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A Rabbi's Unorthodox Revival

New Ad Campaign Invigorates Interest In NW Synagogue

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2004; Page B01

The 30-second television ad begins with a blast of the shofar, the Jewish ceremonial ram's horn. A youthful, bespectacled rabbi then extends an invitation: "Please join me for an incredible Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at Washington's National Synagogue." For a free brochure on the congregation, he adds, "Please call 1-888-8-Prayer."

The commercial is part of an unusual public relations blitz launched by Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Northwest Washington, under the leadership of its new rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, center, enjoys music before a traditional Rosh Hashanah prayer service at his synagogue. (Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)

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Herzfeld said the effort, which included a mass mailing of the brochure to local Jewish families, has had its intended effect. "The phone has been ringing nonstop," the 29-year-old rabbi said. "It's so breathtaking that the renaissance is already happening."

In this season of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that begins tonight at sundown and that is a symbol of new spiritual beginnings, a historic synagogue whose membership had dwindled -- to the point that it had trouble drawing enough congregants for a daily prayer service -- is brimming with excitement and energy. "This is the sort of thing I've been praying for," said Leonard Goodman, 71, a member of Ohev Sholom for 25 years.

The publicity campaign for the city's oldest Orthodox synagogue, however, has raised eyebrows among some of Herzfeld's fellow rabbis. Although churches have long used TV spots and mailings to attract new members, synagogues have rarely done so, they noted. More than that, they are bothered by Herzfeld's move to label his congregation "the National Synagogue" -- a name the congregation is seeking to trademark.

"I think it's dangerous for any Jewish congregation to call itself 'the National Synagogue' because that name implies that it represents the Jewish community either of Washington or the United States or both," said Rabbi Fred N. Reiner of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in Northwest Washington. "We don't have in the Jewish community a unified governance."

Eitan Seidel, rabbi of Tifereth Israel, a Conservative synagogue that faces Ohev Sholom, said he's not bothered by the title, though "it's a bit cocky." In fact, Seidel said he joked with Herzfeld that he might start calling his own synagogue the one that is "just across the street from the National Synagogue."

Herzfeld, who was hired in January and officially began his duties at Ohev Sholom this month, defended the phrase, calling it "a tag line that lets people know this is their home." It also is a way to get across that his congregation hopes one day to "have an impact on the world by spreading the light of Judaism," he said.

Despite the synagogue's pending trademark application, Herzfeld said, he never would tell another synagogue that it could not use the label.

Herzfeld, a New York native and graduate of Yeshiva University there, is the protege of Rabbi Avi Weiss, head of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., where Herzfeld was associate rabbi for the past five years.

Herzfeld also is vice president of Amcha -- the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, a group led by the sometimes controversial Weiss that has lobbied against Christian symbols in Holocaust death camps, among other issues.

For many members of Ohev Sholom, Herzfeld has arrived none too soon. The original Ohev Sholom was established in 1886, and the father of singer Al Jolson once served as its cantor.

In 1958, Ohev Sholom merged with another old-time congregation, Talmud Torah, to form one synagogue of about 650 households. Two years later, the unified congregation dedicated the large white limestone building at 16th and Jonquil streets.

But membership dwindled as Jewish families moved to the suburbs. In recent years, membership has dropped to fewer than 100 households, most of them headed by senior citizens.

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