Rabbi Shalom Baum of Teaneck’s Keter Torah knew there was more his congregation could do to make unaffiliated Jews feel welcome in the synagogue, especially during the High Holy Days, when shuls are crowded and services are long.
Rabbi Daniel and Anat Coleman, shown here with Akiva, founded SPARK to "bring new meaning to ancient tradition."
He also knew that his synagogue had the room to offer space to those seeking something different. So last year, when Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future suggested that he approach Rabbi Daniel and Anat Coleman, he seized the opportunity, inviting the founders of SPARK (Study, Pray, Ask, Reconnect, Knowledge) to lead explanatory holiday services at Keter Torah.
"My husband led the services," said Anat Coleman, who is trained as a social worker. "I was the meeter and greeter, making participants feel welcome and helping them find the right page."
Noting that the family-run organization strives "to bring new meaning to ancient tradition," Coleman said the initiative provides "an intimate setting in which to explore the significance of the High Holy Days and the meaning behind the prayers."
The Colemans, who have both served as educational staff members at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, came up with the acronym for SPARK because, said Anat Coleman, "as an interfaith chaplain [Daniel] and a social worker, we recognize the spark within every person and hope to connect people with the source of that spark."
Last year’s Keter Torah venture went extremely well, she said, drawing dozens of people "of all ages, singles, married couples, Russian-speaking families" to its four services. "We saw the incredible effect these programs have on people with no background, who are uncomfortable walking into a synagogue. This allows them to experience [Jewish] tradition but at a comfortable pace. They can ask questions, and there are frequent pauses to explain the prayers."
Coleman said that while similar programs exist in New York City, "there aren’t too many in northern New Jersey."
"Keter Torah feels a responsibility towards the greater Jewish community," she said. "The rabbi felt that every Jew should have a place for the High Holy Days, even if they’re not affiliated with a synagogue and/or ready to make a financial commitment for seats. Keter Torah has a lot of space and a great infrastructure. It’s a very welcoming community," she said.
"In my experience, I have found that many Jews miss out on the wonderful social and spiritual opportunities that the Jewish community could offer," said Baum. "We are committed to making holiday services in particular, and Jewish knowledge, available to the entire Jewish community, regardless of background or affiliation."
Baum noted further that some might choose to attend the SPARK service, which will be offered again this year, "because they feel frustrated at a traditional service, where they may not follow the text, or they may feel burdened by the cost or the length of the service."
Tackling questions such as "Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?" and "What am I meant to be focusing on?," the services will include shofar-blowing as well as the recitation of major prayers. Coleman points out that knowledge of Hebrew is not necessary, and day care is available for children ages 3 to 11.
While "the conversation is targeted to adults," she said, many older children participated last year. "We tried to include them in the service by asking them to do readings," she said.
The SPARK service is appropriate for "anyone looking for an opportunity to pray and experience the meaning behind the prayers," said Coleman. "It’s not a class but a beautiful combination. Participants say the majority of prayers but at a comfortable pace, exploring the meaning of the prayers and having an opportunity to ask questions."
Pointing out that the prayers may be said in Hebrew or English and that the service is particularly valuable to people not affiliated with a particular synagogue "who want to be connected," she added that the SPARK program is free of charge.
SPARK services will be offered Thursday and Friday, Sept. 13 and 14, from 10 to 11:45 a.m., followed by a kiddush, where participants will have a chance to socialize and ask further questions of the Colemans. Two additional services will take place on Yom Kippur, the first on Friday, Sept. ‘1, at 6:45 which will include Kol Nidre and an "Ask the Rabbi" session and the second on Saturday, Sept. ”, from 10 a.m. to noon.
For further information, call (’01) 907-0180 or e-mail SPARK@ketertorah.org