Fourteen members of Adat Shalom sat in a circle in their Bethesda synagogue's spacious meeting room this week, poised for their latest training session in spiritual drama. Instructor Amichai Lau-Lavie set the scene.
Moses has just died and his successor, Joshua, must make his first speech to the grieving, nervous Israelites, Lau-Lavie said. Keep in mind, he advised, that Deuteronomy 34:10 calls Moses a one-of-a-kind prophet "whom the Lord singled out, face to face." Now re-create the moment, using your imagination and any character you want, he told the class.
After a moment of silent concentration, Vicki Stearn came forward as Joshua. "It is with great sadness that I come to tell you that my beloved leader Moses has died," she said, "a leader the likes of whom we won't see ever again in Israel because he knew God face to face."
Allan Shapiro thought Joshua would have felt some anger. "I'll never be able to replace Moses!" Shapiro's Joshua shouted. "God looked at him face to face. And he's never going to look at me that way!"
Luther Jett chose to personify the Ghost of Moses, venting frustration. "I begged God to show me his face and all he would show me was his backside," Jett intoned. "When did I ever see God face to face?"
Tamar Lieberman got up. "I'm a child of Joshua," the retired teacher said, eliciting laughter. "You know, a lot of people think he's the greatest. Well, let me just tell you that as a father he's a pain in the butt, and life at home is the pits. He makes us study, he doesn't let us do anything."
In this season of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that begins tonight at sundown, Adat Shalom is embracing a new program making waves in synagogues across the country. Called "Storahtelling," it is an effort by founder Lau-Lavie to breathe new life into a central rite of Jewish worship, the Torah reading, by fusing it with storytelling, drama, music, audience participation and dollops of humor.
For centuries, the Torah reading's purpose "was to engage the entire community in a storytelling event that nourishes the community with meaning," Lau-Lavie, 34, said. But in too many synagogues nowadays, he said, this part of the Shabbat service has become "extremely unexciting, very boring and very undramatic."
Seeking to rectify that, the Israeli-born New York resident formed the first Storahtelling troupe five years ago in New York. Its 20 part-time performers have appeared in about 250 synagogues across the country representing the four Jewish movements. They also have appeared in nightclubs and theaters to reach unaffiliated Jews.
And in the hope of seeing Storahtelling become a permanent feature of Jewish congregational life, the troupe offers training in the technique.
Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation, is the first Washington area synagogue to get this training. Its fledgling troupe will make its debut next month on the Jewish festival of Simhat Torah, when the assigned Torah reading includes Moses' death. But the 450-member congregation will get its first taste of Storahtelling tomorrow, when Lau-Lavie's troupe will perform at the synagogue's Rosh Hashanah service.
Members of Adat Shalom's class noted that their training involved hours of studying the Torah text for its spiritual meaning. "There was the same intensity of study that you'd see at any yeshiva, said Jett, a Gaithersburg resident and teacher trainer, referring to the religious academies of Orthodox Judaism.
With its emphasis on self-assessment and new beginnings, the Jewish New Year seemed the perfect time to introduce Storahtelling to the congregation, said Shapiro, 57, a business manager at Fannie Mae.
Rosh Hashanah , which starts the solemn 10-day period known as High Holidays, "is an opportunity to step aside from our daily lives and shed our complacency about how we're living," said Shapiro, of Potomac. And Storahtelling's approach, he added, "helps us shed our complacency about the Torah . . . and potentially create a spark to look at ourselves and our lives in a new way."
Rabbi Sid Schwarz, who will lead Adat Shalom's services, said Storahtelling also fits Adat Shalom's belief that it is good to challenge convention. "When you do that, you open people's minds up and prepare them for growth," he said.
Storahtelling is one of several ways that Jews are trying to revitalize their synagogue life, which many Jewish leaders regard as an urgent challenge. A major survey released this month by United Jewish Communities found that less than half (46 percent) of the nation's 5.2 million Jews belong to a synagogue. Moreover, the survey said, there is a growing divide between this group and unaffiliated Jews.
"Many of my peers don't go to the synagogue because they're bored to death," said Lau-Lavie, who was raised in the Orthodox tradition. "But they go to movies and theater and that is where their souls are tapped."
Lau-Lavie, who taught Judaic literature in Israel and is the nephew of Israel's former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Israel Lau, began researching early Torah readings and discovered that until about 1,000 years ago, they were accompanied by the services of a M'turgeman, a person who translated the Hebrew text into the vernacular and gave a running commentary, or midrash, to the congregation.
"It was live subtitles," Lau-Lavie said. "He would translate the text but highlight the subtext and context of what the story was about. So he was both a storyteller and a living bridge between the past and the present. I was amazed at how little was known about this ritual and its history."
Storahtelling is reviving this ancient practice, Lau-Lavie said. "We are taking an ancient form of sacred storytelling, with clear guidelines and instruction, that's been in the attic for a thousand years and we are adding a contemporary form somewhere between story and theater," he said. "Any rabbi who says this is not kosher, I can argue with him till I'm blue in the face and I'm right."
Like the old M'turgeman, Storahtelling performers aim for both reverence and relevance. Typically, the rabbi or cantor chants a verse of the Torah in Hebrew and then stops. The actors then dramatize the verse in English, through a contemporary scene using characters drawn from the biblical text or their imagination.
Rosh Hashanah's first-day Torah reading, for example, is about the birth of Abraham's son Isaac and the expulsion -- at the insistence of Abraham's wife, Sarah -- of Ishmael, the son of Abraham's concubine. In Storahtelling's dramatic commentary at Adat Shalom, Lau-Lavie will be Abraham's servant, Eliezer, and another troupe member will play Sarah.
"This is the story that gave birth to the current conflict between Jews and Arabs," Lau-Lavies said. "We're going to pause the drama and ask the audience's advice to Sarah. It's a way of including whoever is watching and a way of making it personal. What do you do when you have a child you want to defend at all costs? It's a biblical and a very contemporary question."
"Storahtelling" training at Adat Shalom in Bethesda.Adat Shalom congregation members in Bethesda train in Storahtelling, which incorporates drama and music.Amichai Lau-Lavie and Franny Silverman, foreground, lead the exercises.Rabbi Sid Schwarz of Adat Shalom says Storahtelling fits his synagogue's belief in challenging convention. "When you do that, you open people's minds up and prepare them for growth," he says.