An Orthodox blossoming In District, traditional offerings grow, as do names
by Paula Amann
For years, Kesher Israel Congregation has carried a neighborhood tag, the Georgetown Synagogue. Last fall, another District synagogue expanded its name and seemingly its mission, as Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah also became the National Synagogue.
At the same season, the American Friends of Lubavitch in the city's Kalorama area took on the title, Shul of the Nation's Capital, as it launched weekly Saturday morning Shabbat services, in addition to holiday and Friday evening worship.
The name change, says Rabbi Levi Shemtov, AFL's Washington director, have flowed out of the expanded religious menu, which in past years, was confined to major Jewish holidays.
"We are not the pedestrian synagogue with a large board of directors and an overarching bureaucracy," said Shemtov. "We're simply a place where anyone who wants to come to enjoy services is welcome to do so."
He has also invited guests to the shul, including author-congregant Tom Diaz this week and on Friday, Cantor Jeff Nadel of Potomac's Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah.
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom justifies his modern Orthodox congregation's new moniker as one more inviting to newcomers.
"We're living in Greater Washington, the least affiliated Jewish community in the country. We need a tag line that makes us accessible, that makes people feel welcome," said Herzfeld. "While we're proud of Ohev Shalom Talmud Torah, it's a mouthful."
Kesher Israel's Rabbi Barry Freundel declined to comment on the nomenclature changes at neighboring Orthodox congregations.
Meanwhile, Ann Chernicoff, 23, a coordinator of the D.C. Beit Midrash, which meets weekly at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, applauds the wider range of services now available to District Jews.
"Having more Jewish options in the area definitely strengthens our program," said Chernicoff, a District resident and federal contractor.
But she suggested that recent name changes by District congregations might prove puzzling to some Jews seeking a spiritual home.
"Particularly as the establishment of these new groups enhances the variety of options in D.C., I think it makes the pull to brand that much stronger, but it also makes it more confusing to newcomers," Chernicoff said.
Jeremy Kadden, a steering committee member for the traditional DC Minyan, which holds services at the DCJCC, hails the religious explosion in the District.
"The more, the merrier. We feel whatever brings Jewish life to this area is a good thing," said Kadden, 27. "Each group is filling a different niche. We don't feel like there's a competition."
Herzfeld, meanwhile, is widely credited with bolstering what was seen as a flagging congregation. Former synagogue president Leonard Goodman points to a "complete transformation" at Ohev Sholom.
As recently as a year ago, daily morning and Friday evening services had ceased there, for want of people.
"There's no comparison," said the District's Goodman, 71, a member since 1979. "We had trouble meeting a minyan" or Jewish quorum of 10 men, at that time.
He recalls keeping the 16th Street shul open on Friday evenings, just in case a visitor happened by.
"I didn't want them to find a locked door," said Goodman.
Now, he reports, between 40 and 200 people attend Friday and Saturday morning services, depending on the program and the weather. He credits the young new rabbi, who joined Ohev Sholom last summer, with the shul's metamorphosis.
"The biggest magnet is Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld; he is so warm, so welcoming," Goodman said. "I have had a person say they would not want to join an Orthodox congregation -- except this one."
Herzfeld has instituted an array of new programs, including such guest speakers as scholar-educator Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg and author-speaker Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who both visited the shul last fall.
A promotion in December offered a free pair of tefillin to "make you feel like a minyon" for the first 20 people who attended morning services 30 times in the next 60 days.
Last October, Ohev Sholom partnered with the young adult constituency of the DC Minyan on a Sukkah Party. For the first time in years, says Goodman, families with young children are flocking to services at Ohev Sholom.
Asked about the congregation's name adjustment, he suggests that any District shul might have taken the title of national synagogue.
"Why didn't they? Now that someone had come forward, they're waking up to the fact that it's a missing ingredient," Goodman said. "What's more fair is that Rabbi Herzfeld is laying claim to that title for our synagogue and making it a reality -- because of the outside speakers, because he is welcoming all Jewish denominations and because he is reaching out to the Christian community as well."
In that regard, Goodman cites January's joint program for Martin Luther King Day with the District's Greater First Baptist Church of Mt. Pleasant Plains.
Ohev Sholom board member Joshua Kranzberg, 46, credits Herzfeld for drawing new families, including half a dozen new homeowners and some six to 10 other households that are house-hunting in the neighborhood. Turnout at services is up at both Friday and Saturday services, he confirmed.
But while conceding the new tag's usefulness for marketing, Kranzberg calls himself "not a big fan of it."
"I suspect we'll be well known because of Rabbi Herzfeld, not because we're the national synagogue," he said.
Over in Kalorama, Shemtov voices pride in the diverse crowd drawn to his own shul.
"It could be a student, a tourist, a government minister or a member of Congress," said Shemtov of the typical attender. "They all daven here from time to time."
The open character of this congregation reflects the Lubavitch approach to outreach. While Orthodox and chasidic in practice, the movement's emissaries seek to engage Jews at varying levels of observance.
"Some people need a portal which is very casual and noncommittal," said Shemtov. "Judaism is all about commitment, and I believe in accepting every Jew wherever they are, as a starting point."
He cites a woman who came to him early last fall, waving a newspaper advertisement for Yom Kippur services, amazed she could pray for free.
"I'm not criticizing synagogues that have tickets, because they need that to survive, but there are definitely people who are not being reached and I just want to reach as many of them as we can."
Potomac's Jonathan Baron, lauds Shemtov's ability to reach out to a disparate congregation.
"The warmth and overwhelming concern that the Shemtovs have for people who frequent the shul ... has opened up a path for many people to Yiddishkeit," said Baron.
Rosalyn Millman, a federal employee living on the District side of Chevy Chase, has attended Shemtov's services for about a decade.
Millman, 42, credits their appeal to the intimacy of the services and scholarship of Shemtov and his wife, Nechama.
Asked if the new tag, Shul of the Nation's Capital, is apt to confuse the larger public, she says she views it as a valid tool for attracting Jews.
"Frankly, it's not that much of a concern for me," said Millman.
In response to the same question, Baron framed the spiritual situation in economic terms.
"I believe in free markets and competition," Baron said. "I don't think too many choices is a problem for Jews in Washington."
For neighborhood resident Diaz, the expanded service menu meets a need and does not threaten existing Orthodox services.
"If you build it, they will come," said Diaz. "Critics are always afraid of another congregation. ... It's not a zero sum game."
The price of housing keeps many Jews, he suggested, from the environs of Kesher Israel and is driving the development of other traditional davening places around the District.
"There's a tremendous amount of ferment in D.C.," Diaz explained. "Downtown, there's a lot of interest in leading a Jewish life, and because Washington attracts so many people from so many different backgrounds, people are looking for something within the box, but not excluding this growth of individual views."--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
This story was published on Thu, Mar 3, 2005.