For centuries, Jews have watched their rabbis show reverence to God during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur rites by doing a prostration at the front of the synagogue.
This symbolic act takes place during the "Aleinu" prayer that reminds worshippers of their duty to "bend our knees, and bow down, and give thanks, before the Ruler, the Ruler of Rulers, the Holy One, Blessed is God."
Rabbi Shira Stutman isn't sure how many people will accept her invitation to exit the pews and perform this prostration for themselves during her seeker-friendly High Holy Days service at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington. But many of those who do, she said, will find themselves assuming a familiar meditative pose.
It helps to know that this unusual synagogue offers occasional services that blend yoga with traditional Shabbat prayers.
"There are different ways to do a full prostration, but one of them looks exactly like the yoga position called 'Child's Pose,' " said Stutman, referring to a move in which individuals sink to their knees, bow their foreheads to the floor and extend their arms forward. "I'm guessing that for most of the people who will attend the service I'm leading -- young professionals in their 20s and 30s -- the Child's Pose will be more familiar than the tradition of the rabbi prostrating during the Aleinu prayer.
"This will let me use this simple yoga pose to talk about what the act of prostrating can mean for us in worship."
This is the kind of multilayered experience that is common at Sixth and I, which offers four radically different services -- Orthodox, Conservative, family-friendly and progressive -- during the holy season that begins at sundown Wednesday (Sept. 8) with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and ends 10 days later with Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement.
This multidomed sanctuary on the edge of the Chinatown neighborhood has a complex and poignant history. Built in 1908 for the Adas Israel Congregation, it was sold in 1951 to the Turner Memorial AME Church and, by 2002, was hours away from being converted into a nightclub.
However, a trio of Jewish developers rushed in and purchased it for $5 million. Before long, they had created a coalition that focused on creating an urban facility that was part synagogue, part education complex, part community center and part concert hall -- yet independent from the branches of Judaism that have defined the faith for the past century or so.
"Jews in this generation, or generations, don't want to define themselves by the terms of the past," said Esther Foer, the synagogue's executive director. "Those denominational labels -- like 'Conservative' and 'Orthodox' and 'Conservadox' -- don't matter much anymore, especially when you are talking about how people want to worship.
"What matters, at the end of the day, is that we are all Jews -- who are praying."
While Stutman was trained in a liberal Reconstructionist school, she stressed that the synagogue does not have one defining congregation or rabbi. Instead, it uses six prayer books and is served by six rabbis and scores of other worship leaders. Her "Sixth in the City" services are attempts to create "primal worship" experiences, mixing English and Hebrew with themes from many sources, including Judaism, mass media and other world religions.
All of this is fitting in an age in which the vast majority of young Jews have no affiliation whatsoever with traditional Jewish institutions. Jewish leaders are struggling with this reality, as demonstrated by a 2001 survey that defined a Jew as someone whose "religion is Jewish, OR, whose religion is Jewish and something else, OR, who has no religion and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing, OR, who has a non-monotheistic religion, and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing."
What matters, said Stutman, is that people are searching for connections and experiences that help define who they are -- as Jews.
"We are not defined by any one set of doctrines or dogmas ... so every Jewish service is a fusion service," she said. "At any Jewish service, there are people in the room with 1,000 different views of God and half of them are probably atheists, anyway. That's a given. What matters is that people know there is a place where they find community and keep searching."