Window Shopping

By Leah Hochbaum

Published February 16, 2007, issue of February 16, 2007.

Finding the right synagogue can be a tiresome task for even the most devout of Jews. Every synagogue — be it Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist — has a style, a tone and a rabbi all its own. Paying personal visits to each establishment to determine where you fit could take months or even years. But a new Web tool aims to simplify things, making the process of picking a house of worship as easy as clicking a mouse.

Set to launch February 15, ShulShopper.com allows would-be congregants to locate synagogues and independent minyanim in their areas and to rate and review the congregations.

“It’s a sort of Zagat for synagogues,” said Daniel Sieradski, ShulShopper’s creator. The Web site is one of the first projects from Jew It Yourself, an initiative that offers tools and resources to empower constituents to take active roles in their local Jewish communities.

Users can log on to the site, specify their denominational preferences and sort by features including separate seating, the use of musical instruments during prayer, or whether or not women can lead services. Those who are unable to find a local synagogue with their personal predilections will be able to track down other individuals in the area who share their vision so that they might establish new congregations together. For now, ShulShopper will encompass American institutions only, but plans are in the works to incorporate reviews of synagogues all over the world, in a number of different languages.

Sieradski’s aim is to enhance the site by adding more social-networking features, including blogs, message boards, event calendars and even an online database of niggunim (wordless melodies). He hopes that this updated take on the ancient ritual of prayer will modernize the somewhat antiquated impression that many young people have of synagogues.

“Most institutions are fighting like hell to clamp down on this action — to draw the younger generation of Jews back to their synagogues and JCCs,” Sieradski said. “They’re all trying to rebrand themselves to be hip and edgy. But branding can’t solve institutional problems. These older, more bureaucratic models don’t work for most young people. Our hope is to empower young people to take charge and build the communities they want for themselves.”

But it hasn’t been easy. Sieradski, who has developed a reputation of being a bit of a firebrand because of his virulent criticisms of the mainstream Jewish establishment on the blog Jewschool, has been turned down for roughly two-dozen grant applications. As the money runs out from an initial endowment provided by the Providence, R.I.-based Dorot Foundation, Sieradski has had to dig a little deeper to find funding. “I’ve been working out of my own pocket,” said the Jerusalem-based Sieradski, who organizes Israeli-Palestinian hip-hop concerts in his free time. “I’m hurting myself to help the Jewish community, because I believe in what this will do for the Jewish community.”

In addition to ShulShopper, Jew It Yourself plans to eventually launch an online beit midrash that Sieradski believes will “radically alter the way the entire Jewish community engages with Jewish text and text learning.” The beit midrash will provide online chavruta (paired) learning that will enable would-be pupils to talk to each other in real time using Voice Over Internet Protocol technology.

“ShulShopper is [Jew It Yourself’s] proof of concept. It’s a floor model, a demonstration. It shows you what we’re capable of,” Sieradski said before adding, “Just give me $500,000, and I’ll have this all done in a year.”

Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.



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