“Some of you are synagogue veterans or synagogue survivors,” he said to the congregation before him.
Starting a loose dialogue with the audience, he asked them to name something they were thankful for. A smattering of answers came back.
If they felt guilt that they wanted to expiate, as ancient people did through ritual sacrifice, what did they feel guilty about?
“Where is sacrifice in our lives today?” he asked.
Audience members shouted answers without raising their hands. Mr. Lau-Lavie, a rabbinical student, walked into the crowd to share the microphone. What act in today’s society, he asked, was painful enough, messy enough, to approximate ancient sacrifice? Finally he offered an answer: unplugging from the Internet for one full day a week. It would hurt, sure, but it could also be cleansing, he said. Then he confessed: “Giving up digital for 24 hours is so healthy, but I don’t do it, because I’m addicted.”
The gathering was the monthly Sabbath service of Lab/Shul, an experimental pop-up synagogue that is still in what Mr. Lau-Lavie calls its beta phase. Mr. Lau-Lavie was gearing up for Purim this weekend and the confluence of Passover and Easter in April, when the congregation will mix traditions in a Last Seder.
“One of the ways to describe what this is about is creating sanctuary,” Mr. Lau-Lavie told the roughly 60 people who came to City Winery for the more-than-two-hour service, Lab/Shul’s fifth. Some were non-Jews or atheists; some were observant men and women comfortable in skullcaps. The conversational style and claim to counterculture, the texts and videos projected on screens, the emphasis on arts and music, resembled nothing so much as a modern evangelical Christian church. Mr. Lau-Lavie invited congregants into a big tent: “It’s a god-optional, bring-your-own-god, do-it-yourself-god, everybody-friendly community.”
These are precarious times for non-Orthodox synagogues in New York. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Religion and Life Project, fewer than one-third of American Jews belong to a synagogue, and barely one-quarter say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56 percent of the general public. The share of Jews living in a household where anyone belonged to a synagogue fell to 39 percent. In a 2001 survey, it was 46 percent. The decline has been especially acute in Reform and Conservative congregations, many of which have closed or merged to stay afloat, even as the Orthodox community expands.
The wreckage, in turn, has created opportunities to improvise.
“We’re in a veritable explosion of experimentation,” said Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, executive director of Mechon Hadar, a nonprofit group that teaches and supports Jews in communities of learning, prayer and service. “It used to be that there were three or four major flavors of Jewish life, and you belonged to one of them. Now you see things grow up in the spaces between those more institutional expressions of Jewish life, and they’re really taking off.”
Mr. Lau-Lavie finds himself part of a coterie of religious leaders, Christian as well as Jewish, asking a nearly impossible question: In an increasingly secular, technological, consumer-driven culture, how can they revise worship in a way that is relevant to people who have unlimited demands on their time and weak ties to institutions?
In New York, these leaders include Joy Levitt, executive director of theJewish Community Center in Manhattan, whose Jewish Journey Projectrestructures Hebrew school to group students by interest rather than synagogue. At the nondenominational Romemu synagogue, which meets at a Presbyterian church on the Upper West Side, Rabbi David Ingber has built a growing congregation and an Internet audience he says is close to one million with services that incorporate yoga, Buddhist meditation and New Age spirituality along with extensive Hebrew prayers.
“The Pew study tells us, if synagogue life won’t innovate, then we’re going to continue to lose people,” Rabbi Ingber said. “I’m convinced we’re blessed to live in a marketplace that forces us to hone what we’re doing.”
He added: “The hierarchical model of the rabbi speaking to a flock is obsolete. Experience is paramount. And information alone is not transformative, so people are not coming to synagogue to learn new things. If you have everything you want to know at your fingertips and you’re still unhappy, it’s clear that information isn’t enough. People ask how come their services aren’t as transformative as their yoga class. And they could be.”
At a Chinese restaurant near his office in the financial district, Mr. Lau-Lavie described the mixture of skepticism and family destiny that brought him to his current position, partly against his will, he said. It was a bitterly cold January day, and he was in New York on a visit from Jerusalem, where he is spending a semester-long sabbatical from the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary. He is in his third year of a five-year rabbinical program; it had been his plan to start Lab/Shul after he finished.
