A Break with Tradition: Over 1,200 High Holiday Visitors Flood the Outdoor, Musical Worship Experience at Adas Israel

Kol Nidre at Adas IsraelOver 1,200 eager Jewish High Holiday visitors descended on the outdoor plaza at Adas Israel Congregation, the oldest and largest conservative synagogue in Washington, DC,  to experience an innovative and free Kol Nidre (Yom Kippur evening) service this past Friday. It was led entirely by Adas clergy-member Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt – an increasingly popular and dynamic young woman Rabbi. Accompanied by a professional live band, this unique High Holiday service boasted reflective eastern music, a pattern of dancing lights in the plaza trees, a fully-lit moon, and over a thousand voices singing and chanting reflectively in unison. This alternative Yom Kippur service drew both synagogue members and non-members alike, and was particularly well attended by DC area Young Professionals, as well as unaffiliated Jews seeking a “less conventional” worship experience for the Jewish High Holidays.

The service reflected a major break with the more traditional High Holiday services most have come to expect from the Conservative Jewish movement – which traditionally charges a great deal of money for High Holiday tickets and wouldn’t permit musical instruments to play on Sabbaths and Holidays. The many guest and visitors (which included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, among others), as well as synagogue members described it as one of the most unique and powerful evenings in the life of the 144 year old synagogue.

Adas Israel Congregation, a historically traditional American synagogue, has just completed a major synagogue renovation and rejuvenation project known as the Vision of Renewal. This Renewal Initiative included the fifteen million dollar renovation of the synagogue’s building and facilities – the major premise of which was to change the “feeling” in the building by creating warm, welcoming, natural worship and gathering spaces flooded by natural light. The initiative also includes the creation of new and innovative programs and learning opportunities designed to meet the needs of an ever-evolving 21st century religious landscape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASenior Rabbi Gil Steinlauf says “innovative new programs and worship experiences like this exciting new Kol Nidre service are exactly the tools we need to change the way we experience ‘synagogue.’ By meeting people right where they’re at spiritually, as well as creating an open-minded, non-judgmental atmosphere that is open to everyone, regardless of their relationship to God, we are confidently meeting an ongoing “Customer Service Problem” many American churches, synagogues and other religious institutions are facing today.”

Adas Israel billed this enormous outdoor worship gathering as “Return Again to Kol Nidre, and it was co-sponsored by the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington at Adas Israel, which offers programs and workshops designed to help deepen the Jewish experience of the “spiritual” through Jewish meditation, yoga, chanting, mindful learning, and spirited Shabbat & Holiday programs, all within a uniquely Jewish context. The synagogue also offered a more “traditional” Yom Kippur service inside its new newly renovated Charles E. Smith Sanctuary, which also drew close to 1500 members and families.

Shortly before the service began, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt announced to the growing crowd as they eagerly anticipated the start of the music and chanting, “Let this be a sacred space, a safe space, a space of dynamism and welcome. Let this be a space where we can all raise our voices in prayer and song before the sky, before the earth, before God, and before each other.”

Despite uneasiness from the more traditional sects of Conservative Judaism, the clergy and leadership at Adas Israel are confident that these new approaches to Jewish life and ritual are exactly the ingredients needed to revitalize the increasingly dwindling movement. Through these renewal initiatives, Adas is betting future generations of Jews  – who aren’t Orthodox, and therefore not bound to show up at a synagogue  –  but are genuinely interested in embracing modern Judaism, are free to meet and explore their innermost beliefs and ideas.

Rabbi Steinlauf says, “Today’s Jews are looking to meet other like-minded people and find an authentic Jewish identity. They are open to sharing new ideas, and they want ‘the real thing.’”

This wildly successful, alternative High Holiday experience represents the next step in the ongoing evolution of this traditional American synagogue, which has played host to the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Israeli prime ministers, US presidents and vice-presidents, and more recently, the Dalai Lama.

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, creator of the “Return Again” service, says, “After experiencing this past Yom Kippur service, I don’t believe it’s an overstatement to say it may well represent the next step in reviving the Conservative movement of Judaism and synagogue life as a whole.”

20 replies
  1. ID
    ID says:

    It sounds like a lovely service, and I have no objection to the article, but it seems a little disingenuous to not make note of the fact that the writer works in communications for Adas.

    • DC Jew
      DC Jew says:

      I could not agree more with you, ID.

      The writer is the Director of Communications at Adas Israel, and is therefore a biased author without a disclosure of his employment/affiliation with Adas. It is clearly a propaganda piece. This article would better be written by an objective member of the DC community. Unfortunately, the article is an exaggeration with several items that are not factually accurate.

      I was at this service and there were no more than 500 people in attendance. Likely less, but to state that over 1200 people attended, is grossly inaccurate. While there was an overwhelming number of people there, standing room only, it does no good to lead the article off with something so inaccurate that is discredits other claims made in the article. That said, it was good to see such a diverse crowd and the turnout is complimentary for Adas’s programming.

