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Actually, what’s new about The New Shul is also very old. Back before synagogues became complicated institutions with organizational charts and so on, they were “shuls” — houses of learning and prayer, in which Jews who cared about each other came together to try to get closer to God. At The New Shul, we go “back to the future” to recapture that feeling. The New Shul functions more like an extended family than like a typical institution. We keep our organizational structures to a minimum and focus on the basics: prayer, learning, and caring for others.
We believe that denominational labels generate more heat than light. And none of those labels fit us very well. That is why we choose to remain independent. We daven from an Orthodox (Hasidic) prayer book, but we are very unorthodox in our openness to differences, our commitment to gender equality, and the value that we place on critical questioning. Our rabbis were ordained by the Conservative movement, but our style is more traditional and less formal than that of most Conservative synagogues. Rather than try to force ourselves into a category, we invite you to check us out and come up with your own definition.
Our rabbis are Michael Wasserman and Elana Kanter, who have been married to each other since 1984. They founded the shul together in 2002. Before that Rabbi Wasserman had been a congregational rabbi in the Conservative movement for 11 years, and Rabbi Kanter had worked mainly in Jewish Day School Education. Rabbi Wasserman is full-time at the shul. In addition to doing what rabbis usually do, he handles most of the day-to-day administration. Rabbi Kanter is part-time at the shul, and spends most of the rest of her time running The Women’s Jewish Learning Center, which she founded in 2010. On Shabbat mornings, they lead The New Shul services together.
We use the new Koren/Sacks edition of Nusah Sepharad. Nusah Sepharad is the name of the prayer book that the Hasidic movement developed in the eighteenth century. It is a mixture of Ashkenazic (northern European) and Sephardic (Spanish) prayer traditions. The Hasidim were Ashkenazic Jews, but they were heavily influenced by the mystical traditions that had developed in the Sephardic world, so the prayer book that they created is a mixture of both. At The New Shul, we use the Hasidic liturgy because we are deeply influenced by Hasidic ideas about prayer and spirituality.
If you are used to a mainstream Conservative or Reform service, then one of the first things that you will notice about our service is that no one is “conducting” it. The prayer leader (usually one of our rabbis) faces the ark instead of facing the congregation. That way, we are all praying in the same direction. There are not a lot of directions or instructions to break the flow — just an occasional page announcement. You will also notice that we like to sing — a lot! Out of respect for Shabbat, we don’t use musical instruments, but we don’t need them because our voices more than take up the slack. We believe that when it comes to prayer, music is just as important, or even more important than words. For people who are not comfortable with the Hebrew, the music helps to make the service more accessible (if you like, you can just hum along and forget the words entirely). For people who already know their way around the Hebrew, the music helps to keep the words from feeling routine. Our community is very warm and supportive, so feel free to sit anywhere, and someone will help you to find your place. Or if you prefer, just take advantage of the atmosphere to focus on your own thoughts.
Our Friday evening service is from 6 to 7 pm, and our Saturday morning service is from 9 am to noon. Our Shabbat morning service is our main service, when most people come. Because the service is long, most people don’t arrive at the beginning. We start with a small group, and people keep arriving throughout the morning. There is no such thing as being late. Whenever you get here, you’re on time.
Like everything else at The New Shul, dress is diverse — everything from jeans to suits and ties (most people are somewhere in between). As for modesty, if you avoid party clothes and anything too outrageous, you’ll be fine. We ask men to cover their heads with a kippah (they are available near the door to the sanctuary if you don’t have your own). Some women choose to cover their heads as well, but it is not necessary.
Our community is extremely diverse and open to differences. We have people of all types, from all kinds of backgrounds, and we welcome everyone. The common thread that unites us is that all of us are learning and growing in our Judaism. Some of us are at the beginning of our journey, and some of us are farther along. But we all understand that we cannot find our way alone. We need each other. by learning from each other, we make our differences a strength.
Before we can answer that question, we have to explain how we count. Most synagogues count you as a member if you pay dues. But we are committed to the idea that membership in a spiritual community should not be for sale, and so we don’t put a price tag on it. Instead we count you as a member if you consider yourself part of the community and tell us so. That means sharing responsibility, in your own way, for strengthening the shul by participating, volunteering, and making a financial contribution of your own choosing. Okay — now we can answer the question. We have about 140 families that define themselves as members of the shul.
We never tell anyone how much to give, but we do depend on everyone to do their part. Each year, before Rosh Hashanah, we send out a letter to all of our members explaining how much it will cost to run the shul for the coming year, and asking everyone to tell us what they think they can contribute. Everyone pledges what they can, and somehow we always manage. We should add that we keep our expenses to a bare minimum to make it easier for everyone.
As we said, there is no price tag on membership. If you feel that The New Shul is your home and you want to be counted as a member, you just give what you can. And if you are not ready to declare yourself a member, you are still welcome at all of our services and other events.
