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Washington, D.C., Congregation Has Diversity As Its Mission

Originally published in the Washington Jewish Week  with the title "'Purple, gay, straight ...'New shul reaches out to a diversity of Jews." Reprinted by permission.

Sept. 24, 2008--The tides of tolerance rolled in this Rosh Hashanah at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C., where a pioneering multicultural and multiracial congregation, Temple Beth Emet, is set to hold its first Rosh Hashanah services.

"You could [show-up and] be purple, gay, straight, have a family, no family, be Orthodox and everything in between -- that's who we are," said Sonia Rosen, 47, a program specialist at Sixth & I. "There is certainly an untapped need for more multicultural programming in the community."

Though the service will be entirely lay led, Rabbi Eli Aronoff, 48, of Beth Emet said he will be available to help conduct davening and otherwise lend a hand if needed.

"Why do we need a [new] synagogue?" Aronoff, who is African-American, asked rhetorically. "Because you don't find a community in all these [local] synagogues that caters to these groups."

Aronoff said the nondenominational congregation, with its 17 initial members, will be that safe haven. "We're excluding nobody," he said. "This isn't about skin color or the texture or your hair ... it's about people who want to worship God."

Many multicultural Jews, such as African-Americans and Asian Indians, Aronoff added, have trouble finding a "welcoming community" because area synagogues, barring Sixth & I, lack "outreach."

At least one rabbi disagreed.

Rabbi Ethan Seidel of Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., said that his congregation has a number of multiethnic members. Other area shuls, he added, appear to be fully race-blind in their admissions policies, although they may not actively recruit multiethnic Jews.

"I don't think you'll find many shuls where a black person would feel uncomfortable," Seidel said. "Maybe 50 years ago"--but not now, he said.

Beth Emet's multicultural services featured traditional prayers as well as nouveau flourishes to enliven the proceedings--appropriately so, according to Aronoff. "Praise is not a kind of humdrum thing--it is joyous and expressive," he explained, referring to prayer.

For example, Aronoff said, participants will be able to express their cultural norms through homegrown customs, such as singing, dancing and other native rituals.

"The music and singing will be a major difference from what you may typically see," Aronoff said, adding that his goal is to "create a spiritually satisfying place" for congregants who otherwise might feel "totally out of place."

While Aronoff said he immediately embraced the idea of unfettered congregational outreach, he had little to do with Beth Emet's creation. That was an outgrowth of a multicultural Havdalah service held in March at Sixth & I that was intended to invigorate and galvanize members of the area's multicultural community.

It was co-sponsored by the Jewish Multiracial Network of D.C. and Kulanu, an organization that locates and assists dispersed Jews. The service, which was attended by about 80 people, was jointly created by Rosen and Beth Emet founder/president, Shelliya Iyomahan; all 17 members of the new congregation participated in the original Havdalah service.

"Out of the Havdalah service, we found out there was a niche" for multicultural gatherings, Iyomahan said, noting that the large turnout indicated that they were onto something big.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., the leader of the original Havdalah service, said the event helped bring attention to multicultural needs in the community. Unlike Seidel, however, he mantained that discrimination "still takes place." "Jews of color and their allies will have litanies of horror stories," he said. "The good news is that devotion ... is strong enough in many of them to overcome this."

Dobb, the father of a 3-year-old African American child, said there is "huge value in creating a safe space" such as Temple Beth Emet, "not that every mainstream suburban shul shouldn't also be a safe place" for multiracial Jews, he added.

Iyomahan, a Silver Spring resident whose parents immigrated from Trinidad, said she loves to experience Jewish prayers in various languages, and has done so in Spanish and sign language, to name a few forms of communication. Beth Emet, she added, will allow people to "come sing to a different melody."

She added that although she loves her Conservative synagogue--Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Md., --Beth Emet will be a place where members need not abandon their "doctrinal beliefs" or assimilate "[to] larger cultures."

Sabrina Sojourner, 55, who will serve as Beth Emet's cantor, said she has encountered synagogues where that was not necessarily the prevailing philosophy.

On the contrary, at certain points in her life, Sojourner, an African American convert to Judaism, said she has felt very uncomfortable in shuls around the United States, including some in Washington, D.C.

"It's anywhere from mildly amusing to intensely infuriating," she said, adding that her chief congregation, Reform Temple Micah in the Washington, D.C., has always made her feel at ease. Organizers of the new congregation said more such venues are needed.

Sojourner, who is not a formally trained cantor, will aim to include global melodies in the Beth Emet services and alter some of the standards so they are "not strictly [sung] from a standard Jewish-European perspective."

To find the proper rabbi for Beth Emet, Iyomahan contacted the predominately black Congregation Temple Beth-El in Philadelphia, her cousin's congregation. A longtime friend of Beth-El's rabbi, Debra Bowen, Iyomahan asked if there was anyone who could head her new congregation. Bowen put her in touch with Aronoff, a longtime TBE member.

Because the multicultural Rosh Hashanah service has filled up quickly (nearly 100 have signed up, with a waiting list of roughly 100), Rosen added erev Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services to be led exclusively by Aronoff. After Rosh Hashanah, Beth Emet will begin hosting weekly Shabbat morning services at Sixth & I.

Aronoff, who plans to commute to D.C. each weekend, grew up in a "very religious home" in Philadelphia and often performed services at Temple Beth-El, where he'd been a member since childhood. Ordained by Rabbi Morris Shoulson, an Orthodox rabbi and mohel in Philadelphia, he labels himself "Conservadox."

Beth Emet's holiday celebration is among four types of services held at Sixth & I this High Holiday season, including Conservative, modern Orthodox and family services.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Aramaic for "all vows," the opening words and name of the first prayer that begins the evening service on Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre has come to refer to the name of the evening service itself. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." From the Yiddish word for "prayer," it's often used as a verb in English. ("I'm davening at services tonight.") Hebrew for "separation" or "distinction," the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath on Saturday evenings. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Yiddish for "synagogue."

Adam Kredo is a staff writer for the Washington Jewish Week.

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