Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has led services at his home in Englewood for more than 10 years. But despite the urging of those who have attended his High Holiday and occasional Shabbat services, “I didn’t want to be a pulpit rabbi,” said the author, television host, and columnist for this newspaper.
Recently, however, the rabbi/relationship expert agreed to conduct religious services on a regular basis in an as-yet unnamed shul.
“They’ve been pushing to create a regular synagogue service,” he said. “I feel sort of drafted. There’s a lot of enthusiasm.”
“I enjoy being part of a community, speaking to a congregation,” he added. His flock, at least initially, will include some of the 70 to 100 people who had attended his previous services.
The shul will be small and informal, said Boteach.
“I don’t like the formality of a big shul,” he said. Still, he added, “It’s great for some, or there wouldn’t be so many.”
Boteach, who worked with students at England’s Oxford University for 11 years, said he’s “never gotten used to the big shul format. I want something more intimate. My intention is not to exclude any prayers but rather to change the presentation of the service.”
“It goes on too long,” he said. “That’s why there’s so much talking. People get bored.”
Boteach said the typical service also does not have enough participation.
“I believe in evoking a response from people. It’s not a one-way road. I don’t just preach thoughts,” he said. “I want people to think. I don’t want to create followers but people who themselves will be leaders and have conversations with their families, friends, and guests.”
According to Boteach, a Shabbat morning service should not take more than two hours, and the weekly parsha should be used as a “launching pad for real conversations. The synagogue is not opera,” he said.
Right now, he added, Englewood doesn’t cater to people who prefer less formality.
“I’m not looking to challenge” other synagogues, he said, describing the local shuls as “strong, with outstanding rabbis.” But “there are so many who don’t attend shul” – and those are the people he is targeting. Some 90 percent of those who attended his High Holiday services never attend synagogue, he said.
Boteach, who has nine children, said he hopes people will bring their young children to synagogue services.
“I’m a critic of separate child services,” he said. “It defeats the whole purpose of a shul – for parents to be part of a community that has a relationship with God and include their children in that relationship.”
Children should learn to participate “to the best of their ability,” he said. “It’s do-able; it’s a cop-out to assume they should go straight to the monkey bars.”
In addition to religious services, the new shul – a partnership with Boteach’s This World: The Values Network – will offer activities, such as a lecture series already under way at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.
Matt Okin, a major force behind the founding of the shul and its first president, said the venture is both a continuation of the services Boteach already offers and a new project.
“There is already a core group of participants who have come together throughout the past decade or so, with more and more new people becoming interested as we move it along,” he said.
“What has become apparent is that – despite Englewood’s thriving, already-established synagogue scene – there is still not a place for people who are at various levels of observance, for those who are not observant yet and want to explore Judaism in a meaningful way at their own pace, and for those who prefer prayer services that move fast, yet also offer something tangible and exhilarating as far as Jewish learning goes.”
Okin said he hopes the focus of the new shul will be on discussion, debate, and exploration for people at all religious levels.
Most existing synagogues cater to only one denomination, he added. The goal of the new project is to create a place where “any Jewish person will feel not just welcome but also like they can fit in for the long haul, no matter what level of observance they keep, want to keep, or will ever keep.”
Englewood resident Carolyn Enger, who has attended High Holiday services at Boteach’s home and is the vice president of the new synagogue, said its founders “have always been in conversation” about creating regular services.
“He thinks about things in a thorough way and has great insight,” she said of Boteach. “He wakes us up by taking all the great body of [Jewish] knowledge and turning it on a dime into ‘How can it can inspire or transform us right now?'”
“Nothing is watered down in the service,” she said, “but [it’s presented] in a relaxed and welcoming setting.”
“It won’t be your everyday shul,” she said, adding that attendees come from varied backgrounds and are looking for some kind of “spiritual connection.”
There will be no services Nov. 5 and 6. For more information, call (201) 541-0958 or (201) 567-6664.