The genesis of Lab/Shul dates to 1998, when Mr. Lau-Lavie came to the United States from Israel to develop an arts education program at B’nai Jeshurun, an Upper West Side congregation known for its innovative services. “It was the ‘it girl’ of the ’90s,” he said of the synagogue.
But while he was there he noticed a disconnect. The heart of the service was given to a scriptural reading that felt lifeless compared to the competing forces in New Yorkers’ lives, he said.
“It’s really long, all in Hebrew, people go up, down, up, down, sermon, whatever,” he said. “It’s an hour. Whoever is there has either their nose in the text, trying to follow along, or they just check out, go in the back, go outside. The kids are whisked out. It was December and it was the Joseph saga, and I’m thinking, You guys, this is a good story. Down the road, on Broadway, there’s folks lined up around the block for a matinee of ‘Joseph.’ It’s the same story. Why is it so badly presented?”
Mr. Lau-Lavie’s eyes light up when he speaks, his tone alternating between genial pedagogy and — in a slightly higher register — punky mischief. He has spent enough time pitching his ideas that the words come in long paragraphs.
“That was my big light bulb,” he said. “What if we changed the unit of the worship? The storytelling? This is theater. There’s a guy standing on a stage; they are transmitting a story. It happens to be the world’s best seller. There’s an audience. It’s a performance. It’s just a bad performance. It’s really bad theater. What if it was actually theater?”
Mr. Lau-Lavie started a theater company called Storahtelling to present scriptural narratives the way he imagined them, in English, with music and dramatized. He also created a character named Hadassah Gross, hostess of a show called “The Sabbath Queen,” to assume the role of translator and M.C., or maven, from the Hebrew “mavin,” which means to understand.
For Mr. Lau-Lavie, it was a liberating experience. “There was something about publicly doing drag that was more shamanic than anything else,” he said. “Hadassah gave me a lot of blessings to be who I am, unabashed.”
Naomi Less, a musician and teacher, was an early member of Storahtelling. She had attended a Conservative synagogue as a child, but was looking for something more engaging as an adult. When she met Mr. Lau-Lavie, he handed her a postcard for his Rosh Hashana program, with an image of a toilet and an invitation to “flush away your sins.” She knew then that she wanted to work with him, she said.
“It almost felt deviant,” she said of Storahtelling. “We weren’t sitting in pews listening to a sermon that told you how to behave. We weren’t attached to cantorial modes. Everything I’d grown up with gave me roots and a foundation, but I could veer off and saunter. O.K., so now I’m in a new place.”
As Storahtelling grew, with holiday performances that drew several hundred people, Mr. Lau-Lavie began to develop new ways of thinking about his faith and his family legacy. Being gay had made him comfortable with challenging orthodoxies; either Scriptures were wrong, or he was an abomination, which he rejected. He was getting restless to push further, to “interrupt” people’s lives.
Michael Dorf, the owner of City Winery, joined the group’s board of directors. Mr. Dorf, who describes himself as a “cultural Jew,” mainly interested in observing the holidays, felt that Mr. Lau-Lavie was a charismatic leader who could provide more.
“As a music producer, when I see talent, I want to get it in front of people,” Mr. Dorf said. “Amichai is a rock star in the Jewish world. My role is to be the talent manager and ringleader producer of the show.”
At a 2012 board meeting, he said the group should evolve into a synagogue, with Mr. Lau-Lavie as its rabbi. He offered his club for services.
Mr. Lau-Lavie had resisted such entreaties before, feeling that “artists were the new rabbis.” This time, though, he felt he and the congregation were ready.
“What matured in me is the sense that Judaism, like all religion, is not the bottom line,” he said. “That it is a tool in our toolbox for human well-being and being helpful beings, and that there is a difference between many people who really view Judaism or religion as the end goal: In other words, keep the Sabbath or marry a Jew so the Jewish story continues. That’s of course how I grew up. I realized that that’s missing the point.
