About eight years ago, shortly after the avant-garde Storahtelling spiritual theater troupe began offering its own High Holy Days services, Felicia Herman decided to try them out for Rosh HaShanah.
Natan, the philanthropic fund that Herman runs, had supported Storahtelling, and she “was curious. I wanted to see it in person.”
What she saw at the Union Square Ballroom, a rented space, was a hall “packed” with people, founder Amichai Lau-Lavie on the bima singing and talking, “a couple of drummers” and some guitarists accompanying Lau-Lavie’s words, while the text of the High Holy Days prayer book was projected on the wall.
Herman, “not a regular shul-goer,” now goes to Storahtelling for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur most years.
Soon, she’ll be able to worship with Storahtelling all year round if she wants, as Lau-Lavie — now a rabbinical student at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary — and his supporters launch what may be their most ambitious project so far: an experimental Manhattan synagogue called Lab/Shul.
On its website, Lab/Shul describes itself as “a Jewish congregational model in the making … dedicated to exploring, creating and celebrating innovative opportunities for contemplation, life cycle rituals, the arts, life-long learning and social justice.”
Lab/Shul officially launched last month at a Tisha b’Av service at The Brownstone education center in the East Village. Next week Lau-Lavie begins his annual 40-day “Prepent” interactive blog about High Holy Day themes, in which he will offer a daily thought and invite readers’ comments, followed by a live “salon event” before Rosh HaShanah. Lab/Shul will go public next month in a large-scale way at High Holidays “worship events” — Lau-Lavie avoids the traditional term, “services” — at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center.
During the year, worship events will take place monthly at City Winery on Saturday mornings, and discussions are underway to meet at various local synagogues, parks, school and galleries.
Lau-Lavie, 44, is building a house of worship without walls — and without the weekday bureaucracy or halachic restrictions (such as prohibitions against musical instruments or electricity on Shabbat) that shape operations of many standard congregations.
Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, calls Lab/Shul “the first post-shul shul.”
Lab/Shul, Rabbi Kula says, is part of “the reimagining of Judaism, both its content and delivery system, for a demographic of mixers, blenders, benders and switchers.”
“Perhaps most interesting and exciting it that it seems to be the least inhibited by the existing traditional forms of ‘shul,’ while at the same time being very serious about Torah as a deep and accessible wisdom,” he added.
Almost since Storahtelling began, in 1999, its supporters — in recent years Natan’s Herman has been among them — have been urging Lau-Lavie to form a year-round congregation.
But, he told The Jewish Week, “I resisted,” telling such people that neither he nor they were ready.
Last year, during a break in Storahtelling’s Yom Kippur services, he heard the requests again. “Dozens of people came up to me,” he says. “More, please,” they told him. “We want more of this” — they wanted to experience on a more-regular basis the type of spiritual inspiration they felt that day.
Before leading the final part of the High Holy Days liturgy, he stood before the thousand men and women and declared, “Hineni,” Hebrew for “here I am.” With biblical roots, it means, “I am ready” or “What do you wish from me?”
That day, Lau-Lavie said he was ready to be “part of a conversation” about establishing a year-round Storahtelling congregation. In six months of exploratory meetings with Storahtelling supporters, he asked if they were willing to commit their time, ideas and money to make their dream a reality.
They said yes, and Lab/Shul now has initial funding of $300,000-$400,000 for its first year, with money from UJA-Federation, several foundations and private donors and contributions collected through online fundraising platform Kickstarter. Lau-Lavie has committed to develop Lab/Shul for at least five years, hopefully for at least a decade.
Beyond the startup funds, Lab/Shul has an innovative financial structure, featuring “reserved” High Holy Days seats for a “suggested fee,” a “season pass” in lieu of membership dues, and admission charges for individual events. However, “no one will be turned away” for lack of funds, Lau-Lavie says.
Lab/Shul, Lau-Lavie says, is likely to attract people — a largely young crowd — who don’t regularly attend synagogue, especially at regular synagogues, but who are “looking for some kind of connection to a deeper, spiritual service.”
Lab/Shul is “not a synagogue,” he says. “This is not a building. This is a tent.” The word “synagogue,” he says, has too much negative baggage for too many people.
Lab/Shul, in contrast, is an experiment, open to the suggestions of members, Lau-Lavie says. Hence the “Lab” part of its name.
Storahtelling, which in recent years has offered training programs for clergy and lay leaders interested in its style of services, and which also runs a b’nai mitzvah preparation program called Raising The Bar, will continue under the auspices of Lab/Shul. “We’re going to model what we do in our own space,” Lau-Lavie says.
Adina Frydman, executive director of UJA-Federation’s SYNERGY program, which supports synagogues, says Lab/Shul is “pointing the way forward for what congregations might look like” in the future.
Frydman says Lau-Lavie’s vision reflects the recommendations of a study, “Innovations and Strategies for Synagogues of Tomorrow,” which SYNERGY recently released, but she emphasizes that Lab/Shul is one of many promising approaches.
“There’s not one size fits all,” she says, adding that “We are always excited to learn about new emerging synagogue communities. It very much reflects [Lau-Lavie’s] understanding of the changing landscape, which is very much influenced by the notions of organizations that are more transparent, more relationship-based.”
Though Israeli-born Lau-Lavie grew up Orthodox (he is the nephew of former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and a cousin of newly elected Chief Rabbi David Lau) and is a rabbinical student at the Conservative JTS, Lab/Shul is not affiliated with any denomination of Judaism — and neither are most of the people who come to its activities.
When Herman first attended Storahtelling services, she says the majority of the people there “seemed to be new to Jewish life.”
Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, who grew up in an “eclectic” but “mainstream” mix of congregations, says Storahtelling “is the place I go to most often on a regular basis” when he goes to services. At Storahtelling, “I’m among the three or four oldest people there,” whereas in conventional synagogues, “I’m one of the youngest people there.”
Solomon says his friends frequently accompany him to Storahtelling services, their interest piqued by his enthusiasm, “and many end up staying.”
He says Lau-Lavie “is a brilliant teacher. He takes significant issues that come from the liturgy and reframes them in a way that makes them more significant to our lives today – clearly enhanced by the addition of music and drama.”
Michael Dorf, founder of City Winery (and a Jewish Week board member), who has helped Lau-Lavie “produce” High Holy Days services, calls the Storahtelling brand of spirituality “the right fit … for people who are not looking for a normal, run-of-the-mill experience.” And, he says, it’s not repackaged Judaism with a new, hip label, “calling something new that isn’t new.”
Lau-Lavie “resonates for so many people,” Dorf says – people from “a more traditional background who want to hear tunes and some component of the liturgy,” and “the most-challenged Jew who is unconvinced of the existence of God and the need to pray.”
Dorf says he was “a big pusher” of Lau-Lavie to establish what has grown into Lab/Shul. “I’m not a member of a synagogue. I’ve never paid dues. I would like to have a place to go. I would like to have a focal point for me to attend beyond the High Holy Days.
“I’ll be there for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, for sure,” he says.
So will Herman.
This year, Lau-Lavie again will again stand before his congregation, leading the final part of the Yom Kippur service. He will see, he says, that the challenge he issued last year was answered.
What will he say this time on Yom Kippur?
“I won’t know till I’m up there,” he says.
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