      Gather the Jews should try to keep its articles objective or at least make it clear that this is really just an Adas Israel PR Release not an independent news story one is led to believe.

      • JewishinDC
        JewishinDC says:

        DC Jew – I was on the volunteer committee who helped put this service on. We set up exactly 400 chairs in the center of the plaza. And there were definitely at least three times as many people as there were chairs, which equals 1200. The writer’s numbers are accurate.

        The service was AMAZING – and I am more than comfortable with a local synagogue publicly celebrating such a wonderful service on Gather the Jews.

    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      While the service may have been wildly popular, I think it quite presumptuous and slightly shallow to tout/advertise the names of significant political (domestic/international) figures as attending this service or other services at Adas to gain interest and attendance to this and other events and at Adas.

    • Shanah Tovah!
      Shanah Tovah! says:

      That my main man Elie gets no credit in this article despite playing a MAJOR role that evening and being featured in the picture is beyond me! If Adas did write this article, it is sad that they didn’t give credit to a man that has given so much to that community, perhaps they are bitter about his departure?

      • SomeDude
        SomeDude says:

        Elie is the man indeed, but I was teaching at Adas alongside Elie when he worked there. And I can tell you that Adas was very supportive of Elie when, after 7 years of working there in his twenties (almost an unheard of amount of time for a guy that young), he decided to move on. Some there even helped him find the new gig. They’re not bitter. He wouldn’t want to be in an Adas press release knowing him, and I’m sure Adas was just honoring that. Besides, his pic is in the article above – so credit is going where credit is due. The people at Adas still love Elie and still hire him to lead monthly “Return Again” services at Adas with Rabbi Holtzblatt… which you should all check out by the way, cause Elie rocks!!

    • JoeJew
      JoeJew says:

      I wouldn’t jump to any hasty conclusions. I just read below that this is a press release that was sent to out to the wider DC press lists, which obviously just included Gather the Jews. I don’t think it was meant to be subversive. So I wouldn’t blame anyone at Adas or GTJ.

      The good news is that my friends went to this service and told me they thought around 1500 people were there, that the music was awesome, and the vibe was super spiritual. I wish I could’ve gone, I was in stinky New Jersey with the fam :). Next year maybe (I hope they do it again).

  2. Naomi
    Naomi says:


    I took offense to the following statement you made in bold lettering:

    “Adas is betting future generations of Jews – who aren’t Orthodox, and therefore not bound to show up at a synagogue – but are genuinely interested in embracing modern Judaism, are free to meet and explore their innermost beliefs and ideas.”

    You make a clear statement that only Orthodox Jews are bound to show up at synagogue. That is absolutely ridiculous. Are you saying that as a practicing Conservative Jew, I am not likely to have many other Jews attend services at synagogue with me? I think to make such assumptions that only Orthodox Jews are likely to actually show up in synagogue puts down any other sect of Judaism.

    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:


      I don’t think that’s what David was saying at all. To me, I took this to mean that given that Conservative affiliation is on the downslide, and that Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated Jews don’t “necessarily” (key-word David used) feel halachically obligated to perform all the mitzvot and attend shul multiple times a day, Adas is trying (admirably) to build new and creative bridges into their yiddishkeit.

      Now some Conservative Jews like yourself (and like David, having gotten to know him at Adas, and seeing how serious he is abut his Conservative Judaism) take their obligation to perform Mitzvot and to attend shul regularly very seriously. I truly don’t believe David meant to insinuate that Conservative Jews don’t go to shul – he was merely stating a fact that the Orthodox have no choice – they HAVE to go to shul. Within the more progressive movements, synagogues are faced with the challenge of speaking to those in the communities who might otherwise never or rarely approach Jewish tradition outside of major holidays.

      I give them a lot of credit for being so honest and open-minded about all of this.

      • Anonymous
        Anonymous says:

        I see both points that are made here. I agree that attendance at Conservative synagogues has been on a downtrend. I recognize that Adas is desperately trying to appeal to the masses and offer several options for services in an effort to find some connection to everyone’s flavor of Judaism.

        However, the other anonymous who responds to Naomi says that David uses the “key word ‘necessarily’.” Please point that out. It seems you are extrapolating his words into a logical statement, but one that diverges from the statement David actually wrote.

        You also go on to state that “Orthodox Jews have no choice – they HAVE to go to shul.” Who says Orthodox Jews HAVE to go to shul and have no choice in that decision? Do all Orthodox Jews go to shul?

        I understand generally what you are trying to say, but you are still implying that if you are an Orthodox Jew you MUST go to shul, and so Conservative Jews are less likely to be in shul since they have the option to not go to shul since somehow only Orthodox Jews are obligated to go to shul. Your argument (and David’s) is a little ignorant.

        • Sarah
          Sarah says:

          I don’t think any points made here are ignorant, including yours, because I think this is a really important conversation to have. Are not Orthodox Jews obligated or at least encouraged to seek out a minyan? Is there really any point in arguing that in the Orthodox world, there isn’t more of a sense of being “required” to go to shul than in the less observant movements? I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I have spent a lot of time in both Orthodox and Conservative communities, so I’m not saying one is better or worse than the other, I’m just putting it out there.

