Congregants of The Boston Synagogue dance the horah as the Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band plays music./ALL PHOTOS: BAILEY ALLEN

Not the norm: Innovative congregations offer options, opportunities for Boston Jews



Not the norm: Innovative congregations offer options, opportunities for Boston Jews

Congregants of The Boston Synagogue dance the horah as the Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band plays music./ALL PHOTOS: BAILEY ALLEN

LISTEN: Bailey Allen reports on Lehraus, a Somerville tavern and house of Jewish learning


Sara Marx, of Cambridge, attends synagogue inside a Unitarian Universalist church.

The traditional egalitarian congregation that she attends and runs social media for, the Cambridge Minyan, doesn’t have its own building and rents space two to three times a month at the First Parish church in Harvard Square.

Members fully observe the Sabbath and holidays while allowing women and non-binary people to participate in services, Marx said in an interview. The congregation is lay-led, so there isn’t a standing rabbi who leads services, and it encourages Sephardic traditions as well as Ashkenazi.

“We want to be more inclusive and we want to figure out where our own blinders are and where we can take down barriers toward other people’s participation,” Marx said.

Marx, who came to the Boston area from Lincoln, Neb. to attend Tufts University in 2004, marveled at the blossoming hub of Jewish life – one where Jews have the ability to branch out from the norm of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox categories.

There are countless congregations, institutions and organizations throughout Greater Boston that challenge the traditional rules and standards that exist within the religion and culture.

With more than 35 colleges, universities and community colleges, and over 150,145 students, Boston serves as a launching pad for people in their 20s. For Jewish students, it can be the place where they explore that part of their identities.

“It’s this self-perpetuating cycle where somehow Camberville [Cambridge plus Somerville] got this identity as a great place to go after college, specifically in the traditional-egalitarian space,” Marx, 37, said. “I think Brandeis has been a big part of it, where it’s like, for Jews, ‘I want to stay in the Boston area but I don’t want to live in Waltham.’ ”

About 35 percent of the Brandeis University undergraduate population identifies as Jewish, according to the school, so it tends to be a large feeder into nearby Jewish institutions and programs.

Another nearby congregation, Cambridge’s Minyan Tehillah, which is known as a partnership minyan, requires 10 men and 10 women for a minyan; in Orthodox circles, a minyan only requires 10 men, according to the synagogue’s website.

A partnership minyan is a congregation where there is typically a separation between men and women, but services are coordinated so the genders participate equally, according to the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

The congregation keeps a record of various decisions regarding which gender should do which parts of the service and when they were each determined. For example, Minyan Tehillah decided in January 2016 that during a Shabbat service, a woman should call up the first aliyah recipient to the Torah, while a man should call up the second.

The rationale?

“Having a woman as gabbai [a Torah assistant at the pulpit] is to maximize women’s participation within halachic parameters. It is also practical to have one man and one woman as gabbaim to hand out honors, assist on the bimah etc.,” the website said.

In addition to traditional egalitarian partnership minyans, the Boston area contains other innovative congregations, such as Humanistic (non-theistic) Jewish synagogue Kahal B’raira in Cambridge and Jewish Renewal (meditative and metaphysically focused) synagogue B’nai Or in Waltham.

Dressed in whimsical costumes, congregants of The Boston Synagogue listened to Rabbi Navah Levine read the Megillah, which contains the Purim story.

Boston represents the fourth largest Jewish community in the United States, with 248,000 Jews (as opposed to New York City’s 1.6 million). However, the innovation that takes place in the Boston area, especially within higher education, has left room for more barrier-breaking, according to Marx.

“I think it’s a draw for some people. I can have this strong Jewish identity and commitment to my practices, and then there are lots of other parts of my identity too,” Marx said. “I work at Boston College, which is a Jesuit institution, and I’m not saying you couldn’t do that in New York, but I do think it is just sort of a different vibe.”

In the mid-19th century, there was a migration of Jews to Boston from German-speaking lands, and they settled around what today is the Theater District, said Simon Rabinovich, professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern University. They were mostly engaged in “petty retail trade,” he said.

The community mostly moved to the South End in the late 19th century, building the first synagogues there, Rabinovich said. Jews from Eastern Europe, especially the Russian Empire, moved to the North End and the West End. They were mostly “traditional Jews,” mostly religious, but not part of a particular denomination.

“There was a process in which many of them secularized and many of them also joined the synagogues that had already been established by the German Jews,” Rabinovich said.

