Koret Initiative breaks down barriers at Beth Sholom

You may not know they're there. You may never see them. And you certainly won't know what they're called.

Still, four women known as Koret Synagogue Initiative program directors are quietly but powerfully making an impact on the Bay Area Jewish community through their work at four local synagogues.

The program directors were placed there by San Francisco's Koret Foundation as part of the Koret Synagogue Initiative, a three-year, $456,570 experiment designed to see how congregations can best be spiritually retrofitted — so as to sustain the shakeups of modern Jewish life.

What do Koret program directors do? Whatever it takes to bring people into the synagogue and keep them there. Janet Harris, program director at San Francisco Congregation Beth Sholom, has concocted programs embracing everyone from toddlers to seniors.

In addition to Beth Sholom, the Koret Synagogue Initiative has programs at Congregations Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Beth Am in Los Altos and Sherith Israel in San Francisco. Currently, the Koret Foundation and Brandeis University researcher Gary Tobin are compiling research culled from the initiative. They hope the local program will become a national model.

After 2-1/2 years, Harris has a lot to talk about. Without specifically trying to bring in new members, the congregation's new programming (and, Harris admits, its charismatic Rabbi Alan Lew) brought in about 90 member families last year.

"I'll initiate something, then let go and let the congregants take responsibility for their own Jewish lives," Harris explains.

In the case of a new young-adults group, she "planted the seed, then let it grow. When it took off, I backed out. Now I read about their stuff in the newsletter."

In other cases, Harris plays a more central role. She started a monthly parent-preschooler program. In conjunction with Hadassah, she is helping the congregation participate in a national family education program. And next year, Beth Sholom is starting a full-time nursery school.

The goal of these family programs "is to connect with parents. A lot of them want to give kids a Jewish identity, but don't have the knowledge or experience. I'm the opposite of Mr. Wizard. He says, `Don't try this at home,' and I say, `Try this at home,'" Harris says.

Sometimes, though, it's effective to leave the children behind. Of several retreats she organized during her tenure, Harris says one of the most profound events was a women's retreat.

The participants "came away inspired," she says. Those same women have since become increasingly involved in Beth Sholom activities.

Seniors have been coming into the synagogue to enjoy matinees of movies like "Crossing Delancey." Early risers have been stopping by for the morning meditation sessions that Lew has been leading since the Koret project began. This month, a Rosh Chodesh group will invite women to study Jewish texts on healing rituals.

According to Lew, the Koret project "gives synagogues and rabbis hands. They have all these ideas and no way to implement them. This gave us a way. It turned out to be the most creative initiative I know about.

"This has given us a chance to put our fondest dreams into reality and deepen the substance of what we're offering," Lew adds.

As Harris prepares to lead the second women's retreat, teach a workshop of Jewish bedtime rituals and help open a nursery school, she says the philosophy behind her work is indeed to be a "hand" — to help the rabbi, welcome congregants and shatter old ideas about what a synagogue should be.

"I want to break down barriers," Harris says, "so that the synagogue isn't this big, foreboding, mysterious place — but at the same time, the traditions aren't watered down."