Congregation Beth Adam: progressive Judaism coming to a computer near you

Upon entering Congregation Beth Adam, preconceived notions about Judaism are put to the test.

The library sits next to the sanctuary with equal prominence.  Secular books on things Jewish fill its bookshelves, extolling humanistic values and a progressive approach to religion.  

In the sanctuary, a DNA double helix above an off-center Torah symbolically places authority with humanity, the congregation.  

And high above the pews, an impressionistic explosion of colors wraps around the walls in a series of stained glass windows that depict the Big Bang, evolution of the universe, our world, and ultimately, us.

"Our goal is to reflect science, modernity.  Our religion is not a throwback to the past," says Rabbi Robert Barr, founder of Beth Adam.  "A lot of people go, ‘Wow!  I’ve never heard a Rabbi say that.'"

Where many see an ongoing dualistic feud between science and religion, Rabbi Barr sees a modern misunderstanding of the ancients.  

Of scientific reasoning Rabbi Barr says, "I would actually argue that our ancestors were comfortable with it too.  They were doing the best they could in their age.  You would hope that they would want to inspire us to be better than what we are.  Why not religiously?"

Beth Adam is the quintessential face of progressive religion:  humanistic, inclusive, socially engaged, emphasizing responsibility and informed by modernity and science.

Beth Adam’s humanistic philosophy makes the orthodox uneasy.  And Rabbi Barr is OK with that.  

"I don’t have a problem with disagreements, as long as we can have lunch afterwards," says Rabbi Barr, a graduate of Hebrew Union College, President of the Greater Cincinnati Board of Rabbis and lecturer at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business and the University of Cincinnati.

Drawing on almost 30 years of experience pushing boundaries, Beth Adam is now tapping into a cutting edge techno-religious trend.  

Earlier this year, Rabbi Laura Baum joined Beth Adam’s staff to launch an online congregation, Our Jewish Community, as a compliment to its brick and mortar base.

A bit of background is in order.

In Beth Adam’s early days the congregation met in rental office space, school buildings, and the synagogue office (read:  Rabbi Barr’s home).

"We wanted to invest in programs before we invested in a building," Rabbi Barr says.  "By the time we got to the building process, we had a pretty good sense of who we were."

Through this depth of self-understanding, members of the congregation write Beth Adam’s liturgy - a progressive practice in itself.

One theme explored in the liturgy is hope in the face of illness, from a secular point of view.  

"Nobody’s writing those materials, and so we saw ourselves doing that," Rabbi Barr says.

Ultimately, Beth Adam’s progressive outlook is "the reason we can do this online," Rabbi Barr says.  "If the world is changing, and culture is changing, and ideas are changing, then we should be changing, as well."

Prior to launching the online congregation, Rabbi Barr was already a star of the Judaic podcast world.  

Of his podcast he says, "I know more people listen to me weekly than they do in services."

Rabbi Barr has done more than 100 podcasts to date, available on iTunes and here.  

Fans have informed him that he has been as high in the Jewish iTunes podcast rankings as number 10; not that he’s paying attention.       

Going beyond Rabbi Barr’s popular podcasts, Rabbi Baum, a graduate of Yale University and Hebrew Union College, has taken up the virtual torch, launching Beth Adam’s full-stop online congregation this September.

The online congregation "blends Judaism, humanism and technology," Rabbi Baum explains.  "Community can be found online, in social networking sites."

Myspace, Facebook and the rest of their kind attest to this.

"The bottom line is most liberal Jews aren’t coming to services," Rabbi Baum says.  "For the majority who don’t come, it provides them something in their own time, in their own place."

Alongside lively interaction on the community forum and Rabbi Baum’s blog, she says there were "hundreds" of people watching Beth Adam’s recent High Holiday services - the precise number is difficult to pin down due to hazy nature of online analytic tracking.

And the reach is vast.

Viewers include Beth Adam graduates who have dispersed to the four corners of the earth, elderly US residents unable to physically attend services and at least one "guy at a soccer game in England," Rabbi Baum says.  

One woman wrote to tell her that after finding Beth Adam on Google, she watched the live streaming Rash Hashanah service, over the phone with her mom.  In this way, together, they rolled in the New Year to the clarion call of the shofar, from across state lines.  

Despite the widespread belief that online communities lack human warmth, Rabbi Baum has found it to be just the opposite.  Some have actually found their religious home online.  

"There’s a guy in Australia who has found our website, and has written me extensive emails about his life and questions he has," Rabbi Baum says.  "He says that he sees us as his Rabbis and this as his synagogue.  It’s not just a website to him."

Statistics show that 85% of Cincinnati’s Jewish population has expressed a desire for connection to the Jewish community, but only 40% have one.  

"That’s a commentary on institutions that aren’t speaking to people," Rabbi Baum says.  

And in a study of Jews under 35, terms like "coercive," "bland" and "bounded" were consistently cited as reasons for why they didn’t feel compelled to attend synagogues.  This same group said they desired something more "fluid," "inclusive," "engaging" and "socially focused."

In light of these trends, Rabbi Baum says, "we're reaching out to every age demographic, but certainly young people."

As technology and science propel modern society full speed ahead, the need for innovation in ancient religious traditions is clear.  

In this sense, Beth Adam is far ahead of the curve.

"When religious institutions become museum pieces, they eventually will die," Rabbi Barr says.  "Modernity has informed so much, and we have evolved.  Why is that religion shouldn’t evolve as well?"

Photography by Scott Beseler
Facade of Congregation Beth Adam
The sanctuary and Torah
DNA double helix
Rabbi Laura Baum in the Library
Rabbi Laura Baum at her computer
Stained glass in the santuary

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