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.
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.
In 2002, the synagogue also became embroiled in a battle between two factions for control of the governing board. One faction worshiped in an Olney branch of the main synagogue. That dispute is the focus of two lawsuits.
For the moment, synagogue members said they are preoccupied less with the litigation than with the changes they see. "The excitement in this community is palpable," said Scott Reiter, 30, who joined the synagogue about a year ago with his wife, Rachael Weintraub.
Reiter, a lawyer with the federal government, said the couple used to worship at Kesher Israel in Georgetown but could not afford to buy a house there. They wanted to stay in the District and thought that Ohev Sholom could be revived. They were instrumental in bringing Herzfeld to the attention of the committee searching for a rabbi.
"There is so much potential" at the synagogue, said Weintraub, 29, who also is a lawyer. "It's just crying out for young kids to be running through the halls . . . for vibrancy and youth." When their 3-month old son recently was circumcised, it was the synagogue's first such ceremony "in a very long time," Weintraub said.
Herzfeld said that when he attended Sabbath services at the synagogue in December, 13 people showed up. But he had an audience of 90 this month for his first sermon. In addition, for the first time in many years a prayer service is being held every day because the required quorum of 10 men, known as a minyan, is showing up each morning, the rabbi said.
Members of the congregation hope they can spark a revitalization of Jewish life along the 16th Street corridor, where an added attraction is the recently opened Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation's Capital.
Herzfeld noted that in the past three months, eight Jewish families have moved into the synagogue's neighborhood of Shepherd Park -- a key factor for an Orthodox congregation, whose members are not supposed to drive on the Sabbath.
To attract Orthodox families, Herzfeld is casting a big net. The glossy brochure recently mailed to Jewish households announced a wide range of new programs, including religious education classes for children and free preparation courses for bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs.
It also said the synagogue would hold a "free alternative service" on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Normally, only dues-paying synagogue members get tickets to the crowded, hours-long High Holiday services. But Herzfeld's alternative services will last only an hour.
Wouldn't an Orthodox Jew frown upon a shortened Yom Kippur ceremony? member Goodman was asked. "I suppose that is true," he replied. "But he's not offering that to the Orthodox [congregants]. He's trying to capture as much interest as there is in the non-observant Jew and try to build on that. . . . He's reaching out to a much broader audience of Jews, which is something we've never done."
Neither the brochure nor the TV spot mentions that Ohev Sholom is an Orthodox synagogue, where men and women are separated during worship services.
Herzfeld agreed that the ad campaign, which was underwritten in part by friends and supporters from his old synagogue, is an effort to reach all Jews. "The idea is we're welcoming to everyone. We don't investigate too closely people's personal lives," he said, adding that he doesn't ask whether people drive or walk to services on the Sabbath.
Herzfeld said that when he told friends he was thinking of moving to Washington to revive a dying synagogue, "many people questioned my sanity." They also warned him, he said.
"They said, 'This isn't New York,' " he recalled. "And it's not New York."