In August 1963, as Martin Luther King Jr. marched on the Mall and the Vietnam War raged halfway across the world, 40 Washington Jews gathered in a bowling alley to create their future in the developing District neighborhood of Southwest.
Channeling the spirit of the 1960s into a congregation of equality, diversity and creativity, they founded a home to experiment with their faith and repair the world.
Fifty years later, the Southwest Hebrew Congregation, as it was first called, has become one of America’s most influential Reform synagogues: Temple Micah.
“I like to describe us as a laboratory for what’s possible in Jewish religious life in this country . . . as a conversation about what Judaism is and how Judaism can inform our lives, and then live the conversation as a reality,” Daniel Zemel, a senior rabbi, said.
Micah held its first 50th anniversary celebration Oct. 20, when members could reflect on the temple’s history and share stories of how each came to call the congregation his or her own. Over the next seven months, Temple Micah plans to hold events discussing 1960s Washington, the future of Jewish education, the American Jewish connection to Israel and the state of the American synagogue.
The founders hoped to create a “teaching congregation” with a welcoming atmosphere and contagious spirit, the synagogue’s second president, Sid Booth, said at the party. The fledgling congregation, composed of families and a large number of single young adults, was unlike any they had seen before, Booth said.
After moving in 1995 from its home of 28 years at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel in Southwest to its own building on Wisconsin Avenue NW, Temple Micah’s draw, community members say, is still the strong sense of community. The congregation of 525 units — meaning either a single or family membership — is home to such personalities as “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory and Democratic Leadership Council founder Al From. It welcomes non-Jews as well.
“There’s a diversity of membership, an openness and inclusiveness, whether it’s for singles or married couples or the gay community, for people who aren’t Jewish and the interfaith community,” longtime member Laurie Brumberg, 48, said. “Such wide acceptance of that is unusual.”
The synagogue officially aligned with the Reform movement in 1966 and changed its name to Temple Micah in 1968, a Vietnam War-inspired reference to the prophet who called for turning swords into plowshares.
Micah members aim to bridge Jewish tradition and American modernity through youth groups, weekly Torah study, a social group for people in their 20s and 30s, extensive adult education offerings and even Hebrew tutoring via Skype.
“Everything we do, we challenge ourselves to be better. To us, Reform is a verb,” Zemel said, quoting a manifesto written for the anniversary. He said it captures the congregation’s tone. “We’re not static. We’re thinking all the time to figure out how to be a synagogue with a lightness of heart and sense of humor,” referencing the manifesto.
Combining what Brumberg calls a “philosophical approach to Judaism” with music, outside speakers and often dance, Temple Micah’s religious life appeals to members ranging from the traditionally observant to self-proclaimed “atheist Jews” — those who might identify with Jewish secular culture but do not believe in God. Many credit Zemel and Associate Rabbi Esther Lederman as visionary leaders of the congregation, and Brumberg said both clergy and lay leadership have created a community that defines and redefines itself.
“The intellectual aspect is very strong,” Brumberg said. “It gives people ownership of what they’re doing. It’s participatory. You can go to shul and daven and read prayer books, but you can also engage here in an egalitarian way.”
Temple Micah places a high value on community service, including an annual drive to collect donations of new underwear for the poor. Micah House, a transitional home for homeless women recovering from substance abuse, was founded by temple members in 1989. The independent nonprofit group has provided shelter, counseling support and social services to about 50 women since its opening.
Zemel said Micah’s largest impact comes from its strong ties to Israel, with a robust Israel fund, annual mission trips and a sister congregation in Haifa. They are also influential by advising synagogues around the United States, he said, frequently sought out by developing Jewish communities.
Newsweek listed Temple Micah in 2009 as one of the nation’s 25 most vibrant congregations, and multiple books cite it as a model for contemporary American synagogues.
The synagogue is grappling with issues of space and administrative personnel to serve a growing number of congregants, Zemel said, but he added that within the messiness of retaining identity lies an opportunity to escape Eastern European Jewish metaphors.
“We’re trying to create an American Jewish sound here, an American Jewish religious aesthetic that’s rooted in who we are and what our lives are about,” Zemel said. “I don’t want the synagogue to be a fortress where I can come in here for two hours a week and feel like I’m in 1870 Vilna. I want to come in here and feel like I’m in 2012 Washington, D.C., that there’s this Jewish wisdom, this Torah overflowing this place, and God’s presence is felt here but we’re not in a foreign country. It’s my life, it’s my God, it’s my Torah. That’s what we’re trying to do.”