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Jewish group prizes heritage over religion

Beth Finger, 40, founder of the organization Jewish

Beth Finger, 40, founder of the organization Jewish Without Walls, poses for a portrait in the living room of her home in Nesconsett. (Nov. 20, 2012) Credit: Daniel Brennan

Beth Finger considers herself deeply Jewish, but finds weekly services at synagogues too long and unfulfilling. She attends only three times a year, during High Holy Days.

So the Nesconset resident last year founded Jewish Without Walls, a Suffolk County-based group that is catering to like-minded people who want to celebrate their Jewish heritage, but don't want to focus on or join a synagogue.

The group is "offering an alternative to people to still be part of the community, but in a way that makes sense to them and that's relevant and meaningful to them," said Finger, a 40-year-old mother of three.

The group eschews religious services and prayer, partly out of the concern it would bring in the tensions among the different branches of Judaism, including Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, she said. "Once you get into religious things, there are lot of walls that go up among different denominations," she said. "We don't want to get entangled in that."

Instead, the members focus on Jewish culture, food and holidays, and simply bringing Jewish people together.

After superstorm Sandy, the group organized a "Challah-Thon" where volunteers baked hundreds of loaves of the Jewish bread to give to Jewish people in the hardest-hit disaster areas in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Religion called vital

Some Jewish leaders think that while the group's goals are laudable, excluding religion from their activities is troublesome.

While celebrating Jewish culture is a wonderful thing, "to preclude religious activity from being part of what people share together seems to me to be narrow and shortsighted," said Rabbi Charles Klein of the Merrick Jewish Center, a conservative synagogue, and a former president of the New York Board of Rabbis.

Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, a center of educational and religious training for Conservative Judaism, said groups that celebrate Jewish culture more than religion have existed for decades around the United States.

He said that while many synagogues on Long Island are closing or merging, largely because Jewish people are moving out, others are opening in places such as Brooklyn, where young Jewish people are moving in.

"I remain a strong believer that synagogues need to be a vital component of any Jewish community as they have been for the last 2,000 years," Wertheimer said.

Different type of expression

Jewish Without Walls -- believed to be the only organization of its kind on Long Island, according to Finger and Jewish leaders -- is not looking to take members away from synagogues, and actually hopes synagogues grow stronger, she said.

The group's recruits largely are people who would never consider joining a synagogue, or who are affiliated with one but attend only occasionally and are seeking other ways to celebrate their Jewishness, Finger said.

Alex Shvartsman, 42, a dentist from St. James who is originally from the Soviet Union, said he wants to celebrate his Jewish heritage and be around other Jewish people but has no interest in attending religious services at a synagogue. "Jewish is not only a religion. It's a culture," he said. "It's a culture that binds us more than God."

Suzy Tavolacci, 38, of East Setauket, is an active member and leader of the North Shore Jewish Center, a conservative synagogue in Port Jefferson. But she says Jewish Without Walls gives her the opportunity to meet Jews of various denominations and take part in innovative programs.

"This is a different type of expression of Judaism, a different way for people to come together," she said.

Driven by social media

The group has no building or even a phone line and is organized mainly through social media. Since its founding about a year ago, its events in Suffolk have drawn scores of people -- mainly families with young children. More than 500 people follow the group as "members" on Facebook.

It has held Hanukkah parties, Passover cooking classes and Rosh Hashanah children's sing-alongs, along with kayaking events, potluck dinners and fishing trips.

Finger noted services at most synagogues are partly or largely in Hebrew, which most people do not understand. She also said the rise of interfaith marriages have contributed to a decline in attendance.

Some people also don't want to pay the synagogue membership fee -- typically $1,500 to $2,000 a year -- especially since the economy cratered, she said.

On Long Island, "these institutions were created in the '50s with these huge buildings that need a tremendous amount of money to keep up, and people just are not joining like they used to," Finger said.

Klein said declining attendance at religious services is not confined to synagogues but is across the board at Catholic, Protestant and other places of worship. He also noted that people do not have to attend the entire weekly service at synagogues, and that most provide English translations of the Hebrew prayers.

Still, he said he understands why Jewish Without Walls appeals to some people. "There is a certain rejection of what has been for the last 100 years normative American Judaism," he said. "Clearly around the fringes, something else is happening."

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