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April 9, 1998

Rekindling the spirit


Jay Sage leading prayers Photo caption: Newton resident Jay Sage, who has recently immersed himself in his Jewish heritage, leads a morning prayer service at Temple Emanuel.

Photo credit: REY BANOGON

Three years ago, George Krupp found that his life was getting out of control. Between his work in real estate, his family and his outside interests, Krupp said he began to feel as though he was on a treadmill that was going much too fast.

"I found that I didn't have any time to myself and not enough time with my family," said Krupp. "So I began observing the Sabbath."

Krupp, who used to only go to synagogue on high holidays, started attending services regularly on Saturday mornings with his family. He honored the Sabbath by abstaining from watching television and talking on the phone for the day. With one day per week of quiet contemplation, Krupp said he found his life settling into a more peaceful rhythm.

"What I was looking for was time," said Krupp. "By observing the Sabbath I got time, and in the process I learned to enjoy my Judaism."

Like thousands of Jews across the country, Krupp turned to his roots when he felt his life needed focus and grounding. Krupp said he was looking for meaning and spirituality, and he found it in the Jewish community.

Although the Jewish population in Newton has decreased by 18 percent since 1985, membership is up at almost every synagogue. In 2000, Newton will become an even stronger center of Jewish life when Hebrew College moves from its Brookline campus to a six-acre plot in Newton Centre.

Many of the people who are returning to Judaism either never went to synagogue or were disconnected from their religion years ago. They are middle-aged successful professionals who say that something was missing in their lives. They went to the synagogue searching for community, education and spirituality, and the modern synagogue offered it all. To lure people back to Judaism after years of the religious community being chipped away by interfaith marriages and declining congregations, synagogues are reaching out to bring Jews back to the fold. And they're coming in droves.

Bring 'em back

As the baby boomers eased into middle-age and successful careers in early '90s, many of them began to feel that they had become increasingly disconnected from their community, according to Jewish leaders. As David Starr, the academic director at Hebrew College put it, people longed to feel like they lived in a community where people cared when children were born and when people died. When they couldn't find that in their geographic community, many Jews turned to the synagogue.

"People used to join the synagogue because it was the right thing to do," said Rabbi Andrew Warmflash of Temple Emanuel. "It was part of the accepted pattern of life. Now, most people come to the synagogue with a desire to learn and be active."

While Jews were looking for something more out of life, synagogues were looking for a way to offer it. The Combined Jewish Philanthropies, a sort of local Jewish United Way, formed the Commission on Jewish Continuity in 1989, in partnership with all of the Jewish religious movements, to come up with ways to ensure a rich Jewish future in the Boston area.

"We recognized that not enough was being done for the local Jewish community in terms of Jewish identity," said Carloyn Keller, the director of the commission. "Synagogues were not focused enough on people's needs for spirituality and meaning."

Jeffrey Swartz, the vice president and COO of the Timberland Company, is one of the successful professionals who felt that his life needed more spirituality. Around the time the first of his three children was born, Swartz became an observant Jew. Brought up in a largely secular household, Swartz found himself studying Torah, observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher around the same time CJP started working on Jewish continuity.

"I find myself in lots of different cultures because of work and it can be hard to keep kosher," said Swartz. "But for that second when I don't think about the fact that I'm hungry but I think about my religion and how it relates to this meal, I have a spiritual moment and that is incredibly valuable."

Swartz, said he found a community of people who were equally serious about their religion at Temple Emanuel, which has had impressive success in encouraging Jews to be more involved in their religion. The synagogue recently completed an $11 million renovation to meet the needs of its 1,400 families, 75 of whom have joined in the past year. The old building was only big enough for about 600 families.

"There is a real spiritual hunger out there," said Warmflash. "People are coping with the blessing of success and find they need more in their lives."

In addition to traditional Saturday services, the synagogue has recently offered alternative services for people at different levels and with different interests. On a recent Saturday, there were nine different services going on a once, including one led by a lay member of the congregation, a service for beginners and three services for children.

"The more we offer, the more people come," said Warmflash.

Statistics show that the trend is real. Synagogue attendance is up in every Jewish denomination. According to a 1995 demographic study put out by CJP, 54 percent of C0onservative Jews attend synagogue once or twice a month as opposed to 38 percent in 1985. Among Reform Jews, 40 percent attend synagogue once or twice a month as opposed to 29 percent in 1985.

"There is a great interest among lay people in what the synagogue has to offer," said Rabbi Keith Stern of Temple Beth Avodah. "There is also a deeper desire and commitment across the board in Jewish life."

Finding it at the synagogue

David Begelfer, a Newton resident and member of Temple Beth Avodah, found a place in the synagogue to ask the questions he had about life. Begelfer grew up in a Reform Jewish household and went to Hebrew school, but after he graduated from high school he gradually moved away from Judaism. When he married a woman from a more conservative family 12 years ago, he started celebrating the Sabbath again and found that through his religion, he had the potential for a spiritually fulfilling life.

"It reminded me of what was meaningful and enjoyable in my life," said Begelfer. "I realized there was something I had missed in my religion."

When Begelfer went on a religious retreat to New York City several years ago, he found that his religion could be an even more powerful force in his life. He heard Norman Cohen, a leader in the Reform movement, speak about finding meaning in life from reading the old Hebrew texts.

"That gave me a renewed interest in my religion," said Begelfer. "Through study, I'm getting more out of Judaism personally. I have a base from which to learn more about my own life."

Jay Sage, an MIT scientist who prays at the synagogue almost every morning, also said he found a way to get in touch with his personal life through Judaism. Raised as a Unitarian, although both of his parents were Jewish, Sage said his life has been constantly enriched as he delves deeper into the history and traditions of Judaism.

"At first, I didn't even know where they were in the service," said Sage of his prayers with the morning minyan. "Within a year I was leading services and now I am a regular leader. We go through the same prayers every day and it's the same as kids who want the same story read to them over and over again. It's very comforting."

David Starr said that it is people such as Begelfer and Sage who will save the religion from extinction. They represent the strong center of the religious community, and as that center becomes more serious about making commitments to Judaism, the entire religion benefits.

"People are always going to leave the religion, the question is where is the center going," said Starr. "As commitment becomes more present on people's radar screens, the entire religion shifts to a more stable place."

Although no one knows if the present trend will persist, most Jewish leaders say that it bodes well for the future of Judaism.

"We have to be concerned with the people who show up," said Stern. "If they are comfortable and encouraged they will keep coming back, they will be dedicated to a Jewish life and they will pass it on to their children and we will go on."