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WASHINGTON -- On a wet night in August, in a bare room in the basement of the Sixth and I synagogue, one of Washington's oldest, the comedian Joe Mande was preparing backstage for his stand-up set.

Then the heavy rains started to flood the floor. Mande and his audience were hurried upstairs, to the 800-seat sanctuary under an elaborate 69-foot Moorish-style dome, where hundreds of 20- and 30-something guests crammed into pews. Mande soon unleashed an expletive-laden set from the pulpit, delivering his usual jokes in front of a painted portion of scripture: "Remember Ye the Law of Moses."

"It was like an anxiety dream," said Mande, who is Jewish. "I was imagining that the manager was going to be like, 'You have to do your Torah portion.' I couldn't believe what was happening."

The setting might have been unlikely in most houses of worship, but not the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue -- now a centerpiece of Jewish life in the capital, where bawdy comedy sets, high-profile music acts, podcast recordings, beer tastings and book talks mix with traditional spiritual programming: Simhat Torah celebrations, regular Sabbath observances, Purim theater and five varieties of High Holy Day services.

While other Jewish organizations have tried a culture-centric model -- the 92nd Street Y in New York is perhaps the best-known example -- Sixth and I's blend of the religious and the artistic has become a local template, a convergence of intellectual and spiritual currents that has helped shape the character of Judaism in Washington.

At a time when young Jews see synagogue affiliations as less of a social obligation, Sixth and I's nonmembership, ticketed model has given them a way to be spiritually self-structured, to come and go, to pay by the activity.

Sixth and I's High Holy Days services sell out to more than 3,000 people, part of the 80,000 who visit every year -- a staggering number for a small space that is just over a decade old. Sabbath services alone draw 10,000 guests each year. Around 680,000 people live in the District.

"What it is today is really the story of the inordinate amount of change we're seeing in American Jewish life," said Bruce Lustig, the rabbi at one of the capital's most storied synagogues, Washington Hebrew Congregation.

The physical structure, too, has become an important expression of Washington's complicated and shifting demography, changing from its century-old roots as a synagogue to a black church, almost becoming a nightclub, before being restored as a synagogue -- the only one in the city's center.

Young Jews, Lustig said, "want to walk to work, to where you buy food, where you pray, where you get intellectually stimulated."

The building, just blocks from a subway hub, is a kind of spiritual middle point in the city, easy to access by bike, train, car or foot.

"We're in the right place at the right time," said Shelton Zuckerman, one of three Washington developers who bought the building to save it from what would have been a nightclub. Its seller, Turner Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, was eager to help avoid that fate.

"We decided what D.C. needed was a nondenominational synagogue," Zuckerman said. "It wasn't conservative; it wasn't orthodox; it wasn't reform."

Yet for all of its appeals to modern Jewish life, the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue is a logical consequence of a long and classical tradition in Washington.

Several of the earliest Jewish groups here predated or then mimicked the "synagogue-center" model that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, considered the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, is believed to have termed in the 20th century. Among the early examples was the Hebrew Home for the Aged, which by 1932 had 52 residents and a 300-capacity synagogue, and a Young People's Synagogue in Washington, an organizing mechanism for young, unaffiliated Jews, which held High Holy Days services at the Sheraton Silver Spring Motor Inn in Maryland.

The most successful early entrant was the Washington Jewish Community Center, which remains a presence less than a mile north of the White House.

Zuckerman and his partners reopened the building in 2004 and rebranded it as the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. Its early years were susceptible to criticism, especially from local rabbis at synagogues with long membership rolls.

"I have more than once actually been named in a rabbi's sermon in D.C., pointing out that this is not a way you build community," said Esther Safran Foer, the director from 2007 to 2016. "They were afraid we were undermining the Jewish community."

The timing of Foer's tenure dovetailed with a sharp influx of young professionals to the capital, and to a downtown at times known for its vacancies. Washington Jews have once again started to flock to the city's center, after half that population had moved to the suburbs by 1956.

Last year, the city hit its highest population mark in four decades, thanks to new residents in their 20s and 30s. (Those ages 20-34 made up almost all of the city's population gain from 2000 to 2010.)

"We'll have traditional services on Friday and then in the next room, 250 young Jewish professionals enjoying shabbat dinner," said Heather Moran, Sixth and I's executive director.

As younger Jews have become less attached to religious conventions and institutions, Sixth and I has become more attentive to its participants' social lives, offering meditation and paid family leave classes. About a third of Jews in the area do not identify with a particular branch of Judaism, such as Orthodox or Reform, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington found in a 2015 study.

The senior rabbi at Sixth and I, Shira Stutman, estimates that a third of those at her services are not Jewish. She said that her intent was to "engage people who are marginally connected to Judaism, who have Jewish pride but whose first thought on a Friday night isn't to go to services."

Washington is a study in the ways new communities interact with older ones, Stutman said. The synagogue rents a Chinese church for services, joins with a black church for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday services and hosts a young Muslims group, leaving her congregants more sensitive to the city's fabric.

The synagogue has also been adept with the currency of celebrity.

Notable speakers include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the U.S. Supreme Court justice; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; the surgeon and journalist Atul Gawande; the chef Yotam Ottolenghi; the transgender activist Caitlyn Jenner; actresses Tina Fey and Gabourey Sidibe; and the Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg.

"Friends on boards of other synagogues have told me they've loosened it up because of Sixth and I's influence," Zuckerman said.

Local celebrities have helped, too. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue in Washington has been one of the most reliable advocates for Sixth and I, even adopting some of its freewheeling aesthetic charms, including one he invented: a car advertising his synagogue that he deemed the "Matzah Mobile."

Sixth and I is "the vanguard and trendsetter" in Washington Jewish life, said Herzfeld, whose synagogue's members include several couples that met at Sixth and I.

He offered a blessing, then ate one of the first potato chips at one of Sixth and I's most eccentric creations, a kosher food truck called "6th & Rye," with corned beef certified by a rabbi in Baltimore.

Despite its reach, Sixth and I's triumphs have not created friction with the leaders of other Jewish institutions. The Jewish Community Center's director, Carole Zawatsky, is regular breakfast partners with Moran.

"We complement each other and enhance each other," Zawatsky said. "A robust Jewish community is now part of what D.C. is."

Religion on 01/06/2018

Print Headline: Synagogue uses culture, comedy to fill seats

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