But the synagogue they are trying to create sounds Hollywoodish, and in some circles has been dubbed a "synaplex (like cineplex). The synagouges would be offering services as usual, but on top of that, could also offer a variety of cultural events like storytelling, Torah yoga classes, cooking, classes on Israel or business ethics, etc. What's your thoughts about this? Popcorn Lover While at the Movies, But in Shul?

The Answer

Dear Popcorn Lover,

First of all, in general, I'm in favor of drawing Jews to synagogues, I'm in favor of revitalizing synagogues, and I'm really in favor of $18 million dollars being used wisely for purposes of tzedakah. And though I hate to be a nay-sayer, I've got my doubts about this project.

I think the project will ultimatley draw Jews to the synagogues, but I just don't think it will result in creating the kind of Jews that we want--reverent, spiritual, and Jewishly involved. The program is aimed at secular Jews and seems to water down Jewishness with secular or new-age spiritual spins. It is a project that asks Jews to come to synagogue not for transformation, but for confirmation of who they have become-assimilated, secular, and alienated. To have Jews cooking on Shabbat, even if it is a kosher recipe, is not my idea of success. In a traditional setting, cooking on Shabbat is forbidden. I love yoga too, but to have Jews in synagogue on Shabbat doing yoga, is not my idea of success. I want Jews in synagogue who are as adept at davening as they are at flexing their bodies.

What I would rather see happening on a global scale is the Jewish leadership challenging the people to repossess a heritage that they have all but abandoned. In other words, I believe that the issues at hand--our Hebrew illiteracy, our Jewish illiteracy, our atheism, our mistrust of religion, our nauseating obsession with what the "goyim" may think, etc.--must be dealt with head on. How did we become so alianated?

Jews must be challenged and goaded. I think we have to ask ourselves how such smart people as us have ended up so ignorant about our heritage, and in the end realize that we did not so much make a conscious a decision to abandon our Jewishness as much as history conspired to drive us from our roots. I think that only such penetrating questions will result in Jews returning to Judaism, for two reasons. First, I think Jews are thirsting for spirituality but have been conditioned to think of Judaism as being incapable of offering it to them. Second, I think that few Jews have consciously or seriously delved into Judaism, so most have not rejected Judaism--they simply have not embraced it.

These philanthropists are certainly to be commended for their efforts. But I know that at least one of them has openly confessed to his atheism or agnoisticism. If he is trying to re-create a Juaism in his own image, it may not necessarily be an image we ought to emulate.

In any event, if someone would give me $18 million dollars, I could reinvent the synagogue in a traiditonal context, and provide popcorn for everyone each Shabbat! Cyber Rav

Rafi Rank is Rabbi of Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, NY as well as Vice President of the International Rabbinical Assembly


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