“I’m not flying Delta because I’m interested in Delta. I’m flying Delta because it’s convenient or I got the miles on it. The idea is to get somewhere. I’m practicing Judaism because that’s my airline, because I was born into it and I think it’s got a deeply profound, ancient and relevant toolbox for a good life, but the end goal is a good life, not to be Jewish. To be human. To be there for myself and others. And that’s a totally different proposition.”
Besides, Mr. Dorf said: “It was the family job — he couldn’t say no.”
Mr. Lau-Lavie is also a father, after a lesbian couple he knew asked him to donate sperm and help raise their children. They now have a son and two daughters, ages 3 to 7. Mr. Lau-Lavie sleeps over on weekends and one night during the week.
“My mother said it’s a very biblical model,” he said. “To my family’s credit, they took it very well. I’m very lucky. And the kids are lovely.”
Mr. Lau-Lavie’s vision is attractive to Jews disaffected from their tradition. Jennifer Lee and her husband, Scott Klein, discovered Storahtelling three years ago, when their daughter was approaching the age for bat mitzvah training. Though they had grown up going to synagogue at the High Holy Days, they had drifted away, returning only for the sake of their daughter.
“Amichai explained, ‘This is what I imagine B mitzvah training looks like,’ ” Ms. Lee said, using the gender-neutral term favored by Mr. Lau-Lavie. “It was interactive, with music, and we got to create our own service. We said, ‘I’m in.’ At the synagogue we were in, I said, ‘I’m out.’ ”
On a Friday night in January, Ms. Lee, Mr. Klein and their daughter were attending another Lab/Shul experiment: Instead of holding weekly services, what if the congregation broke up into Friday night dinners at various members’ homes, with general discussion suggestions from Mr. Lau-Lavie, but no top-down leadership? The wine flowed, the candles were lighted, the conversation moved in and out of topics suggested on a printed place mat called the “DIY Shabbat Handout.”
“We’re experimenting with the frequency and ways we get together,” Mr. Lau-Lavie said. “I’m not sure that in the 21st century it has to be every week. Sabbath every week, yes. Communal gathering? Public worship? I don’t know. Is once a month something that the oversaturated and urban lifestyle can support? I don’t know.”
Whether any of this can slow the decline in synagogue participation remains to be seen. Shawn Landres, who runs a Jewish innovation lab called Jumpstart, compared the experimentation in places like Lab/Shul to the “emergent” Christian churches, which have reached out to people turned off by religion.
“Emergent churches and synagogues are both moving away from traditional institutional forms, to reflect a broader cultural shift,” he said. “People coming to synagogues or churches now want to be in a relationship, not a contract. They want to be in a network, not an institution.”
The level of experimentation among synagogues, Mr. Landres said, recalled that of the 1950s and 1960s, when rabbis like Shlomo Carlebach andZalman Schachter-Shalomi, immigrants to the United States, created lasting movements.
Yet for all the current efforts to innovate and adapt, the synagogues that are growing in New York are ultra-Orthodox, which benefit from high birthrates and higher rates of retention than they have enjoyed in the past. Mr. Lau-Lavie concedes the appeal of their message.
“The pews are filling with people who just want some structure,” he said. “ ‘Just tell me what to do. Give me order in the chaos.’ In an age in which we have more and more privileges and choices, the allure of a system that tells you what to do and what not to do, and what to wear and what to eat, and the consequences and limits of your choices, for some mental types, is essential. I get it. It’s a suspension of disbelief in its deepest sense. I’m judgmental of it and I have a lot of respect for it.”
Next up for Lab/Shul are holiday events and a fund-raising gala called Mezooza Makeover, to be followed by High Holy Days services that now draw more than 1,000 people. Maybe they will continue to meet at City Winery, Mr. Lau-Lavie said; maybe they will move around — change dates, frequency, venue.
Mr. Lau-Lavie seemed pleased but wary of his own success. If he continued on this course, would he become the thing he rebelled against? And if he did, could he still be a critic of the establishment? It was a paradox he turned over in his mind.
“I was counterculture, outside the box,” he said. “Now we’re going to do a shul and I’m going to be the rabbi?” He paused. “Is that giving up? Am I giving in? Now I’m the system?”