Suburban N.J. synagogue creates a big-city service

It’s a familiar story: Kids grow up in a suburban synagogue, move to the big city and leave the synagogue behind. What’s a congregation to do?

How about bring the synagogue to the big city?

That’s the thinking behind the monthly Friday night services being held in Manhattan by Temple B’nai Jeshurun of Short Hills, N.J. Once a month, twenty- and thirtysomethings who grew up in the Reform synagogue in northern New Jersey are among those who gather in an auditorium borrowed from the Community Church of New York. The services attract from 40 to 120 people each month.

Rabbi Matthew Reimer, 37, the assistant rabbi at TBJ, launched the monthly service in October 2010 to reach a cohort less likely to be engaged in Judaism at this moment in their lives.

“We are seeing more and more Jews in this age group disconnected from Judaism,” said Reimer. “People are getting married later and later, and they don’t come back [to synagogue] until they have kids. But there are lots of different ways to get them to be engaged in Jewish journeys.”

Live music sets the tone, with everything from folk music to reggae to Debbie Friedman tunes and maybe one or two traditional kabbalat Shabbat melodies. “The only way I know to make this work is to build off of amazing music,” Reimer said. It helps that Reimer himself is part of the cohort he is trying to reach, and that the service never lasts more than an hour.

“Honestly, if we didn’t have this, we probably would not go to Shabbat services,” said Lindsay Liben, née Orringer, who grew up at TBJ and is working toward a master’s degree in social work at New York University. She initially enjoyed seeing old friends from her youth, but has also found over time that she looks forward to seeing new friends attracted to the service.

“It’s a place to have a connection to Judaism without too much of a commitment,” said her husband, Michael.

Dan Katz, who grew up at TBJ, comes with his girlfriend, Jill Rosenblum, originally from Marlboro, N.J., for the sense of community it creates.

“I had a N.J. Jewish community at B’nai Jeshurun. But in New York, the 25- to 35-year-old group does not have access to that Jewish community,” said Katz. “When Rabbi Matt Reimer said he was starting to build a community in New York City, to me it connected.”

Katz and Rosenblum brought some friends to the first service, and then brought more. Now they come regularly.

“It’s a nice way to lay low, relax and unite with your fellow friends at the end of a long week,” said Rosenblum.

Reimer adapted a musical Friday night service he had created while at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan before coming to TBJ. The band includes Matt Turk, a solo artist with three albums who is also musician in residence at Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun, an independent congregation well known for attracting twenty- and thirtysomethings to its weekly Shabbat services.

The suburbs-come-to-the-city idea received a boost from NextDor, a project of Synagogue 3000, the congregational renewal group. Launched in 2009, NextDor (“dor” means “generation” in Hebrew) was designed to engage non-affiliated young Jews in synagogue-sponsored events. TBJ partnered with seven other suburban synagogues in the metropolitan New York area to fund two NextDor interns. TBJ provides the Shabbat service; other synagogues are putting together a Purim party and other events.

The Shabbat service is not limited to those who grew up at TBJ.

Dan Wald, Isaac Hattem and Asaf Ben-Gai, who became fast friends through Ithaca College’s Hillel, are all in their mid-20s and found the service this past January, through NextDor. Wald and Ben-Gai are from outside of Boston, while Hattem is from Westchester County in New York.

“Our grandparents are always pushing us to get involved and have Jewish lives,” said Wald, who found out about the January service on the NextDor listserv. “I thought we’d come out — and there’s sushi!”

And single Jewish women. “I’d like to meet a wife,” Wald acknowledged, and his buddies agreed.

“Girls are on our minds most of the time,” said Hattem.

Before the sushi was gone, they met Francesca Cohen, 22. Originally from Toronto, she and her family moved to Summit, N.J., when she was 14 and joined TBJ. Her parents pushed her to attend the gathering.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t expecting this,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to be so informal. It’s pretty comfortable. The people are nice. They introduced themselves to me. There was free food, and a lot of singing.

 “I’ll come back for sure!”