When those areas quickly became overcrowded, Jews moved to East Boston, Chelsea, Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, which were suburbs at the time, he said. Those neighborhoods “fell into decline” in the 1960s. The suburbanization process led Jews to Southern Massachusetts and the North Shore. Many new synagogues were established in communities such as Sharon, Newton, Brookline, Swampscott, Marblehead and Peabody.

Other local congregations such as The Boston Synagogue defy traditional norms by picking the most engaging slivers of old Jewish life – like rousing klezmer music – but having female rabbis lead services and allowing women to wear tefillin, black leather boxes containing Hebrew parchment scrolls, during prayer. This practice, according to Chabad, is mandatory for Jewish men only.

“We went egalitarian about 15 years ago,” Susan Weingarten, the synagogue’s chair, said.

The Boston Synagogue is considered non-denominational and an “unaffiliated, pluralistic synagogue,” according to the official website. Like the Cambridge Minyan, the congregation is lay-led and there is no main rabbi who takes the pulpit. Instead, services are organized by “Rabbis-in-Residence” from Hebrew College, a local Jewish studies and rabbinical school.

“While we find that titles like Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform are overly divisive, our services are closest to Conservative,” the website said. “We’re also experimenting with including more English and music for Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat and elsewhere.”

This certainly was the case on Purim, when klezmer band Ezekiel’s Wheels played lively Eastern European-style melodies while congregants across ages and genders flew around the room holding hands in a circle.

On the Cambridge-Somerville border sits a bar/restaurant combined with a Jewish learning center, which Marx pointed to as another example of Jewish metamorphosis in the Boston area. The facility is named Lehrhaus, and there, local Jews and non-Jews alike can sip on themed cocktails and study Torah, according to director Rabbi Charlie Schwartz.

It’s meant to be an accessible space for Jewish adults who might be intimidated by traditional Jewish spaces like a synagogue or Jewish Community Center, Schwartz said. In lieu of pews, there are barstools. As opposed to challah and wine, there are martinis and elaborate dishes.

“It’s a place that’s unique in the world and shows the vibrancy of Jewish life,” Schwartz said. “It’s where the best parts of Jewish culture and life come together. It’s a full bar and restaurant featuring flavors from across the Jewish diaspora and it’s also a center for learning.”

The “tavern,” as staff call it, also houses a library containing more than 3,000 volumes of Jewish books ranging from sacred texts to graphic novels, Schwartz said. Lehrhaus is slated to hold Torah learning classes and discussions in that room during the daytime, while dinner and bar service will commence in the evening.

“Anytime there’s an opportunity for people to experience a different culture, or their own culture a bit deeper, that just brings us all together, and I think in this day and age, that’s more important than ever,” Naomi Levy, Lehrhaus’s hospitality and beverage consultant, said.

Schwartz concocted the idea for the space during the COVID-19 pandemic with Joshua Foer, the co-founder of an accessible digital platform for Jewish texts called Sefaria, during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. They had a concept for a nucleus of Jewish culture, where people could congregate and enjoy spending time with one another.

Lehrhaus is named after the Freie Jüdische Lehrhaus or “Free Jewish House of Learning” launched in 1920 by German philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, according to Jewish educator and researcher Dr. Joshua Krug in Tablet Magazine. The idea of the original Lehrhaus was to blur the boundaries between teacher and student and to appeal to Jews who struggled to engage with traditional religion, he wrote.

“The educational experiment riffed on ideas emerging in Weimar Germany concerning adult education, as it synthesized critical academic study of Judaism with Talmud Torah (Torah study), toward a revitalized practice of adult Jewish teaching and learning,” Krug wrote. “Here, Jews ignorant of, and alienated from, Jewish life and tradition acquired knowledge and understanding of Judaism and explored Jewish identity on their own terms.”

This is a very similar mission to Schwartz’s. He believes that those from across the observance spectrum should be welcomed inside to participate at whatever level they are comfortable, he said. In addition, to allow more-observant Jews to feel at ease, the restaurant part of Lehrhaus is strictly kosher dairy – meaning no meat anywhere on the menu.

“I’ve been a bunch of times already,” Marx said, praising the non-confining Jewish experience (yet one that sticks to its roots).

The Somerville tavern, which has only been open since March, is already attracting local Jewish groups to hold social events in the space, including Moishe House Boston, a program for young adults in their 20s.

Moishe House is another innovative Jewish organization that facilitates housing and a community for those who agree to host a vibrant schedule of cultural, religious, social, and charitable activities, according to Eastern Community Manager Adena Walker.

