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Synagogue's Mix of Arts and Religion Helps Shape Jewish Life in Washington

By BY NOAH WEILAND
Dec. 1, 2017 at 11:11 p.m.


WASHINGTON — On a wet night in August, in a bare room in the basement of the Sixth and I synagogue, one of Washington's oldest, the comedian Joe Mande was preparing backstage for his stand-up set.

Then the heavy rains started to flood the floor. Mande and his audience were hurried upstairs, to the 800-seat sanctuary under an elaborate 69-foot Moorish-style dome, where hundreds of 20- and 30-something guests crammed into pews. Mande soon unleashed an expletive-laden set from the pulpit, delivering his usual jokes in front of a painted portion of scripture: "Remember Ye the Law of Moses."

"It was like an anxiety dream," said Mande, who is Jewish. "I was imagining that the manager was going to be like, 'You have to do your Torah portion.' I couldn't believe what was happening."

The setting might have been unlikely in most houses of worship, but not the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue — now a centerpiece of Jewish life in the capital, where bawdy comedy sets, high-profile music acts, podcast recordings, beer tastings and book talks mix with traditional spiritual programming: Simchat Torah celebrations, regular Sabbath observances, Purim theater and five varieties of High Holy Day services.

While other Jewish organizations have tried a culture-centric model — the 92nd Street Y in New York is perhaps the best-known example — Sixth and I's blend of the religious and the artistic has become a local template, a convergence of intellectual and spiritual currents that has helped shape the character of Judaism in Washington.

At a time when young Jews see synagogue affiliations as less of a social obligation, Sixth and I's nonmembership, ticketed model has given them a way to be spiritually self-structured, to come and go, to pay by the activity.

Sixth and I's High Holy Days services sell out to over 3,000 people, part of the 80,000 who visit every year — a staggering number for a small space that is just over a decade old. Sabbath services alone draw 10,000 guests each year. Around 680,000 people live in the District.

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