First Person Singular: Esther Safran Foer, 66, Washington, executive director, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue


Esther Safran Foer, executive director of the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue: “We don’t have denominations. ... You don’t have to be a member. You don’t even have to be Jewish.” (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
May 3, 2012

Sixth & I is about bringing people together in unexpected ways. Young Jews in their 20s and 30s want to connect to community, and they want to connect to spirituality, but on their own terms. They don’t want the labels that have been imposed on them by previous generations.

It functions as a synagogue, as something new and cutting edge. We don’t have denominations. We take down all barriers for people to feel that there’s some reason they can’t come in. You don’t have to be a member. You don’t even have to be Jewish. A woman came up to me, and she said, “I’ve never been in a synagogue. Is it okay if I come?” I’m thinking, Wow, this is victory. ’Cause we’re going to understand each other better because you’ve been here.

Part of the excitement of the job [is] experimenting and seeing what works to create this cultural institution for the city, to bring some of the best artists, some of the best authors, some of the leading figures in government here. When a performer performs here, they’re not performing in a plain space or a plain auditorium. The space brings incredible things out in people. It brings spirituality out, Jewish or not. Idina Menzel , she came here, and she stood on the stage, and she was singing, and she said, “I wish my father were here.” She sang from her Haftorah, from her Bat Mitzvah portion, in the middle of her concert.

[Early on] we had an experiment with a new kind of Friday night service. It was aimed at young professionals. We found a nondenominational prayer book, and we talked about how many prayer books to buy for our first service. The staff said, “Let’s buy 150 and see what happens.” I said, “Let’s be optimistic — let’s buy 200. There will come the day when 200 people will show up for this service.” We were all eager to see what would happen. And they started pouring in. We ran out of prayer books almost immediately. We had 300 people. That just doesn’t happen. I was here that night, and I was overwhelmed with emotion. Shelton Zuckerman, one of our founders, [and I,] we both sat in the back of the room, and tears were flowing.

This is not my background; I had my own PR firm. But this was a chance, at this point in my life, to do something totally different than what I was doing. I remember sitting down with my family, saying, “Okay, should I do this?” It meant taking a huge cut in salary, doing something I hadn’t done, wasn’t sure how it would work. And that’s one of the fabulous things about being here, the chance to create and innovate and do things for which there is no handbook. From the beginning, [the founders] said to me and to the staff, Experiment. Try not to make too many mistakes, but push the envelope.

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