Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah is opening a center to help D.C.-area Jews become more deeply engaged in Jewish life, but according to officials, it’s not just another attempt by a synagogue to add to its membership base.
“Is this a membership committee on steroids? It’s really not,” says Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Nissan Antine.
The Potomac synagogue is in the processing of forming The Center for Jewish Engagement and currently is advertising for a full-time director. It is expected to be in full operation July 1, when the synagogue’s new fiscal year begins.
The basic idea is to connect with Jews, regardless of their religious background and level of observance, and allow them to explore Judaism and become part of a Jewish community. If it so happens that the best Jewish community fit happens to be at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, or at Aish HaTorah, Moishe House or a Chabad congregation, so be it.
Once a director of the center is hired, it will be that person’s responsibility to wander the area, finding people in coffee shops, public schools, Jewish community events and other people’s homes and speaking with them to determine the best way to engage them in their Judaism, Antine says.
Even if that person ends up attending classes or other programs at Beth Sholom, that synagogue need not end up as the person’s home community. Antine knows there are Jewish couples where one person may not be willing to become involved in an Orthodox synagogue, but that doesn’t mean the couple has to fall through the cracks, he explains. It would be this center’s job to find the right Jewish community for them.
Jewish movements, including Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, shouldn’t be in competition, stresses Antine. “We are not competing with any of them. We are competing with piano lessons, soccer, apathy and disengagement.”
Work to create the center began slightly less than a year ago and was a direct result of a question by a congregant, who wondered aloud what Antine, who took over as rabbi in July of last year, was passionate about.
Antine told that congregant his passion lies in working with Jews who “were not connected or not connected enough.” He says he would love his synagogue to become “an outreach center within the context of a shul.”
His synagogue and its members can “bring to the table the beauty of a Shabbat, Israel, Torah study. We have to share these gifts,” says the rabbi. He envisions mentors meeting one-on-one with someone who wants to learn more about Judaism or Hebrew with the result being not just the sharing of facts, but also the sharing of a love of religion.
“We really think we can use our members to spread the gospel” of Jewish community, says Antine. “The best way to get excited about something is to teach it.”
“We would consider it a success if we got somebody involved in another synagogue,” he notes. “We would be happy. This is about Jewish engagement.
“We have to work together to engage Jews,” continues the rabbi. “If not, the next generation of Jews is going to be facing a very serious problem.”