Eclectic Touch Draws Believers To Synagogue

Esther Foer, director of Sixth and I Synagogue, speaks about the exciting activities in the historic synongue's program aimed at addressing Washington's young and unaffiliated Jews. Video by Jacqui Salmon/Washington Post, Edited by Anna Uhls/
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008

Offering comedians, cooking classes, rock concerts, authors and a sex therapist, along with an eclectic collection of worship services, Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in downtown Washington doesn't fit the mold of a standard house of worship.

But that's the idea. The four-year-old synagogue, operating out of a century-old building that spent five decades as a church, is drawing thousands of young Jews each month with its decidedly nontraditional approach to celebrating the Jewish faith.

"Forget the mold," said Shelton Zuckerman, a developer and board member of the synagogue. "This is not your grandfather's synagogue. What we're trying to do is attract a group of unaffiliated Jews who, in other circumstances, without Sixth and I, wouldn't come into a synagogue."

Tomorrow, 1,300 of them will crowd into the synagogue for four diverse services to observe Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that begins at sundown tonight. Synagogue leaders made the services free and were overwhelmed: About 1,300 tickets have been handed out, and there's a waiting list of 799.

For Jews, the most sacred of holidays is the period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, which begins the night of Oct. 8. Called "the days of awe," the holidays are a period during which Jews ask for forgiveness for their sins and the sins of their community, from one another and from God.

For weeks, Sixth and I has been in a frantic state of preparation for the holidays. Workers have been finishing a years-long project to retrofit the four-story building to be wheelchair accessible. The place smells of fresh paint and Pledge, and the screech of electric drills and growl of vacuum cleaners are a constant.

The tan, red-roofed structure at Sixth and I streets NW started life as a synagogue, but after that congregation, Adas Israel, moved in the 1950s, Turner AME Church moved in. When Turner moved out several years ago and put the building up for sale, Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, who is Jewish, and two Jewish real estate developers -- Zuckerman and Douglas Jemal -- swooped in and bought the building for $5 million to save it from being turned into a nightclub. They spent $2.5 million to refurbish it, and it opened as Sixth and I four years ago.

Organizers knew that they wanted Sixth and I to be a nontraditional synagogue catering to the growing young Jewish population in the District, many of whom have no ties to the local Jewish communities in synagogues, community centers or Hadassah and B'nai B'rith. But they weren't sure how, Zuckerman said.

"We didn't have a clue," he recalled last week. They knew only that they wanted to create "something new that didn't exist in the community."

Slowly, Sixth and I has found its footing, offering a diverse series of programming aimed at its target audience. It does not have a resident rabbi or a membership congregation. Instead, it brings in rabbis from across Judaism's denominations who offer services from across the Jewish tradition. The synagogue stocks six kinds of prayer books, from Orthodox through nondenominational.

One of the most popular services is Sixth in the City, a monthly Friday night Shabbat service that offers a happy hour with appetizers, wine and beer before the service and a free kosher dinner afterward. The service, partly in Hebrew, partly in English, features music from Jewish rock musicians and is partly aimed at those who didn't grow up immersed in the faith.

"They want to make you feel comfortable with Judaism," said one regular, Capitol Hill aide Danielle Borrin, 25.

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