Like the beit midrash that has been common for centuries in Orthodox schools and synagogues, the large room has a prayer area, bookshelves on every wall, small tables for shared study and an expectation of noisy debate about Jewish law. But this one includes a coffee stand, WiFi for checking e-mail and a list of events that sounds more like the roster at Politics and Prose — talks on food, relationships and music. One morning this week, a man read Talmud on a laptop while a discarded Vogue magazine lay on a table nearby.
Indeed, the glass-walled, chicly designed beit midrash is trying to merge Judaism’s scholarly past with its sophisticated, more secular American present. And with new research showing American Jews rapidly bailing on institutional and Bible-based life — but still seeing themselves as Jews — leaders like Adas’s rabbi believe that a paradigm shift is urgent.
“The Jewish community is shifting radically, and the [idea] is to see all of it — Torah, prayer, mitzvot [commandments] — all as technologies that are there for us to connect profoundly with our truest selves, with our community, with God,” said Gil Steinlauf, rabbi since 2008 at the 1,400-family Adas.
The Adas space is an unusual combination of the secular and the sacred, meant to merge the modern desire for something like Starbucks, or Cheers — a place where people flock to be around others — with the ancient idea of a beit midrash, a place where people are connecting over Jewish study.
The Hebrew term “beit midrash” is often short-handed as “house of prayer,” or prayer room, but the words are more literally translated as “house of investigation,” or searching, or interpreting. The traditional way of Jewish study is in pairs or small groups, called chevrutah, which comes from the word “friend.” Study schools are called yeshivas, which comes from the word “sitting.”
“It means sitting on your tush having a debate about text,” Steinlauf said during a conversation at Adas. “The most important thing is what happens in that space between two people, when they meet the face of God in a deep conversation and relationship with one another. That’s the message that’s so desperately needed today when people feel more and more isolated, to lift up face-to-face encounter.”
The study space is part of a $15 million renovation Adas just finished this fall, overhauling the entire building in an effort to modernize the concept of a synagogue. With Jews fleeing institutional life, efforts at flagship synagogues like Adas are seen as essential.