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A Reform Rabbi and His Lawyer Wife Attract Hundreds of Unaffiliated Jews to Their Alternative Events

Reprinted with permission of The New York Jewish Week. Visit www.thejewishweek.com.

It wasn't a typical venue for pre-Passover learning. But then, Rabbi Andy Bachman and Rachel Altstein specialize in pairing "not typical" with Jewish.

A few days before the holiday, Bachman and Altstein, who are, respectively, a Reform rabbi and an attorney, got together with 20 Jews on the back patio of a Prospect Heights wine bar to do a little Passover learning and talking.

"We just ordered a bunch of wine and I taught for about an hour," said Rabbi Bachman, 42. "Then Annette Ezekiel [founder of the avant garde klezmer band Golem] played the accordion and taught a Yiddish 'Had Gadya,' taught the Four Questions in Hebrew and in Yiddish, and a few other fun songs just to get people in the Pesach mood."

It was a typically atypical kind of event for the new organization founded by the married couple. Two years ago, when they realized it was time to listen to what people in their neighborhood wanted, rather than continue the age-old institutional Jewish practice of telling them what they should want, Brooklyn Jews was born.

"Our evolution was very organic," said Altstein, 37, who recently took a leave of absence from her job as a criminal appeals public defender, representing indigent prisoners, in order to help grow the new group.

"A lot of people have these conversations at the co-op [the Park Slope Food Co-op] and in the park [Prospect Park]," she said. " 'How could our Jewish lives be better, richer, more meaningful?' "

So husband and wife spread the word and on a June evening in 2003 about 50 people crowded into their apartment. The whole evening centered around one question, said Altstein: "What do you want?"

Out of that conversation came some of Brooklyn Jews' first activities: a Christmas Day party that has brought hundreds of people to a Park Slope club for danceable hip hop beat box Jewish tunes and drinks, a weekly Hebrew school and week-long Hebrew immersion summer camp called Gan Shalom.

"We didn't want to start with a bar and bat mitzvah track. To us it seemed intuitive to start with something more relevant," Altstein said during an interview in the couple's apartment. Overlooking Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza, it is furnished in mid-century modern style and decorated with original art.

"We think if there's a comfort level with that, when they get to prayerbook Hebrew, it won't look like hieroglyphics."

Most of all, though, Brooklyn Jews is about being an open resource for Jews, and connecting with them where they are--wherever that is.

It seems to be working. Hundreds of, you guessed it, Brooklyn Jews (and a few Manhattan ones) are attending the new group's widening range of events.

There is a monthly series called "Jews: What We Say and What We Do" which is, essentially, an intellectually wide-ranging introduction to Judaism course. It attracts a couple dozen people and is hosted in people's homes.

First Fridays are monthly Shabbat evening celebrations that take place in people's living rooms and in a rented space in a neighborhood park. They are social gatherings, mostly, with wine and cheese delivered by Fresh Direct, a kid-oriented activity, candle-lighting and, when someone is mourning the death of a loved one, Kaddish. They use a photocopied Brooklyn Jews prayerbook and attract about 70 people at a time.

Full of young families, the Brooklyn Jews events haven't attracted many people without kids, so in the works is "Drink 'n Think," a Saturday-night bar gathering for Jewish authors and their readers.

Rabbi Bachman has spent hours over the last few months meeting with Jews in their 20s, asking them what they want. The answer? A Shabbat gathering that they describe as "egalitarian, Carlebach-y, open, experimental, vegetarian and social-action oriented."

Though Park Slope has birthed several minyanim of varying flavors in recent years, none of them are quite like that, and so Brooklyn Jews may foster it.

"Shouldn't the Jewish community be partnering with these people to find ways to give them resources to do what they want to do?" Rabbi Bachman asked.

Among the principles guiding Rabbi Bachman and Altstein's work is the idea that the majority of Jews live outside the organized Jewish community, rather than at its center. Another is that synagogues and other Jewish institutions should view themselves as hubs, dispatching resources to people who want to connect but may not want to cross the threshold of a particular building to do so.

One of the models for their work is the ancient rabbis' adaptation following the destruction of Jerusalem's temple, said Rabbi Bachman, who worked for five years as the rabbi-educator at a large Park Slope Reform temple, Congregation Beth Elohim, while he was studying at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"The innovation the rabbis came up with, turning the Mikdash into Mikdash Me'at [the Temple's sanctuary into 'little sanctuaries,'] saved us from the destruction of the Temple. Synagogues became places for seekers and learners and people who wanted community," Rabbi Bachman said.

"If we rabbis are out there as organizational nodes in the Jewish world and see our mission as helping people build small sanctuaries in their homes or the places where they gather, that would be a great innovation," he said.

After leaving Beth Elohim, Rabbi Bachman built the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University, which he directed for nearly seven years before moving on to Reboot, a New York-based organization that is establishing creative initiatives to reach the same kinds of people that Brooklyn Jews attracts.

A couple of months ago, Rabbi Bachman left Reboot to concentrate on building Brooklyn Jews with Altstein.

"People are struggling to move beyond the synagogue as it was created in the 1940s, '50s and '60s," he said. "I don't think Rachel and I are unique. The community is going through one of those waves of experimentation now, and Brooklyn Jews is one small blip on that screen."

It may be a blip, but it's not such a small one; at its Purim carnival last month, Rabbi Bachman worked the large room where it was held, managing to hold conversations with many of the 531 people there while his three towheaded daughters hung on to his legs, begging him to dance with them to kiddie songster Jonathan Bayer and later, to the rollicking nouveau-klezmer played by Golem.

Participants chatted while they downed hot dogs, hamantashen and beer, and escorted their children to a face-painting artist. It was a diverse group filling the performance space at the Brooklyn Lyceum in Park Slope: some were synagogue-affiliated but most were not. Many were conventional Jewish families while others were interfaith couples or single parents, singles of all ages and people working as artists, writers, lawyers and social workers--the whole spectrum found in this section of Brooklyn.

For many, it was their only Purim experience. Most importantly, perhaps, people there seemed to feel like it didn't matter what their Jewish "credentials" were. They needed only to come when they wished, leave when they wanted, and while they were there, just dance a little, schmooze a little and enjoy.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Yiddish for "Haman's pockets," and shaped after the three-corner hat of Haman (the villain of the Purim story), these are triangular cookies with poppy seed, jam or fruit filling in the middle. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. 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 "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. 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.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week.

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