There are houses in Brookline, Cambridge, the Fenway area, Kendall Square, Somerville, and South Boston. There are two to five residents per house and their rent is heavily subsidized, according to the official website. Residents host gatherings three to seven times per month, which they receive a budget for, including funds for kosher food.

“It’s kind of like Jews with Jews,” Walker said in an interview. “The people who live in the houses, some of them are more Orthodox and/or observant. Some of them are less. I have a heymish [traditional] pod in Cambridge and they are more frum [observant] for sure. They really abide by chag, or holiday, rules.

“I have other houses that are quote-unquote ‘more secular,’ which means they’re definitely part of the populous in that they’re not kosher,” Walker continued. “For Moishe House, we will never serve shellfish or pork – that’s not allowed – but, within that, varying level degrees of what people consider kosher.”

Moishe House mitigates a common post-college graduation dearth of Jewish programming that many young adults go through once they don’t have access to Hillel, a major Jewish college campus organization.

About 27 percent of 18-to-29-year-old Jews in the United States are synagogue members, according to the Pew Research Center. Jews are also less inclined than all American adults to consider religion to be very important, with only one in five Jews saying so, which could point to a lack of interest or accessibility.

“If you’re coming from college and you’re like, ‘I know that I have a Jewish community, it’s super helpful for me, but I don’t know where I fit,’ Moishe House is great for you because you can literally build the community you want to see,” Walker said. “And eventually, if you want, and you’re in the age range of 21 to 32, you can become a resident and fulfill that, as long as there’s an opening or we’re looking to open a new house.”

Besides outings to Lehrhaus, events at various Moishe Houses in Boston have been Israeli movie nights, painting flower pots, a Shavuot holiday potluck, and a body positivity Jewish learning discussion. The programming is akin to Hebrew school or Jewish summer camp for adults, with more engaging activities rather than traditional Torah study.

Rabbi Shayke Lerner poses with his wife and children at Brookline Chabad’s Purim celebration.

Another Boston-based Jewish program specifically curated for young adults is a subsidiary of a much larger Reform synagogue, Temple Israel of Boston. The congregation within it is called the Riverway Project, and unlike the aforementioned innovative groups, it has its very own rabbi.

“It’s a really good way for people to meet people,” Nalani Haueter, engagement associate and Riverway project coordinator, said in an interview. “We also do ‘Neighborhood Shabbats.’ They’re hosted in people’s homes – sometimes in Cambridge or Somerville, our last one was in Jamaica Plain, sometimes in Mission Hill. It really depends on who is willing to host.”

The Riverway Project has monthly Shabbat dinners and services, where Rabbi Andrew Oberstein encourages attendees to do whatever feels most comfortable and meaningful for them. He explains to participants that if the “God language” in prayers and Torah creates an obstacle for them, they can reflect on themselves or meditate instead of praying to a higher power.

A musical theater BFA graduate of Emerson College, Oberstein takes his stage presence to the pulpit and brings upbeat music to the congregation. He is dedicated to a “life of pursuing justice and radical inclusion in Jewish spaces across America,” according to his website. At Shabbat services, he’s facilitated guest speakers such as Rotem Sorek, a leader within the Israeli transgender community.

Haueter said that the inclusivity welcomes young Jewish adults who might not know where they fall on the religious observance spectrum. Recently, staff at the Riverway Project have focused on how to reach out to newly-graduated students staying in Boston for work, she said.

“When I was a Hillel professional, one of my favorite things I did with my students was talking with my seniors about ‘Where can you go next?’ and I’ve been thinking about it in those terms,” Haueter said. “We’ve really been thinking about, ‘What can Riverway do for those folks?’ ”

One of their new programs marketed to graduates is a 10-week class through IYUN, where participants discuss life issues through a Jewish lens, using texts to supplement learning, Haueter said. IYUN classes include “Sex, Intimacy, and Relationships: Toward a Postmodern Jewish Sexual Ethic” and “Jewish Wisdom for Life’s Great Questions.”

With no shortage of Jewish learning opportunities and synagogue options for almost everyone, Marx appreciates the Boston area for its flexibility, she said. Although independent synagogues and congregations aren’t “this new thing,” they evolve over time, Marx said.

“As participants go into different life stages, their needs are different, and it’s great to have these amorphous ways of practicing,” Marx said. “I find that really personally meaningful.” Θ

Bailey Allen is a journalist based in Boston.

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