Is the Jewish future in a storefront?

Rabbi Josh Beraha leads a Micah Storefront Project testing session in 2018. Photo provided

Imagine a Shabbat morning service in a coffee shop or a book store, with a rolling cart of prayer books, a guitar and some fresh bagels.

That’s how Temple Micah Associate Rabbi Josh Beraha pictures the Micah Storefront Project. The project, which the Washington synagogue is rolling out this weekend, is designed to “bring Judaism into the public square,” he said.

Rather than having services in a synagogue building that is designed to be a “fortress,” the Storefront Project will bring Jewish worship into places around the city not usually thought of as holy.

“The storefront is like building a synagogue out of Legos, not bricks,” he said. “When synagogues were fortresses, they were built protect Jews against the assimilation of the outside world. This project is an attempt by Temple Micah to break down the walls.”

Storefront services will be led by Beraha and Assistant Rabbi Stephanie Crawley. Beraha will lead services for young families and Crawley will lead services for young adults. Both services are designed to be more accessible to people who don’t live close to or belong to any synagogues in the area.

“I think this might be easier for people,” Beraha said. “I’m a dad and I think it’s easier in some ways to wake up and bring your kids to an ice cream shop than to synagogue.”
He’ll find out this weekend. The first “Pop Up Shabbat,” aimed at families, will take place on Aug. 31 at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. The project will also offer High Holiday services at the synagogue.

Beraha said most storefront classes and services will take place in locally owned spaces. Think a corner coffee shop, not a Starbucks. He wants congregants and community to connect with each other.

The meetings will always be “somewhere people can more comfortably walk into than a synagogue,” Crawley said. She added that the services will be as public as possible. However, they “won‘t be entirely davening in the middle of a coffee shop,” rather in a meeting room or after hours.

The original idea for the Storefront Project was that the Reform congregation would rent or buy a storefront in the city where Washingtonians could drink coffee, read a book and chat about a Judaism. It would be a more casual, less restrictive place than a synagogue, Beraha said.

It would be a Jewish welcome center — “a Christian Science Reading Room meets bookstore meets coffee shop.”

The concept originated with Temple Micah’s rabbi, Daniel Zemel, two years ago. He had been reading sociologist Marshall Sklare, who described the synagogue as an “ethnic church,” where ethnically Jewish people went to be Jewish.

Zemel proposed that part of the reason millennials weren’t joining synagogues is because an ethnic church did not appeal to them.

“Millennials are not joiners in the classic American sense. The way to connect to Jewish community life remains an open question,” Zemel wrote in his proposal for the Storefront Project. “It is time for the American synagogue to think differently. Synagogues to too great an extent think about the future of the synagogue. Instead, the synagogue can be the place where we think about Jews and the American Jewish future. “

Added Beraha, “We want to push liturgical boundaries, meaning the inherited way that we know how to worship might not be suited for a young, modern, urban Jewish family.”
The Storefront Project went through several different names, including Faith Space, Congregate and Holy Grounds. Beraha hopes that the Storefront Project will have multiple locations throughout the city, perhaps with each location named after a different prophet.

“My hope is the storefront will offer Jewish wisdom, Jewish inspiration, Jewish spiritual strength and Jewish awareness to anybody who engages with it,” Zemel said.

The project is funded through the Temple Micah Innovation Fund and a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

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Twitter: @SamScoopCooper

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