Multiplex Judaism opens to mostly positive reviews

After their respective prayer services end, they open the dividing walls, rearrange the chairs and, together, listen to each rabbi and prayer leader present a brief sermon. A discussion ensues, and then they share kiddush.

Orthodox and Conservative groups meet each week. The Reform group gathers three out of four Sabbaths. On the fourth, a Reconstructionist chavurah takes its place.

Call it "multiplex Judaism."

It is an idea whose time has come, says the rabbi and creator of the concept, Juda Mintz. "Everyone's talking about Jewish pluralism but not doing anything about it," he said. "This, I pray, will be a model for others."

It is apparently the first such congregation ever created, though a similar approach regularly takes place on college campuses under Hillel's aegis — the model that Mintz says inspired him.

To be sure, there are a few synagogues that accommodate two different styles of worship. For instance, in the wake of discord over the issue of women being called to read from the Torah, some Conservative synagogues have split off into egalitarian and traditional services.

But none of the sources contacted for this story ever heard of a multidenominational and ostensibly permanent effort like Shema Yisrael.

"There is a great hunger for unity," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom, in Encino. "There is a revulsion against the apartheid that exists among Jewish denominations."

But it is also a sign of these tendentious times that when contacted, senior executives at two major Orthodox organizations, one centrist Orthodox and the other fervently religious, both reacted with enthusiasm — privately, that is.

Neither was willing to say anything publicly supportive of the Atlanta effort.

"Mintz is a visionary. It's a brilliant idea, though truthfully I can't congratulate him publicly on founding non-Orthodox minyanim," said the centrist Orthodox executive. "If I did, I'd be crucified."

The fervently religious executive said, with a shade of doubt, that "it sounds like a prayer mall. But it fills me with a good feeling that there's a place where people are all sitting and being Jewish together."

Mintz, who was ordained in the fervently religious Torah V'Daas yeshiva in Brooklyn, was for 17 years the spiritual leader of another Atlanta synagogue, a congregation affiliated with the Orthodox Union. He left in June with some 30 families in tow.

The other unique aspect of his idea in forming Shema Yisrael is that it asks for no dues.

Mintz expects congregants to pay what their heart decrees. That, he believes, will be enough to sustain them, though he also anticipates turning to the Atlanta Jewish federation and private foundations.

Between 125 and 150 followers have turned out each Shabbat for services, and so far, they are putting their money where their hearts are.

A congregant donated a suite of offices. And from the first paycheck his secretary got from Shema Yisrael, Mintz said, she wrote a $500 check back to the congregation.

Mintz, as well as the other rabbis and prayer leaders, are working without pay, for now.

Fifteen congregants are each taking out $2,500 personal bank loans to provide Shema Yisrael with most of the $50,000 that it needs to pay its bills now through the High Holy Days.

In the course of bringing such diverse religious ideologies together, Shema Yisrael has already faced a few challenges.

One Shabbat morning the Conservative prayer leader could not come, so Mintz led an Orthodox service up until the Torah reading, when the egalitarian group took over. "There was some degree of discomfort, but there was respect. No one left, which was amazing," he said.

And the movable hotel ballroom walls do not entirely block sound from neighboring sections.

When Cheryl Joss, a member of the Orthodox/traditional section, was setting up the joint kiddush on Shabbat morning, she could hear the Reform group's guitar coming from one side, and the Orthodox cantor's voice coming from the other.

"The sound of the instrument was absolutely foreign," said Joss, who works in real estate, "but this whole idea is about acceptance and tolerance, and it made me feel great to think we are all Jews, but all doing our own thing. It was quite a moving experience."