Report: A Synagogue’s Unorthodox Revival


strulowitzLiana B. Baker reports in today’s Wall Street Journal: 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.

{Wall Street Journal/Noam Newscenter}


  1. Pretty sure we’re supposed to raise the people to the level of the Torah not lower the Torah to whatever level the people are on.

  2. notallthere It’s easy for you to make comments like that living in the middle of Brooklyn. Try living in a place where torah jews don’t exist. After a few weeks you would be singing Rabbi Strulowitz’s praises. I gurantee you most of the shul is not yet shomer torah u mitzvos. However, I bet if we go there in ten years that won’t be the case.

  3. It seems the writer has a difficult time referring to the Rabbi by his title. The majority of his article refers the Rabbi as “Mr.”. Does the author find it so difficult to give him the kavod he is due. He is mekarev so many people. He is a musmach of a very well known and respectable yeshiva I wonder if it was someone else from lets say a more “acceptable yeshiva” would the author also refrain calling him Rabbi. So sad, so petty

  4. #3: The writer is some person for the Wall Street Journal who probably knows next to nothing about Judaism.

  5. Cute article but far from what is going on here in San Francisco. YU took over the shul, they invested $300,000 dollars for three years, if the shul couldn’t pay back the loan they(YU) in turn would own the building which is a 3 million dollar building. Lets get real. The shul does not have a shomer shabbos Minyan. I was there last Summer and heard all the politics.

  6. I am happy that matzav is considering removing the comments, since so many of them are petty and add almost nothing of substance to the article. The most useful comment here was #2’s – because as someone who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in the SF Bay Area, I appreciate the tremendous work Rabbi Strulowitz does. Having a Super Bowl party is not assur – or at least there is room to be meikil – and Rabbi Strulowitz is a yerei shamayim who is tremendously devoted to his kehillah and to klal Yisrael. Furthermore, I found the comment by #8 to be incredibly rude and off-base. To have a daily minyan in this area is very difficult, and just because #8 visited for a short time and “heard the politics” does not make him an expert on the area. Rabbi Strulowitz knows the community, and is doing all he can to be mekarev the community as it can be done. It is easy to make armchair assumptions from miles away, but the rabbanim and kollel yungeleit who live in San Francisco are the ones who know the community and are trying to be mekarev people in ways that work here. Rabbi Strulowitz has his rebbeim that he consults with and is entitled to make decisions according to their guidance. If #1 or #8 feel that he could do better, there are many hundreds of thousands of Jews who are totally unaffiliated here in the SF Bay Area, and they are welcome join us and to do what they can to bring them back to Torah-true Yiddishkeit.

  7. #8 I live here and am a member of that shul.Firstly, YU will NOT own anything. Get yourself a more reliable source.
    Secondly, there is almost always a Shomer Shabbos Minyan, esp. on Shabbos. If you ever come back for a visit, I can point 10 of them out for you.
    Generally, you are always welcome to visit out here.

  8. The Hebrew academy of San Francisco has been here and has been doing Kiruv for many years. The sucess of our school is because we keep everything according to Halacha, doing Kiruv the good old way.