Koret doubles scope of synagogue revitalization plan

Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, Temple Sinai in Oakland, Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame and Congregation Beth David in Saratoga are the newest additions to the Koret Synagogue Initiative.

With the initiative's grant money, the congregations hire an extra person to build, expand or experiment with their menu of courses, events and programs. The program directors meet monthly to learn from each other's successes and failures.

The project began in fall 1994. Program directors at the four original synagogues — Congregations Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Sherith Israel in San Francisco, Beth Sholom in San Francisco and Beth Am in Los Altos Hills — tested as many innovations as they could generate.

In the past, such work has been left to already overextended rabbis and lay leaders.

Within three years, the staffers created more than 100 new programs, including morning meditation, new-moon prayer groups for women, parent-preschooler classes, weekend retreats, chavurot for unaffiliated single adults, a women-only seder, discussion groups and alternative prayer services.

According to a Brandeis University study, 64 percent of the four synagogues' new members said the initiative's programs were "important" or "very important" in their decision to join.

The initiative "was so tremendously successful — literally more than our initial expectations," said Michael Papo, Koret's executive director.

Emanu-El and Beth David, two of the new congregations, joined the initiative last summer. The two other new synagogues officially start this summer.

Unlike the original group of congregations that hired lay staff, all of those in the second group decided to bring in assistant rabbis specifically in charge of programming.

The decision to hire rabbis or lay staff was left up to each congregation. "Each synagogue is given a lot of autonomy," Papo said. "We left it totally open."

Rabbi Sydney Mintz, Emanu-El's new assistant rabbi hired through the initiative, has created or expanded several programs at the 1,650-household congregation since she started last summer.

Mintz helped organize a women-only seder and will begin a women's new-moon prayer group. She has created an "adult mitzvah corps" that volunteers locally on a regular basis and a bikkur cholim group that visits the sick.

She is helping lead a twice-monthly alternative Shabbat service with an emphasis on singing and congregant participation. She helped dramatically expand Emanu-El's annual Mitzvah Day to about 500 participants in the fall.

"I feel like I'm working at a sacred community center."

Rabbi Leslie Alexander, Beth David's assistant rabbi in charge of programming, is also part of Koret Synagogue Initiative — though her story is slightly different.

She had already been working as Beth David's program director since 1996 when the 670-household congregation joined the initiative last summer. Koret's grant is now subsidizing her position.

The initiative's focus, she said, has given her a clearer structure and vision for creating an overall programming plan.

"All of this wonderful, intense spirit and sensuousness and learning…is in Judaism," she said. The initiative's intent "is a piece of uncovering the layers of this delight once again."

Since summer, she has helped create a congregational retreat on building community and an emotionally healing environment. She also has helped build new chavurot and implement little details like making sure newcomers are greeted at services.

In July, the inititative's two other new congregations, Temple Sinai and Peninsula Temple Sholom, will bring in their new hires, Rabbis Andrea Fisher and Jay Miller, respectively.

The Koret Synagogue Initiative is no small undertaking. When it began, it was meant to last for three years and cost Koret about $600,000. The congregations and other groups kicked in another $230,000.

Instead of letting the project quietly die at the end of its three years, however, Koret's leaders decided to expand it.

Over its seven-year life, the initiative will cost about $2.8 million. Koret is providing about $1.7 million of the cost, Papo said. The rest of the money is coming from the congregations and the Jewish federations serving the San Francisco, East Bay and San Jose regions.

This fall, another part of the initiative will kick in. The foundation plans to reach out to all area synagogues to disseminate the lessons learned by those involved in the project.

Koret will create a Bay Area council for synagogue staff and lay leaders that will explore ways to expand programming and make synagogues more inviting.

Koret leaders hope to spread the ideas to a national level someday as well.

"Synagogues," Papo predicted, "will become more vibrant."