Our members are at all different levels of proficiency in Hebrew. Some are fluent, and some are beginners. If you are a beginner, don’t feel that you are expected to follow every word. Just follow what you can, and take advantage of the spiritual atmosphere to focus on your personal thoughts and prayers. Or sing along without the words, and be part of it in that way. As you pick up more Hebrew, you will be able to follow more.
At The New Shul, we love to sing — so much that, at times, we leave the words behind completely and just go with the melody. Singing without words is an old Hasidic spiritual practice. The Hasidim understood that melody can be a gateway into prayer even when words fail us, and we have found that to be true for us. If your Hebrew is not strong, it can be an extra bonus to have times during the service when words don’t matter at all.
Most of our melodies are pretty catchy. A lot of them were originally composed by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who was a master at using melody to raise people up spiritually, even if they didn’t know the Hebrew. Usually, in the course of a prayer, we repeat the same melody several times, so you can pick it up gradually.
We are a pretty friendly bunch. On top of that, we believe that part of what it means to be a spiritual community is to reach out to newcomers, and we take that mitzvah very seriously. So we hope that, as a newcomer, you will never feel that you are on your own.
We are strict about keeping kosher inside the shul, so that anyone can eat here. For us, it is part of being hospitable. Our kitchen is all dairy (no meat), and we require a kosher certification on all packaged products that are brought in. All dishes that are served here are prepared in our own kitchen, or in another kosher facility.
Well, it’s true that we take lunch pretty seriously. Eating together is an important way in which people connect with one another, and we consider it an important part of being a community. As for it being free, well, someone has to pay for it, so we hope that, as you get more involved and start to feel at home here, you’ll consider taking a turn and sponsoring.
We have an extremely helpful kiddush coordinator, who will be happy to guide you through the process. Depending on what you want to spend and how much time you have to prepare, she will suggest some shopping lists and menus. When it comes to making the tuna and egg salad (or whatever you’ve planned), the kitchen is all yours — bring some friends to help out if you like. On Shabbat, when it comes to putting everything out and cleaning up, lots of people will pitch in.
We have lots of learning opportunities for children on Shabbat and during the week, but we don’t have a conventional Hebrew school. We believe that children learn best in a living Jewish context, with adult role models who they feel deeply connected to. We feel that being dropped off after school is not an ideal way to achieve that living context. So we emphasize family learning instead. We have classes for children together with their parents on Sunday mornings and during the week, and we have children’s learning services on Shabbat, in which kids can grow in their Judaism knowing that their parents are growing in their own religious lives at the same time in the same building.
We have a service called “Munchkin Minyan” for ages 2-4, which meets every other Shabbat morning, and a service called “Beyond Bim-Bom” for grades K-3, which meets every Shabbat morning. We also have a service/class for grades 4-6 called “Tween Tefillah,” which is led by a professional teacher every other Shabbat morning, and by a high-school intern on the alternate weeks.
We encourage you to bring your kids to shul, and they are very welcome in the sanctuary. We even have bags of toys (called “Savta-Bubbe bags”) which the very little ones can play with during the service. We have a pretty high threshold for baby noise during the prayers and the Torah reading, but during the rabbi’s d’var torah we need it to be a little more quiet. So please use your judgment.
We like to think that all of our services are family services. We try to make them child-friendly, which is not the same thing as child-centered. What is the difference? There are a few times during the service when the kids are front and center (when we carry the Torah around the congregation, for example, the kids join the parade and carry the silver ornaments). Most of the time, though, we don’t put the spot light on them. We just try to create an environment where they feel safe and comfortable, surrounded by adult role models. We actually think that they feel more comfortable knowing that the service isn’t all about them. It frees them to be the kids that they are.
Most members of our shul live in north-east Phoenix and Scottsdale, but we have people who come from all over the valley, from as far as Peoria and Chandler.
For guests who do not drive on Shabbat, there are several hotels within easy walking distance. We are also happy to arrange home hospitality if you like. Please contact us, and we will make sure you find a suitable place to stay.
As we said, we try to keep things really simple. To keep bureaucracy to a minimum, we don’t have a lot of standing committees. When something needs to be done, we depend on people to step forward and do it. Very often, you will hear that we need volunteers to help out with this or that. When you do, please lend a hand. Or if you have an idea for something new that you would like to try out, please let us know and we will try to get you the help that you need to make it happen.
In 2007, we bought an 8000 square foot office/industrial building and converted it into our shul. It has a big open room that we use as our sanctuary, with sky-lights in the ceiling. It has a big foyer where we set up our kiddush-lunches, and a sitting area and library off the foyer. Upstairs, we have rooms for the kids.
The New Shul ListServ is a tool that members of the shul use to communicate with each other as a group. When you post an email message to the ListServ, or reply to a message, it goes to everyone on the list. We use it to share information, organize volunteers, ask for help finding the best hallah, and so on. All of our members are invited to join.