E. Bay synagogue rouses members with new rituals

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When several people complained to Rabbi Gordon Freeman that they liked Congregation B'nai Shalom but got nothing out of the services, he took action.

The Walnut Creek rabbi supplemented the traditional Conservative services with a number of alternative worship forms. While several synagogues offer tot Shabbat services for kids, healing services, learners' minyans and opportunities for a personal spiritual journey, B'nai Shalom stands out because it regularly offers all four.

"The point is that not one size fits all," Freeman said. "You have to realize that people have different needs and concerns, and prayer is difficult for many people. Communication in general is difficult. Dealing with God makes it even more problematic."

Contemporary Jews, he discovered, want to connect with an ancient tradition, but many are seeking new forms that awaken their spirituality on a more personal level. While the traditional prayers work for many people — especially those who have attended synagogue for years — they may be less successful in reaching those who did not grow up steeped in the age-old rituals.

"Some people just can't get into it," Freeman said. They are unwilling to jump into the water. The language is meaningless [to them]. The forms are meaningless. The main issue is to engage people in an act of communication with God so they can transcend themselves and feel part of a community."

When he came to B'nai Shalom 27 years ago, Freeman was already developing new ways to involve congregants in the worship service. After various experiments, a workable service evolved that seemed to suit the congregation, which then comprised some 60 families. But nearly three decades later, temple membership has expanded to more than 400 families who come from a wider array of backgrounds.

Some are returnees who were raised in secular homes. Others are Jews-by-choice. And many have been through the '60s and are seeking worship forms that speak personally to them.

Two years ago, B'nai Shalom began its first alternative service: a Tot Shabbat for preschoolers and first- and second-graders and their parents. Prompting this were studies showing that many parents made decisions about their ties to the Jewish community when their children were in preschool.

Initially, B'nai Shalom began doing the service two or three times a year, increasing to monthly last year and now to twice monthly. Freeman's 28-year-old daughter Sara, who has worked as a preschool teacher, leads the family service.

The temple next brought in Avram Davis, director of the Berkeley religious training center Chochmat HaLev, to lead occasional services focusing on forging a direct spiritual connection with God. These now run approximately once a month

Davis "tries to make the service open and approachable to people on many levels," said Craig Judson, B'nai Shalom's programming president. "He passes the Torah around so everyone can feel it. Everyone can accept the Torah in a physical and spiritual sense.

"The service is meant to open us up rather than close us down," Davis said. "It's intimacy on every level. The Torah is sacred like a person. It must be touched and held."

For the learners' minyan, Freeman and B'nai Shalom educational director David Eliaser have been instructing religious school students, from third grade up, in different aspects of the Shabbat service. Come spring, the kids themselves will run services one weekend.

Finally, B'nai Shalom is one of four local congregations that take turns hosting a monthly healing service for people in need of physical and emotional sustenance. The service also embraces their caregivers.

The alternative services are so popular that "it seems like we should do [one] every week," Freeman said. "But it takes a lot of effort to do even one. And we have limited resources."

Freeman was reluctant to speculate on how these new services may have contributed to an expanded congregational membership.

"Obviously more people are involved in services now because they have a variety to choose from," he said. "But the numbers aren't important. Quality is important, not quantity…The question is, are people being affected? That's definitely happening.

"We're not in a competition for who can get the most services. We're doing it because we have to."