          By the way, I know a lot of people who went to this service and said it was the most moving Yom Kipper service they’ve been to in years.

  3. Adas
    Adas says:

    This article is so self-serving. Someone here points out that Elie is not even mentioned nor were any of the other band members.

    I think you may have gotten your Supreme Court Justices a little mixed up. Justice Elena Kagan was at Yom Kippur services during the day, but I find it hard to believe that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have been at this loud and lively service at night. Either way, no need to boast about “celebrities” attending religious services. Aren’t we all the same on Yom Kippur?

    • RachelR
      RachelR says:

      The service was awesome, and I’m familiar with the back story of this blog piece… This is an official Press Release guys. Gather the Jews simply reposted what was sent out from the congregation to the general press as an article from David. No one is trying to get anything over on you. I was at the service – the facts are all true – the Supreme Court Justices were present, and there were over a thousand very diverse groups of people in attendance, having an amazing time, free of charge.

      Don’t rag on the the synagogue staff for doing their job… creating super cool, FREE services for all of us in DC… and then publicly acknowledging it by sending out a press release (which of course they can’t control who reposts it and where). Chag Sameach and keep up the good work Adas.

      Oh and by the way, in case you didn’t notice… Elie’s picture is in the article. Obviously that’s quite a bit of recognition. I’m sure Elie just preferred that his name not be mentioned in the official press release. David and Elie are close friends – so I doubt anyone was intentionally snubbing him.

      • ID
        ID says:

        I have no problem with GTJ re-posting press releases if they feel they are newsworthy. However, they should be clearly identified as such.

        Again, the service sounds like it was really nice, and I certainly don’t begrudge David for promoting the synagogue. However, I believe GTJ has a responsibility to distinguish between press releases and original content produced for the site.

  4. Shira
    Shira says:

    I don’t understand why everyone is being so mean!! I did not here one negative comment the entire night.

    All that really matters is that the service was so incredible and free for everyone!

    Kol Nidre at Adas united what was clearly over 1,000 Jews (Adas sure does know how to Gather!) for a spiritually moving, musical night under the stars. My friends and I had one of our best Yom Kippur experiences ever.

  5. SomeDude
    SomeDude says:

    This service was so awesome!! Best Kol Nidre ever! If you didn’t go, you need to go next year. The moon was out, there were lights in the trees, the band was really good, and the Rabbi was very inspiring and personal. I dug it. Will definitely go next year. Shana Tova ya’ll.

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Sounds to me like this historically traditional synagogue is breaking from its roots and becoming much more liberal. It looks like in a few years Adas will split off into two synagogues with its traditional service and its Vision of Renewal.

    With its focus on introducing a live band and live instrumental music into Kol Nidre, a service on the holiest day of the year, I would consider this a step in the direction of Reform Judaism.

    Perhaps Rabbi Steinlauf should consider founding a new sect of Judaism called Revivalist Judaism? It seems fitting for the largest and oldest Conservative synagogue in DC to become a trail blazer into a new direction of Judaism. It clearly appeals to a new audience of Jews, and appears less like what the Conservative Jewish movement is about with its live band at Kol Nidre.

    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      I’ve studied with Rabbi Steinlauf before, and I think he’s an amazing Rabbi. He’s very smart and really inspiring. When there was a death in my family, he called within the first day to offer comfort to me and my family, and to see if Adas could do anything for us. And I wasn’t even a member – just a girl who studied with him a few times.

      I also know that, in his way, he is a very traditional Rabbi. He and his family are Shomer Shabbat and Kosher, and encourage many in his congregation to be as well (for those whom that works.) But he also knows that not everyone is able to just “click into” Judaism in the same way. So he believes that creating “a sacred blend of tradition and innovation” (the adas tag line) is a useful tool for creating outlets for those seeking a spiritual Jewish experience.

      Rabbi Steinaluf did not allow instruments at his old congregation (and I still only usually see him at the Traditional services at Adas), and I know he consulted many in the Conservative movement and from JTS before allowing other members of the Adas clergy to use instruments on Shabbat and holidays. So it wasn’t a decision come to lightly.

      Also, I was a member of a conservative synagogue in New York and they used instruments in services regularly. So does B’nai Jeshurun and IKAR, both conservative. So it’s a growing trend in the conservative movement. The thing that Adas does well is offer both traditional options as well as more innovative options – so everyone can find the style and flavor that works for them. It’s really a remarkable place. I just joined before after last Purim, and I’m liking it a lot.

      I didn’t make it to this Return Again service, but plan to be at the next Shir Delight (which is actually a very traditional, non-musical Hillel style service led by young professionals at Adas). There’s almost always an open bar and big dinner and the congregation seems to generously pay for most of it, because its only $8 for everything.

  7. Jeremy Yonteff
    Jeremy Yonteff says:

    pretty sad in all respects. the dwindling movement is pouring gas on the fire. Maybe they should take a page from the reform movement and just let gentiles in.


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