Singles events draw unattached back to synagogue

Synagogue, which often designs social events for families or couples, can be an uncomfortable place for singles. And trying to mingle at an oneg after services can be intimidating if one is alone.

Responding to such concerns, Bay Area synagogues are hosting singles-friendly events at which the unattached can shmooze, study and even daven.

Simcha, the young adult group at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, hosts events that range from ballroom dancing to feeding the homeless. The 160-member group targets 22- to 39-year-olds.

"We try to help people find the Judaism that they identified with their family and find out what interests them individually, now that they've graduated from college," says Noah Cohen, Simcha president.

Simcha also hosts an annual ski trip and a retreat at Camp Newman each year. Once a month, the group hosts a participatory Friday-night service with a guest speaker at the Reform congregation. Recently, for example, Chochmat HaLev's Avram Davis spoke about Jewish meditation.

"To join Simcha, you don't have to join the synagogue, but we encourage it," says Cohen. "It's a good entryway. Our events mimic a lot of the things that go on in the synagogue."

Focusing get-togethers around special programs helps people feel more comfortable, says Brian Shevelenko, Congregation Beth David's director of administration.

The Conservative Saratoga congregation hosts a monthly program called Lattes, Lox and Learning, co-sponsored by Jews United for Social Interaction of Los Gatos.

Judaism and sex, balancing work and study, and the role of women in Judaism are some of the topics discussed by local rabbis and cantors. Shevelenko says he tries to pick topics that will interest a young singles crowd.

"It's a learning opportunity as opposed to just a singles event," he explains .

Last year, the lox and learning series was held at Noah's Bagels, where as many as 40 people would show up. But since Noah's is no longer kosher, the program moved to Alef Bet Judaica in Los Gatos.

Beth David also hosts a lay-led singles service once a month that attracts a slightly older crowd, from about 30 to 40.

Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills draws singles with its twice-monthly "come-as-you-are service," an informal, participatory Shabbat service.

"There's a pressure around a singles event," says the Reform congregation's Rabbi Ken Carr. "What I've heard is that the unstated assumption at singles events is that people go to meet someone. At these services they come to do what Jews do on Friday evening."

In San Francisco, Congregation Beth Sholom's young adult group doesn't bill itself as a singles' organization, though the majority of members are.

"Some people felt put off by an atmosphere of sort of a singles' group," says chairman Michael Greenberg.

"By making it a young-adult group it takes off some of the pressure. It's not like a singles' bar but like a group of people who are coming together for a reason, not just trying to scope each other out. People can make friends so when they go to synagogue they won't feel so isolated."

Up to 100 people attend the Conservative congregation's monthly young-adult Shabbat dinners — which Greenberg calls the "flagship event."

"It's a nice way to mix Jewish continuity with socializing, making it very obvious that it's done within a religious context, not watering it down but making [it] more accessible."

By explaining rituals and providing a transliterated prayerbook, the group tries to make newcomers to Jewish observance feel more comfortable.

In addition to the Shabbat dinners, Beth Sholom young adults can choose from a mixed bag of activities, such as havdallah, bowling, adult learning, hikes and tzedakah projects.

In San Rafael, Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom offers activities for older singles, ages 40 to 59, held outside the synagogue.

"They know it's a Jewish event, a temple event, but I think it's much more comfortable that way," says Rodef Sholom's program director, Moji Javid.

As a result of popular outings such as a hike and havdallah service in Marin's Tennessee Valley, stargazing on top of Mount Tam and a trip to Marin Community Theater, the group has a mailing list of almost 300 names. The 9-month-old program has also included a "progressive dinner" during which everyone switched tables between courses to maximize socializing.

What draws singles to greater Jewish involvement and to services, group leaders say, is the opportunity to hang out with one another.

"It helps make people feel comfortable," says Greenberg. "When they're surrounded by their peers, it makes it easier to make that transition."