Ann Arbor synagogue ‘more spiritual than religious’

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Temple Echad doesn’t resemble a traditional Jewish synagogue.

The promotional tagline — “Not your Yiddishe Mama’s Shul!” — underscores what to expect during Friday night services at the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting center: life stories instead of Torah readings; a focus on mystical cores within other faiths; prayer books full of poetry; even a DJ spinning global beats.

“It’s going to be unlike anything anyone has experienced before in a spiritual community, for sure — particularly in a synagogue, or temple or shul,” said founder Abby Wells, an interfaith spiritual director. “It will be nothing that resembles their traditional experience of synagogue life.”

With other features, such as testimonials, events modeled after 12-step recovery programs and visits to theaters or coffee shops, the synagogue may seem more collegial than spiritual. But that’s the point, says its leader, calling Temple Echad a “Jewishly inspired, post-denominational and interfaith spiritual community ... for those who are unapologetically, unaffiliated and unchurched.”

The services, which started Friday, are aimed at attracting a diverse crowd — a move religious observers say they see more often as Americans leave traditional worship and religious affiliations to embrace a less rigid, more inclusive spirituality that crosses denominations.

The Pew Research Center reported this year that the number of religiously unaffiliated adults nationwide has climbed by about 19 million since 2007. An estimated 43 percent of adults in the U.S. are “unchurched,” according to the Barna Group, a California-based research organization.

As commitment wanes and membership dwindles at conventional worship sites, “the kind of spirituality that has emerged is this very eclectic, somewhat buffet-style religiosity, which is very interesting,” said Justin Sledge, a Wayne State University professor who studies philosophy and religion. “I suspect that there’s no reason to believe that that trend is going to abate any time soon.”

Temple Echad officials say they’re heeding “the need for more contemporary options for exploring spiritual life and belonging.”

Wells is an East Coast transplant who earned master’s degrees in social work and holistic spirituality as well as mediated for religious congregations. Driven to offering the mixed assembly after noticing “something missing within the Jewish spiritual community,” she hopes to present “one collaborative service that really is more spiritual than religious but that honors every path as one that leads to divine presence and one that leads to awakening and self-becoming.”

The push to blend elements of different creeds has gained traction in recent years, but “isn’t necessarily new,” said the Rev. Daniel Buttry with the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. In his book “Interfaith Heroes,” he writes about the theologian Howard Thurman, who influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and helped launch the nation’s “first intentionally interfaith congregation” in the 1940s. The Church for the Fellowship of All People in San Francisco welcomed Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, even those “alienated from all organized religion,” Buttry said. “There’s a rich history of interfaith action and dialogue.”

With help from religious devotees and spiritual enthusiasts, Wells mapped out the structure of the temple, named after a Hebrew term mentioned in a central Jewish prayer that refers to an all-encompassing oneness or unity. As such, the weekly services at the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting center are geared toward unifying participants seeking spiritual enrichment.

Friday’s featured a traditional menorah lighting to mark the sixth night of Hanukkah, African drumming as well as nearly 20 diverse congregants reciting in unison the words of Kabir, Lucille Clifton and Korean Buddhist dharmas.

At one point, they repeated a message attributed to Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi and philosopher: “Time is the presence of God in the world of space, and it is within time that we are able to sense the unity of all beings.” The group also quietly listened to DJ Nick Maxwell playing Tracy Chapman’s song “Spring” then marked “moments of gratitude” for various events: waking up, passing an exam, helping others. Wells, wearing a yarmulke and colorful tallit, or prayer shawl, joined in.

Kelly Stupple of Ann Arbor stood before the tan pews to discuss her early life — including grappling with racial identity.

Though not Jewish, she welcomed the chance to participate in a unique venture aiming to keep the faith “relevant for current times,” she said. “Obviously, peace and treating your neighbor with kindness, loving unconditionally regardless of differences of opinions — I think that has real lessons for everyday modern life, regardless of race or religion or economic background.”

Another ideal anchoring Temple Echad is healing. Once a month, the service revolves around “the 12 steps” to guide “recovery from all types of life suffering — including religion,” Wells said. She also eventually plans occasional visits to nontraditional sites in the community — maybe even a yoga studio — to “make our temple accessible to people.”

Lauren Zinn of Ann Arbor, an interfaith ordained minister who lit candles during Friday’s event, welcomed the open approach to worship. “It makes you reflect on your own roots or interests,” she said. “But it also makes you learn more about others, and it taps your curiosity. And then you want it more. So you need a place to go that engages that interfaith exchange.”

During the oneg, or informal social gathering, afterward, Sonja Knighton of Ann Arbor called the ceremony “very heart-led. I generally identify as a mystic, so this is kind of right up my alley. I like the mixing of some traditions, the focus on gratitude and overall focus on oneness.”

Ernestine Griffin, a minister with Unity on Campus Ministry at the University of Michigan, hoped to inspire more students to attend. “It was a good spiritual experience,” she said. “I want to see it grow.”

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