The haunting melody of the Kol Nidre, which for centuries has marked the beginning of Yom Kippur, echoed off the ornate pillars of the Washington Cathedral Wednesday night summoning the newest Jewish congregation in the nation's capital to begin the most sacred observance of the Jewish year.
The Kehilla, Hebrew for community, began worshiping in the cathedral's Bethlehem Chapel during this year's high holy days when the size of the group outgrew the members' living rooms in which they had gathered for about a year.
The timing was auspicious, for just as the prayers of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, stress the reconciliation of man with God and with his fellow man, the non-traditional synagogue, Kehilla, seeks to reconcile with their faith Jews who for one reason or another have fallen away from more traditional synagogues.
"A number of people in Kehilla have not found the traditional Jewish answers to be the answers which work for them," said the group's founder, Rabbi Jay Heyman. Calling Kehilla a "liberal, humanistic approach to Judaism," he said, "we practice liberal religion within a Jewish framework. We're probably not a great deal different from Unitarianism except we are Jewish. We celebrate the Jewish life cycle with the bar mitzvah, bris circumcision rite and observe the Jewish holidays."
An abiding concern of Jews today, whose ranks were decimated by the Holocaust of World War II, is survival as a people. The topic, or a variant of it, is perennially on the agenda of Jewish organizations. And Jewish religious leaders see affiliation with a synagogue as an anchor to keep Jews from sliding into the majority culture.
While the more traditional Reform and conservative rabbis disagree with Heyman at some points, they "wish him well," as Rabbi Joshua Haberman of Washington Hebrew Congregation put it, in his new venture. That was a point the Washington Cathedral made sure of before they agreed to make space available, according to Provost Charles Perry. Heyman is a member in good standing of the Reform rabbinate.
"I don't necessarily agree with a number of positions of Rabbi Heyman," said Haberman, citing especially the question of mixed marriage, a particularly controversial issue among Reform rabbis.
Several years ago, after long and bitter debate, the Central Conference of American (Reform) Rabbis voted that Reform rabbis should not officiate at mixed marriages. But a substantial number of rabbis, convinced that that ruling was wrong, continue to perform such marriages.
"In performing mixed marriages," Haberman said, "I think he Heyman blurs lines in the name of so-called tolerance." But Haberman hastened to add that Heyman's new-style synagogue "is not an issue in the Jewish community. We are not antagonistic to him."
"Comfortable" is the word that keeps popping up as members of Kehilla talk about their new synagogue. "I feel very comfortable with Jay, because I'm able to question things I have doubts about," even about God, said Bob Bookman, 38, who teaches stress management and quit-smoking classes to government workers.
Bookman grew up in a family that he characterized as "not very religiously observant." The religious concepts he acquired as a boy of 11 or 12 proved a shaky foundation for mature spiritual growth, he said. "I learned that there was a God up there who helped Jews win wars," Bookman said. "He wasn't a loving God. Christianity had the loving God, not the Jews."
Bookman had little contact with any synagogue since then until a year or so ago when his wife, Joan, insisted he go with her to a neighborhood coffee, organized by Heyman to talk about a different kind of religious expression. The encounter was an eye-opener for Bookman, who said he "wasn't even sure I believe in God . . . . I didn't know I'd be allowed to raise such questions with a rabbi, a man my own age, and feel comfortable about it. I felt for the first time there was room for my own spiritual growth."
Laurie Keller grew up going to a large Reform synagogue, but she became somewhat alienated when she decided to marry a Roman Catholic and the rabbi there, acting in harmony with the policy of the Reform rabbinate on mixed marriages, declined to officiate at the service. So she and her husband, Robert, have turned to Kehilla.
"We wanted some place he could feel comfortable and still have some Jewish orientation, and also a place that would be comfortable for me as a Jew, and help me know what being Jewish was all about."
The Kellers also like Kehilla because they "wanted something smaller and more inviting" than the huge synagogue she grew up in.
Carol Nacy is also part of a mixed marriage -- only in her family, which includes her husband's children by a previous marriage, she is the non-Jewish partner. They like Kehilla, she said, because "we are trying to make sure the children are raised with a sense of Jewish identity and understanding without becoming overly organized."
Some members are particularly appreciative of the fact that Heyman is sensitive to the impact of the feminist revolution on religious language and tradition. Not only has he sought to purge the liturgy of sexist references, but Kehilla encourages a blurring of traditional sex roles in religious practices. Women take leading roles in the services and men are encouraged to take part in ceremonial lighting of the Sabbath candles, a role strictly reserved for women in traditional Judaism.
In his liturgy, Heyman also tries to be sensitive to worshipers such as Bookman, who are struggling with traditional concepts of God. Kehilla liturgy may refer to God as "the Source of Being," "Creator of Life," "Source of Creation." The terminology is reminiscent of expressions used by Protestant theologian Paul Tillich in his efforts more than a decade ago to reinterpret Christianity for contemporary culture.
"We've tried to clean up references to God that endow God with human traits, and we try to leave out the feudalisms, such as 'Lord,' " he said. But he is not too rigid about making changes in some of the better-known prayers and psalms, such as the shema, the affirmation of faith: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one God . . . . "
Heyman, who receives no salary and who runs his synagogue out of his home on Capitol Hill, puts together the liturgy for services with scissors, paste and Xerox machines, drawing on works of literature, current affairs, folk songs and his own writings, as well as more traditional sources. It does not make for a tranquil life; only a few hours before Cantor Geoff Alinson began the Kol Nidre Wednesday night, Heyman was at the printers cajoling his 50-page Yom Kippur service off the press.
Kehilla has no creed or statement of principles to which members are expected to subscribe, said Heyman, a native of Arkansas who has served congregations in Texas and West Virginia before coming here. No, he said, you don't even have to believe in God to belong, "but I think almost everyone does."
"We believe in individual accountability," he said. "What is discouraged is laying your beliefs on other people."
Some of the men at the high holy day services wore yarmulkes and prayer shawls, which they had brought from home; some didn't. "Part of the philosophy of the congregation is that if you find something meaningful, then by all means use it," Heyman said.
He is the first to acknowledge that the Kehilla is not for everyone, but for "people who have been disfranchised by the feeling that they can't conform to the practices and beliefs of traditional institutions."