A Synagogue’s Unorthodox Revival: Rabbi’s Aggressive Outreach Reverses a Traditional Congregation’s Decline

Max Whittaker for The Wall Street Journal
Rabbi Josh Strulowitz

SAN FRANCISCO—When Rabbi Josh Strulowitz set out to rebuild a rapidly shrinking Jewish congregation, it seemed like a long shot.

Mr. Strulowitz leads Adath Israel, one of the few Modern Orthodox synagogues in the Bay Area. In 2005, when the newly ordained rabbi arrived at Adath Israel, the 68 members of the synagogue founded by Holocaust survivors had an average age of 70. Many of the congregants’ descendants had moved away or gravitated toward more liberal forms of Judaism, and the congregation was debating selling its building and moving to a storefront location.

Today, thanks to an aggressive effort by Mr. Strulowitz, a 31-year-old rabbi, the synagogue has more than tripled in size, and the congregation’s average age is closer to 40. Many of the new members came to Adath Israel through Mr. Strulowitz’s unusual outreach efforts that included Super Bowl parties, a Chanukah gathering with a keg for adults and luncheon seminars at the offices of area businesses.

His approach was on display recently at his synagogue in the Central Sunset neighborhood. As the prayer service wound down, the rabbi took the stage to plug a Super Bowl party the next day. “The new high-def screen is off the hook,” he said. “And there is going to be kosher fried chicken.”

That struck a chord with Julie Higashi, a physician who switched to Adath Israel in 2007 from a Conservative Jewish synagogue. With Mr. Strulowitz’s events, she says, “there is room for having fun.” The next day, she joined about 50 people who watched the Super Bowl on the synagogue’s 110-inch screen.

The Bay Area’s roughly 450,000 Jews make up the third-biggest Jewish population in the U.S., behind New York and Los Angeles, according to a 2004 study sponsored by the nonprofit Jewish Community Federation. But only 3% describe themselves as Modern Orthodox, the strain of Judaism that combines traditional observance with modern life—compared with 10% nationally, according to a 2001 study led by the nonprofit Jewish Federations of North America.

Mr. Strulowitz and some other Jewish leaders felt that allowing the synagogue to fade away would leave a hole in the city’s Jewish life. The Modern Orthodox community helps to preserve a visible Jewish presence, they say, and lends strong support to Jewish institutions and the practice of certain traditions.

“When you see men wearing kippot and Jewish shops, it makes an impression on people who are not Orthodox and puts them in touch with the rhythms of Jewish life,” says Jewish historian Fred Rosenbaum

But many Jews in the liberal Bay Area perceive Modern Orthodoxy as too rigid or devout. That is the case for Greg Lawrence, a 28-year-old member of a Jewish Renewal synagogue in Berkeley, which observes a less strict form of Judaism.

“When I think of Orthodox Judaism, it means all these laws that just don’t really have applicable meaning for me,” he said. “I certainly don’t need [Orthodox Jews] to support me in any way.”

Rabbi Strulowitz recognizes the challenge he is up against. “It’s an ambitious mission trying to bridge the gaps between the outside world and making the religion—the way it was practiced 3,000 years ago—more relevant,” he says.

Indeed, some of Mr. Strulowitz’s unusual methods haven’t resonated with his congregation—especially with its older members. Birdie Klein, 79, an Adath Israel member for 40 years, says some of the rabbi’s programming doesn’t appeal to her, including a recent conference on Jewish ethics and the Internet that was held at Twitter Inc.’s San Francisco headquarters, where one of the congregation’s members is employed.

“Twitter. Shmitter. I didn’t even ask what Twitter means,” Ms. Klein says.

When Mr. Strulowitz began his outreach efforts, he sought advice from Modern Orthodox rabbis in other cities who had had success attracting new members. By late 2005, he had put together a beginners’ service for the High Holidays. Last fall, he opened a preschool across the street from the synagogue to help bring in families.

Mr. Strulowitz also reached out to the area’s business elite. In 2006, he started holding Jewish study lunches at companies including venture-capital firm Blumberg Capital and Friedkin Realty Group.

Bruce Taragin, a partner at Blumberg Capital who invited Mr. Strulowitz to host lunches at his office, says he has attended about half a dozen events. Mr. Taragin belongs to a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Oakland, but he says the rabbi has made him feel a “deeper and meaningful connection” to San Francisco’s Jewish community.

Still, says Mr. Taragin, the rabbi has his work cut out for him. “It’s like he’s an entrepreneur and the Jewish community is a start-up in the nascent stages,” he says.

Write to Liana B. Baker at liana.balinsky-baker@dowjones.com

(Tags: Jewish, Synagogue, Bay Area)


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