If you’re not Jewish, you might not even be aware that Adath Israel Congregation exists. The Lawrence-based congregation wants to change that in some thought-provoking and, frankly, entertaining ways.
“We’re trying to do some exciting things,” says Brenda Solomon, a trustee at Adath Israel and chairperson of the synagogue’s Mosaic cultural program. “And not just for the Jewish community.”
Mosaic, in a nutshell, is a cultural center for music, art, performance and thought, as seen through a pluralistic Jewish lens, according to Adath’s website, with songs and stories, films and discussions. But that “pluralistic Jewish lens” is merely the beginning. So much about the Jewish story, says Adath’s Rabbi, Benjamin Adler, is universal. Take, for example, an event the congregation hosted last year while Adler and Solomon were starting to put the Mosaic idea together:
Adath showed a documentary, “From Swastika to Jim Crow,” which is about exactly what the title sates – the story of Jewish professors who fled Germany under the Nazis and landed in the United States, only to find that they were not welcome at supposedly progressive academic institutions in the north. They could, however, find teaching positions at universities in the south, and when they got there, they found themselves in ugly, familiar environs—widespread, institutionalized racism was everywhere, and the newly landed professors were having none of it.
“They encouraged the pursuit of justice,” Adler says. “It’s an interesting story that’s not always told, and people were hungry for it.”
While the story of the film was anchored to an experience only Jews had at the time, the scale of racism and the striving for justice resonated hard with congregants, Adler says. He realized there was a real yearning for meaningful content, and that “it can be from a Jewish point of view and be universal. People do like to come together.”
Bringing communities together and un-pluralizing the word is a main thrust behind what Adath Israel is trying to do.
“We’re looking to do community things,” Solomon says. “We want to get people in the door of all different faiths.”
Solomon and Adler first tapped into the idea of Mosaic about a year ago.
“It started with Rabbi and I brainstorming,” she says.
Adler says the first step was to do the most simple thing: ask congregants what they might want to see Adath do.
“We did some focus group work at the synagogue,” he says. “People said, ‘We’d like to have some cultural programs.’”
Armed with this knowledge, Adler and Solomon decided to “try and think big,” he says. They didn’t just want to do a few programs that would bring in the members who would show up for anything and everything.
“We wanted to get people who would say, ‘I’ll go to that just because it’s cool,’” he says.
The screening of “From Swastika to Jim Crow” ended up being somewhat of a litmus test, Adler says. The reaction people had to seeing and hearing a story they hadn’t, that crossed cultures and simultaneously united them let him know that Adath was on the right track. People of all walks, he says, really do want to know about others, and the idea behind Mosaic solidified.
The plate of events Mosaic has lined up for its first full season (it formally kicked off in July) is fairly ambitious. On Oct. 28, journalist Sandra Sobieraj Westfall will lead a discussion of politics and thought at the synagogue, just across the main gate to Rider University on Lawrenceville Road. Westfall, who is originally from Lawrence, is a political writer for People Magazine and a former White House Correspondent for the Associated Press. To say she’s met her share of presidents and first ladies would be an understatement, Solomon says.
In December, Adath Israel gets musical with a visit from Nefesh Mountain, a Jewish bluegrass band and no, you have probably never read that before. Nefesh Mountain is, musically, the essence Adler is trying to distill through Mosaic, though.
“Bluegrass is not a Jewish culture,” he says. But the band offers a fusion of traditional Judaism—some of the lyrics are Jewish prayers—and a distinctly American South sound.
“If you’re aware of Judaism, the words will resonate,” Adler says. “The words are from Jewish sources, but it’s still universal. It’s very spiritual music. But it’s still great bluegrass music.”
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Mosaic will host Cabaret Night, a night of dance, with performances by Fred Astaire Ballroom Dancers and Trio Velez Jazz. Visitors can sit back and watch some fine ballroom dancing or step up and try it themselves.
Season One closes out next spring with a visit from celebrity chef Nick Liberato, all the way from Venice, Calif. Liberato, who has appeared on Top Chef Masters on Bravo and on Spike TV’s Bar Rescue, will host a cooking demonstration and tasting.
The panoply of cultural outings emphasizes how broadly Adath Israel is reaching in its first year of programs through Mosaic. It’s been a lot of work, of course, putting it together. Solomon, a retired guidance counselor from the Ewing Township School District, says she’s had plenty of time to help get Mosaic off the ground, but she admits she could use a hand as things get rolling.
“I’m hoping people get excited,” she says. “See more people take on a leadership role.”
She’s not worried about that so much, she says. She’s sure people will be excited and that more than just members of the congregation will find plenty of appeal in Mosaic.
Adler is not worried either, really. The San Antonio native says he’s confident the general interest people have in learning about new ideas will carry the day.
Adler really is a native Texan, by the way, and still a big San Antonio Spurs fan. He went to New York City for college, at Columbia, and for rabbinical school at City College. He was the rabbi at a synagogue in northern New Jersey for about seven years before coming to Lawrence a decade ago, with his wife and three children.
So far, he’s found Lawrence an agreeable place, and he’s hoping the area’s general sense of diversity will show through in attendance in Mosaic events. If there’s one thing he emphasizes is, Mosaic is not at all about religiosity or the search for new congregants. Rather, he says, it’s about community.
“We just want people to come together, with thoughtful, interesting, meaningful programs,” he says. “Our only goal is for people to enjoy and find meaningful what we’re doing.”
And certainly in line with the Jewish faith is that Adath Israel doesn’t want to position itself as a place where all the answers lie, but rather as a place that triggers deeper thought.
“If anything, we’re trying to raise more questions,” Adler says. “We want people to come together for a conversation that will be stimulating.”
Solomon says this shouldn’t be a problem.
“People want more discussion and more culture,” she says. People are isolated more these days, they want to see each other’s cultures. We want them to come share ideas and have fun.”
To underscore the inclusiveness Adath Israel is striving for, Solomon points out that the synagogue is on one floor, so there are no stairs for those who’d have problems climbing them, and it offers hearing-impaired headphones.
“We are barrier-free,” she says.
And as for the Mosaic, Solomon is aware that hosting cultural programs and special events is not a new idea. But doing things in a new way is always a good start.
“Through arts and culture, you get new ideas,” she says. “And we’re going to share, through fun.”
Phone: (609) 896-4977. adathisraelnj.org/Mosaic