The classic image of Jewish study might be from the movie “Yentl,” in which small groups of men huddle around tables, debating scripture. In reality, however, the majority of American Jews today barely read Jewish texts, never mind sit around discussing them.
Enter the new beit midrash, or study hall, that opened this month at Northwest Washington’s Adas Israel synagogue. It is trying to reimagine for its large, prominent congregation — and possibly for liberal Judaism in general — an ancient practice more associated with the Orthodox: Torah study.
Like the beit midrash that has been common for centuries in Orthodox schools and synagogues, the large room has a prayer area, bookshelves on every wall, small tables for shared study and an expectation of noisy debate about Jewish law. But this one includes a coffee stand, WiFi for checking e-mail and a list of events that sounds more like the roster at Politics and Prose — talks on food, relationships and music. One morning this week, a man read Talmud on a laptop while a discarded Vogue magazine lay on a table nearby.
Indeed, the glass-walled, chicly designed beit midrash is trying to merge Judaism’s scholarly past with its sophisticated, more secular American present. And with new research showing American Jews rapidly bailing on institutional and Bible-based life — but still seeing themselves as Jews — leaders like Adas’s rabbi believe that a paradigm shift is urgent.
“The Jewish community is shifting radically, and the [idea] is to see all of it — Torah, prayer, mitzvot [commandments] — all as technologies that are there for us to connect profoundly with our truest selves, with our community, with God,” said Gil Steinlauf, rabbi since 2008 at the 1,400-family Adas.
The Adas space is an unusual combination of the secular and the sacred, meant to merge the modern desire for something like Starbucks, or Cheers — a place where people flock to be around others — with the ancient idea of a beit midrash, a place where people are connecting over Jewish study.
The Hebrew term “beit midrash” is often short-handed as “house of prayer,” or prayer room, but the words are more literally translated as “house of investigation,” or searching, or interpreting. The traditional way of Jewish study is in pairs or small groups, called chevrutah, which comes from the word “friend.” Study schools are called yeshivas, which comes from the word “sitting.”
“It means sitting on your tush having a debate about text,” Steinlauf said during a conversation at Adas. “The most important thing is what happens in that space between two people, when they meet the face of God in a deep conversation and relationship with one another. That’s the message that’s so desperately needed today when people feel more and more isolated, to lift up face-to-face encounter.”
The study space is part of a $15 million renovation Adas just finished this fall, overhauling the entire building in an effort to modernize the concept of a synagogue. With Jews fleeing institutional life, efforts at flagship synagogues like Adas are seen as essential.
Other examples include Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim, an Orthodox synagogue that turned Saturday — the Sabbath day — into a popular time for author talks, and Romemu, led by a rabbi who also is a certified astrologer and kung fu aficionado, where Sabbath is sometimes marked with open-mike dinners where people offer poems and songs. Both synagogues are in New York City.
Steinlauf also engineered new programs outside the beit midrash, including a Jewish mindfulness center that holds yoga and meditation classes centered on Jewish texts and practices and an atypical worship service based on soulful, Eastern-style music and dance.
But the beit midrash is the centerpiece, meant to address head-on the lack of familiarity many Jews have with their scripture. Less than 20 percent of American Jews say Jewish law is “essential” to being Jewish, and about 25 percent say they go to synagogue at least once a month.
Rabbis at Adas said U.S. Jews often don’t sign up for basic Torah or Talmud classes, so programs at the beit midrash will use regular life topics — parenting, caring for older parents, food — as gateways to Jewish teachings.
For example, in one class, rabbis asked parents what their home looks like on a typical weekday from 6 to 8 a.m. and what it lacks as a way to consider Jewish morning prayers and their purpose. In another, a group of teenagers brought their iPhones and iPads and designed a video game based on the story of Noah and what he might have experienced as a caretaker. Another program has a popular soup maker use her work as a way to discuss Jewish ethics on eating and keeping kosher.
Rick Fox, a forester, uses the center Sunday mornings while waiting for his children to finish Sunday school. Adas has purposely scheduled classes for parents at that time in the beit midrash. Fox has taken a class with Steinlauf called “Making Torah Personal” and sat in one of the classes for teens about designing a Torah-based video game.
He said the center fills a need for Jews who grew up, as he did, in homes where Judaism was more “ritualistic” and lacked “meaningful inquiry.”
“I’ve been starving for more,” Fox said in an interview. “The beit midrash is a place I can go feed. The original idea of a chevrutah were these yeshiva students debating a Torah portion, but the thing is: Why does it just have to be a Torah portion? It’s a place where people can talk about Torah, or what to do about Iran, or whatever.”
Steinlauf said he encourages his classes in the beit midrash to “border on heresy” in terms of challenging the text, “saying where the text [ticks] us off and alienates us.”
“Bring your overwrought self” to the study, he said.
A key source of Steinlauf’s inspiration is popular rabbi and writer Irwin Kula, who says that for centuries, the beit midrash — the study area — of a Jewish community was “where the action was,” perhaps more, in his view, than the area for prayer. Most American Jews now use scripture, he says, as a way to back up what they already believe.
“Right now, in liberal forms of religion, texts are cheerleaders. The text has some role besides cheerleader. But what makes someone a Jew? . . . A Jew is someone who wrestles with text,” he said. Intimate study of scripture, he said, “is a more effective way to build community than sitting in pews reading prayers we know the vast majority of Jews don’t believe in.”