A few moments before starting to say Neilah, the haunting prayers that conclude the Yom Kippur service, Rabbi David Ingber asked an unusual question of the members of his congregation.
What were they praying for?
As three volunteers passed microphones into the pews, the room fell silent. Then, one person stood up. And another. And another.
One by one, in front of nearly 900 people gathered for Romemu’s High Holy Days services, held inside Manhattan’s cavernous Redeemer Presbyterian Church — a space rented specially that day for this wandering congregation — they shared their hopes, their dreams, their regrets and their shame.
It isn’t a scene that you would find in a traditional synagogue, but then, Romemu isn’t your average congregation. This divergent approach to Jewish prayer is attracting a wide range of followers, many of them Jews who feel alienated from traditional synagogues. Led by Ingber and his team, Romemu has gone from a handful of people to almost 500 member families in the past five years, said Ilene Sameth, the synagogue’s executive director. A year ago, there were only 300 member families. In the past two years, Romemu’s staff has doubled, expanding to eight full-time employees.
From its temporary home in the West End Presbyterian Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Romemu seeks to offer a new — but also old — kind of Judaism: a personal sense of community and participation combined with spirituality of both the mind and the body.
“We’re trying to build the 21st-century synagogue and an expanded conversation about what the ultimate aim of a synagogue is,” explained Ingber, founder and spiritual director of Romemu. “It’s not just about Jewish identity, it’s about human flourishing.”
But this impressive growth comes with challenges, foremost of which is financial stability. Though a concern for any congregation, planning for sustainability is all the more important for a synagogue whose numbers include a sizable population of unaffiliated and younger Jews unaccustomed to financial contribution in return for a Jewish experience. The expansion is also challenging the congregation to find a balance between the intimate and personal setting provided in the early days and the growing diversity of its members. This diversity prompts another set of issues, namely how to guarantee a Jewish future for members who come from a wide spectrum of religious observances and Jewish knowledge.
And even some of its strongest supporters worry that Romemu could be hamstrung by its greatest asset — Ingber, with his charisma, skill and appeal.
The Yom Kippur scene, though surprising to outsiders, is nothing new for Romemu. Yoga techniques, meditation exercises, vocal participation, silent contemplation and music are an integral part of the service, based on Ingber’s own experiences with Eastern spiritual practices. The Yom Kippur service included a nine-person band, playing everything from standing base to tribal drums, and new hires include Basya Schechter, lead singer of the folk rock band Pharaoh’s Daughter, as musical director.