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N.Y. / Region

With Yoga, Comedy and Parties, Synagogues Entice Newcomers

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

People gathered last month at a dedication party for the SoHo Synagogue in Manhattan. The stylishly decorated synagogue hopes to attract people who may have been turned off from Judaism in their youth.

Published: April 4, 2006

A hipster synagogue grows in SoHo, drawing large crowds with its "Torah cocktail parties" in fancy loft apartments and user-friendly prayer services designed especially for the uninitiated.

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John Dunn for The New York Times

Rivanna Hyman, right, helped Mary Kaufman and her son, Jake, at a Passover event held this week at a supermarket on Long Island.

A group of New York-area congregations, along with others across the country, refashion their synagogues into religious multiplexes on the Sabbath, featuring programs like "Shabbat yoga" and comedy alongside traditional worship.

Several synagogues on Long Island — as well as in Seattle, Tucson and elsewhere — station volunteers in supermarket aisles as part of a national program that started several years ago to reach out to Jews who are buying matzos for Passover but do not belong to a house of worship.

These are just some of the ways that Jewish religious leaders, driven by fears about shrinking numbers, are becoming increasingly sophisticated and aggressive about marketing Judaism, turning to the same kinds of outreach techniques that evangelical Christians rode to mega-church success.

In some cases, Jewish groups are explicitly borrowing from the evangelical playbook to reach those who do not attend synagogue; in others, the parallels have been largely coincidental. Although the efforts to market Judaism have drawn criticism from some corners, Jewish leaders across the theological spectrum are realizing what evangelicals have long concluded, that the faithful are easily distracted in America's spiritual marketplace and religious institutions have to adjust if they hope to survive.

"I think what's going on is a product of the consumer-driven nature of this culture and the need to compete for people's time and attention," said Jack Wertheimer, provost and professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. "Christians do it from the imperative of evangelizing. Jews are doing it far more because they see their community shrinking."

The evangelical pastors who built the mega-churches that rose to prominence in the 1980's and 90's absorbed lessons from the secular marketplace to repackage church services to appeal to people who found traditional church boring or intimidating. In a similar fashion — although their goal is not necessarily to produce "mega-synagogues" — Jewish leaders are revamping worship in their synagogues to make the experience more lively and participatory; they are reconfiguring their sanctuaries to make them less intimidating; they are rethinking how to welcome newcomers; and they are getting increasingly creative about getting people in the door.

"There's a feeling that all the old structures aren't working," said Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., who was part of a group of synagogue leaders that gathered recently in Los Angeles at the University of Judaism to get advice from the Rev. Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life" and the evangelical pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., which draws more than 20,000 on weekends.

The event was organized by leaders of Synagogue 3000 — formerly Synagogue 2000 — a national effort to revitalize Jewish congregations. The program, which has attracted about 100 synagogues across the country, has sought to learn from both the evangelical and corporate worlds.

"The world is a different world," said Rabbi Jacobs. "There's a greater marketplace of spiritual options for people. If synagogues are not compelling places, who's going to bother to join and be involved?"

Jewish leaders are grappling with the vast numbers of Jews who do not belong to a synagogue, along with shrinking numbers over all. According to the 2000-1 National Jewish Population Survey, 5.2 million Jews live in the United States, a drop of 300,000 from 1990 despite a wave of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The survey also found that a majority of Jews do not belong to a synagogue. Those who fail to affiliate with synagogues or other Jewish organizations are much more likely to intermarry, according to researchers, and much more likely to have children who do not identify themselves as Jewish.

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