A stop at a Krispy Kreme in Rockville one recent morning was more than a quick sugar and caffeine fix for Rabbi Adam Raskin of Congregation Har Shalom. Coffee in hand, he sat down in a booth and posted a sign on the table that read, “Pop Up Rabbi!” Now the rabbi was ready to meet with friends and congregants to talk casually about whatever was on their mind.
Renovations at Raskin’s Conservative synagogue in Potomac have deprived the rabbi of his office, so he plans to set up shop in cafes and other informal establishments for a few hours each week. His first pop-up spot was a Starbucks in Potomac the day before, and he said people came by to discuss family matters and ask religious questions.
“Yesterday was overwhelmingly synagogue members, but a lot of people didn’t know each other,” the rabbi said. “So they also had a chance to schmooze with members of their own congregation, which was kind of an unplanned benefit.”
He said he tries to choose Wi-Fi friendly spots in the Rockville/Potomac area to accommodate as many congregants as he can. All rabbis nowadays are looking to find ways to get out beyond the “four walls of their synagogue,” he said.
“The idea is that we want to be in places that are accessible, that are low-bar to entry for people to come and talk to us, whether they are members of our congregation or people who are looking to connect,” he said. “I think waiting for people to come to us [in the synagogue] is pretty universally recognized as not being the way to reach the new generations of Jews.”
Raskin said he expects Har Shalom’s renovations to be completed just before Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown Oct. 2. He thinks that as the building has not been updated since the 1970s, it’s worth a little inconvenience for him to be out of his office.
Raskin has used social media to announce his coffee shop appearances. That’s how congregant Michelle Hessel found out that he was going to be at Krispy Kreme on Aug. 4.
“I think it’s hysterical,” she said while placing her order. “I got up this morning, I got on Facebook. I was heading out this way anyway. Rabbi Raskin’s awesome, so I thought I’d come by and say hi. I’m hoping he’s kind of like the Dalai Lama today. I’m hoping he’s going to give me some positive energy, and we’ll go from there.”
For Rockville resident Emily Goldblatt and her two children, doughnuts with the rabbi was a great way to connect with their synagogue.
“I love it, especially since our shul’s under construction and we can’t go,” Goldblatt said.
The pop-up trend has been growing over the last 10 years, according to Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director of the New York-based Rabbis Without Borders, which strives to get rabbis to think creatively about communicating with the public.
“I know quite a few rabbis that are doing things similar to Adam, where they’re bringing books of Torah and having discussions in cafes,” she said.
Sirbu said she once taught a class called “Death, Dine and the Afterlife” in a Panera restaurant in West Orange, N.J. She said the class was so popular that about 20 non-Jews joined those who were already attending. She said other rabbis are also doing more pop-up Shabbat services and dinners aimed at Jews of all ages.
“I would hope that whoever is planning to do this kind of pop-up has an idea of who their target audience is,” she said.
For Raskin, who is in his sixth year at Har Shalom, the pop-up venture is a sign that the shul is finding new ways to connect with members and increase the synagogue’s visibility.
“I entered a place that had suffered some instability over the past several years,” he said. “Short rabbinic stints and kind of a general sense of institutional uncertainty. And in six years we’ve seen not only stability, but people re-engaging in very special ways.”