The New Shul offers adults a path home to their Jewish heritage, where questioning is not only tolerated but encouraged, where men and women can open new doors to their spirituality through learning that excites the mind and ignites the soul. Ours is a community where heart and hand are united, where people rise together to face the challenges of trying to heal a broken world.
We invite you to join us in our ongoing work to build a context for Jewish community that is joyous, meaningful, and relevant to our contemporary lives.
The New Shul was co-founded by Holly Gewandter & Ellen Gould, close friends & theatre collaborators.
Here are their stories about why — & how — they did it.
In the beginning Nancy and I were just looking for a place to send our daughter, Haley, to Hebrew school. Then I said, “If we’re going to do this, let’s find someplace that we’ll get something out of, too.” Seemed reasonable until we started looking. We couldn’t find it. Not downtown. So I said to my closest friend and collaborator, Ellen Gould, “How hard do you think it would be to start a shul?”
Many of you know the story. You received the invitation and came to that first Friday night Shabbat service at HUC. None of us quite knew what to expect. But people came. Jen Krause, a rabbinic student who had committed her considerable talents to help create what was to become The New Shul, led the service with Ellen, a gifted singer and actress, playing the role of cantor. When we first sat down, I looked around the chapel and wondered if it would work. Then Ellen started chanting/teaching an old Hasidic nigun, and within moments something amazing happened — we sounded like a community that had been praying together for years.
We had another service and then another. People came back and brought their friends. The idea of starting a downtown shul that was inclusive, warm, welcoming, intellectually stimulating, and community-based seemed to be extremely appealing. I heard everyone’s stories, and many of them had a common theme — alienation. People had been damaged by traumatic Hebrew school experiences, bored by uninspired services, turned off by the politics that seemed to be an inevitable part of institutional religion. Still, there remained a longing, either expressed directly or more subtly revealed through a desire to “send the kids to Hebrew school” or “have a place to go for the High Holy Days,” to somehow reconnect with their Jewish selves.
On April 19, 1999, about 30 people sat in my living room and decided to form The New Shul. We would proceed thoughtfully — no one wanted to end up with another synagogue that was the punch line of a Jewish joke (i.e., two Jews, three opinions). Instead of an elected board, typically a breeding ground for backbiting and resentment, we agreed to create a self-selected Va’ad that was open to anyone who was willing to take on the commitment of attending meetings and working on projects. Decisions would be made by consensus. At all times we would strive to be grassroots and community-driven rather than institutional and rule-bound. It wouldn’t be easy, but the idea of creating a context for Jewish community in downtown Manhattan had broken through our shared skepticism and, like a weed pushing its way out of a crack in the sidewalk, stubbornly refused to yield to common sense. When we found Niles Goldstein, a maverick rabbi, writer, explorer, and intellectual who was looking for a community like ours, we immediately knew he was “the one.” Together we embarked on the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and communal adventure of building a Jewish community that was truly a reflection of the needs and values of its members.
Five years have passed since then, and our achievement is truly astonishing. Our Shabbat services are filled with song and discussion, encouraging the active involvement of all who attend. Holidays and festivals have been explored and re-envisioned, and though not every event has been an unqualified success, each one has had elements of real beauty and engagement. Most importantly, our efforts have been motivated by a genuine desire to understand and experience our Jewishness through participation in a Kehillah Kedoshah, a Sacred Community.
I don’t usually pepper my speech with Hebrew phrases like Kehillah Kedoshah — in fact I know very little Hebrew. But what we have created in The New Shul is inadequately conveyed by any English words that come to mind. When I look around at services these days, I no longer wonder if the people in the seats will coalesce into a cohesive group — it’s happened. The signs are everywhere. Unasked, at the end of a service, three people start packing the prayerbooks back into their boxes and schlepping them up the stairs behind the altar. A group of children spontaneously comes to the front and leads the Oseh Shalom in sign language. A parent dies and a stream of New Shul members shows up to help make a minyan. People come to services Saturday morning because they know one of our kids is becoming a Bat Mitzvah and they want to be there to welcome her into adulthood. A woman reluctantly goes on our first annual retreat only because of her husband and is so moved by the experience that she volunteers to join the Va’ad.
