Simi Valley, Calif. (AP) — Every time Rabbi Dov Gartenberg led the Sabbath service at Congregation Beth Shalom, he would see bored faces among the worshippers and wonder how long he could hold their interest.
“I could say, ‘That person’s going to leave in 30 minutes and that person’s going to leave in 45 minutes.’ And I was right,” he said. “I was powerless to stop it. I felt like I was in chains.”
Frustrated, Gartenberg quit his congregation two years ago and opened a nonprofit for Jews who feel most synagogues have forsaken them.
This week, Gartenberg took another unusual step: He and 15 other Jewish leaders met with evangelical Christians who set out on a similar path a decade ago and sparked a mini-revolution in the process.
Over two days, representatives from nearly 30 emergent Jewish and Christian worship groups talked about abandoning traditional worship in search of a more personal connection with God that they said they can’t find in temple or church. They also shared their vision with more traditional Jewish leaders who hope this new “emergent Judaism” might help bring young Jews back at least to some style of worship.
“We’ve got to learn from what our Christian colleagues are doing,” said Shawn Landres of Synagogue 3000, a progressive Jewish think tank that set up the meeting at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute about 45 miles north of Los Angeles.
“We told them, ‘You guys are maybe five to 10 years ahead of us, and we want to know what you did right and what you did wrong,'” he said.
Speakers at the conference said both faiths are struggling to stay relevant — particularly to young people — in a culture that is increasingly fast-paced and global.
Admonishments to believe in God and attend services regularly aren’t enough to help people make sense of today’s world, said Wade Clark Roof, a professor of religion and society at University of California, Santa Barbara.
“There’s a very general sense of wanting to find ways to embody faith — to live it,” said Roof, who spoke at the conference. “There’s a very deep quest within the culture for that and you find it broadly based.”
Evangelical Christians began to search for ways to meet those spiritual needs about 10 years ago, quitting mainstream churches to form worship groups that meet in coffee shops, warehouses and living rooms. They began calling themselves emergent Christians and now focus on “walking the path of Jesus” and doing humanitarian work while remaining apolitical.
There have also been signs in recent years of American Jews doing the same. Some broke away from synagogues and formed groups such as New York’s “Storahtelling,” which uses ethnic music, traditional chanting and dance to explore the Torah.
Others, such as Gartenberg, founded organizations that host online blogs and podcasts and offer Sabbath feasts in members’ dining rooms.
This “gets a rabbi into people’s homes, which is completely novel,” said Gartenberg, who founded Panim Hadashot, which is Hebrew for “New Faces of Judaism,” in Seattle. “It’s creating an experience that’s deeply spiritual. It not just like going to a synagogue.”
Feelings of spiritual alienation were particularly pronounced among young Jews, who feel their religion has been defined by events such as the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than a strong spiritual connection, Landres said.
The emergent church movement has its critics. Some traditional churchgoers have questioned whether the approach is superficial and not dignified enough for worship. Others worry that small groups independent of denominations and the oversight they provide are vulnerable to leaders who spread distorted theology.
Some conservative Jews, too, have criticized those who have split off from synagogues, saying they are ignoring thousands of years of religious tradition.
Still, other Jewish groups feel they have something to learn from the Christian movement, including how to feel comfortable speaking about personal faith in a public sphere.
“Contemporary Jews don’t like talking about beliefs, and we’re not really comfortable talking about God,” Landres said. “The point is not that younger Jews aren’t interested in the Holocaust and are not supportive of Israel. We just want to show our love in a different way.”
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