On July 8, Bethesda Jewish Congregation’s former rebbetzin, Yaffah Schnitzer, the wife of rabbi emeritus Elhanan “Sunny” Schnitzer, will return to the synagogue to host a “Chant Circle & Spirit Spa.” The event is about raising your “spiritual awareness,” according to the unaffiliated synagogue’s website.
It’s for people who are “really into spirituality,” said the synagogue’s rabbi, Eric Abbott.
The community prides itself on staying true to Jewish spirituality, values and rituals, according to Abbott. At the same time, it prides itself just as much on independence, lack of affiliation with and an ever-evolving approach to Jewish practice.
The synagogue was founded in 1964 by a group of Jews who gathered to have intellectual debates about the Judaism. While it did grow into an institution, Bethesda Jewish Congregation remains true to that coffeehouse vibe today.
At his first high holiday service last year, Abbott opened with a song. But then he had members look at a text and discuss it with the people around them. At the start of each religious school session on Saturdays, the rabbi will also open with a song. But then he’ll ask the students a question.
“What are you grateful for?” was one question.
“The Nats winning a game,” went one response.
“OK, Baruch atah Adonai, we’re grateful for sports moving our bodies,” the rabbi recalled answering.
“We’re not in the industry of getting people to pay dues,” Abbott said. “We’re not in the industry of doing Hebrew school exactly the way we’ve always done it. We’re in the industry of meaning making.”
They would not think of changing the synagogue’s philosophy, the rabbi explained. But they are trying to apply it even more to certain aspects of synagogue life.
During his first meeting with b’nai mitzvah students and their parents, Abbott tells them that no matter what they learn and do on the bimah, they will be celebrated. It does not matter if a student only reads a few lines of Torah. What matters is that they do it.
“It’s a way to say, ‘You did it. Let’s celebrate you,’” he said.
“What makes you say, ‘Wow?’” Abbott will ask a student.
A kid may answer that it was the genetics and DNA he learned about in science class that week.
“And we’ll say, ‘Wow,’” the rabbi said.
“Here’s what I say to all the families: ‘We’d rather have your students come away comfortable with their Jewish identity and proud of it than knowing every prayer,’” he said. “Now, of course, we’d rather have it both ways. We do learn the prayers. So, our goal is to do that and have them come away feeling good.”
Abbott said that since he came on board, the Hebrew school has grown from five students to almost 40. The size of the congregation has also increased to about 160 households.
Abbott said he hopes to continue offering “access points in many different ways.” The synagogue’s Friday night service is “more Reform,” he said. But its Saturday morning service is longer and “more traditional,” he added.
“We’re not bound by a denomination, but we can draw from them all,” Abbott said. “People still want community, and they still want to build relationships. And they want to connect with God and stay true to their heritage.”