Beach havdallah, park festival lure young adults to Sherith Israel

In the last two years, hundreds of twentysomethings have entered the large domed building in Pacific Heights known as Congregation Sherith Israel for the first time.

They came to the San Francisco synagogue for potlucks, movie screenings, discussion groups, social action projects. They may not have come to pray, but they came. And for Janice Weinstein, that's good enough — for now.

Weinstein, 30, is one of four program directors who have been given the task of bolstering local synagogue life as part of the Koret Synagogue Initiative, a three-year project funded by San Francisco's Koret Foundation and designed as an experiment in creative programming.

The project also includes Congregations Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Kol Shofar in Tiburon and Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

At Sherith Israel, young adults have been the focus for Koret leader Weinstein. And if a synagogue is not a particularly appealing milieu for a Saturday-night festivity, then Weinstein invites young people to the park, the beach, or other more casual settings.

"We go to where young people are, where they congregate," says Weinstein. "They might think, `I like this music, these are cool people I could get to know. This is a part of who I am.'"

To her, these are "baby steps," but crucial in "expanding the way people see us as an institution."

Events have ranged from "Havdallah on the Beach" to a women-only seder. Several weeks ago, Weinstein's "Barefoot in the Park" day brought local Jews to Golden Gate Park, where they heard klezmer music, tie-dyed T-shirts, played volleyball and soccer and celebrated the lesser-known Jewish holiday, Tu B'Av.

Often, social-action activities– feeding the homeless, building homes for the poor, erasing graffiti from city walls, planting community gardens — help entice young adults into the Sherith Israel fold.

But the mainstay of Weinstein's work has centered around chavurot, friendship groups that meet at least once a month. At this point about 100 Sherith Israel members belong to these groups.

Originally from Los Angeles, Weinstein moved to the Bay Area six years ago. She formed her own chavurah to stem the loneliness of relocating and says the group helped her "create a sense of community" in a city filled with "transients without family or roots." Now she hopes four new groups at the synagogue will provide other young adults with that same feeling of belonging.

"We celebrate together; we support each other through tragedies like the loss of a parent or serious illnesses. We're here for each other, and many young adults don't have that," she says.

What many also lack is a Jewish partner, and Weinstein will admit that her events are often unofficial mixers.

If Jews meet each other, she's happy. But you'll never hear her advertise a "singles" event.

"I want the atmosphere to be natural and comfortable, with couples, babies. If you take away the expectation to meet someone, the whole success of an event isn't defined by walking away with a phone number. People can walk away thinking, `I met some nice people.'"

With another year left to go of the Koret grant, Sherith Israel's Rabbi Martin Weiner is hailing Weinstein as "one of the most extraordinary and creative Jewish leaders with whom I have ever worked. She's a dynamo of energy and good judgment."

But sometimes, it seems even all the energy of a cooped-up puppy wouldn't be enough to help Weinstein complete the mission of getting young adults interested in attending synagogue. Her main obstacle, she says, is that young adults "have a sense of entitlement. They think the Jewish community owes them."

While hundreds in that age range have attended her programs, "there's a resentment" that often arises when the talk turns to joining a synagogue.

So the next step, Weinstein says, will be convincing young Jews that once they get involved, they should also "give back.

"It should be a mutual relationship."

As for what happens after the Koret Synagogue Initiative ends next year, Weinstein admits that "no one knows what the future holds. If this were a flash in the pan, it would be a tremendous waste."