In the beginning Nancy and I were just looking for a place to send our daughter, Haley, to Hebrew school. Then I said, “If we’re going to do this, let’s find someplace that we’ll get something out of, too.” Seems like it’s working out.
After the Exodus
A few years ago, Holly and I saw an ill-fated musical based on the Torah. The idea was great, some of the songs truly affecting, but on the whole, it didn’t work. At intermission, I whispered, “Should we stay for Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, or make our Exodus now?”
I still love theater, but like many liberal American Jews, I made my exodus from the synagogue a long time ago. The idea is great, some of the songs truly affecting, but on the whole, it doesn’t work.
I suppose it’s not surprising that Holly and I would be meshugge enough to tackle the worship challenge. After all, we figured, theater had its roots in religion, and as theater people, we were interested in reclaiming elements of early ritual. In fact, when Holly and I first played with the idea of starting a synagogue, we joked about doing, “Repertory Shabbos” — one Hasidic, one Sephardic, and, of course, an Ancient Temple complete with animal sacrifice. “That one,” I kidded, “would be standing-room only.”
No, I am not advocating a return to animal sacrifice, but I am left with the inevitable question: Why is it that theater is still the powerful child of early religious ritual, while modern worship is a pale prodigal? Could a theater model be a helpful guide for its lost siblings? I pored over my old textbooks looking for answers. “Theater is a collaborative art. Everyone involved is responsible for the outcome: actors, director, musical director, and audience — each role must be filled before the whole can be more than the sum of the parts.” OK. Got it. The rabbi and cantor are the actors and the congregation is the audience. Then what?
Ironically, I found the first hint of a real answer in the writings of the mid-19th century Hasidic mystic, Rebbe Elimelech. Elimelech, like so many of the ecstatic Hasidim of his time, had an extraordinarily rich religious inner life. What did he know that most of us don’t? As I read his notes on “preparation for prayer” I was astonished to find an implicit structure almost identical to Stanislavski’s performance theory. And then it hit me. The primary problem in modern worship is that the congregation thinks of itself as the audience. But we are not the audience — we are the actors! The rabbi is our director and the cantor, our musical director — each teaching, coaching, and inspiring us to play our parts brilliantly.
So how do we do that? Here are some suggestions from Rebs Stanislavski and Elimelech: Bring our lifetime of experience to the theater (shul); Do our warm up (preparation for prayer) with vocalizing (niggunim) and concentration exercises (silent meditation); Define and focus our objectives (have the proper kavannah / intention) as we interact with the script (siddur). But the action (mitzvah) of performance (prayer) must not be taken for the purpose of “having an experience” (d’vekut / cleaving to God). Our task is simply to take the action (fulfill the mitzvah) with commitment (heart, soul, and mind).
I can hear all my acting teachers echoing the wisdom of the great rebbes. “Remember, your job is just to do the work. The seasoned actor knows that when the objective is to go for a feeling, the result is bad acting. If the scene calls for weeping, the actor who tries to be sad ends up merely posturing. But when the same actor explores and inhabits the circumstances of the script, the tears will likely come. Authentic feeling is a by-product of taking the action, pursuing the objective. The actor’s overriding objective is to “encounter” the script. Just as no two actors experience a script the same way and few actors experience it the same way twice, exploring the text of prayer means being willing to open up to what is below the surface — the subtext, the hidden, the unexpected. “The holiest time,” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is when the heart surprises the mind.”
People often ask me what it’s like to do the same play over and over. “Isn’t it boring?” I tell them, “if the script is layered and complex, the director and musical director inspired and inspiring, the company of actors committed and supportive, if I don’t let myself ‘phone it in’ but give it all I have at that moment… it’s like prayer.”