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(photo credit: David Zetler)
The decidedly American reality of diverse Jewish identities and post-denominationalism gave birth Friday to a new Internet site that helps searchers of spirituality and community find a congregation that fits their needs.
But the Israeli reality of spiritual uniformity casts doubt on the site's relevance and chances for success among sabras.
The new site is called ShulShopper and it's a place where hip-hop Jews, green Jews, gay and lesbian Jews, transgender Jews, Yiddishists, neo-Hassidim and even mainstream traditionalists can access a religious community that, with a little luck, will quench their thirst for spiritual meaning. And if they do not find an existing community that suits them they can use the site to make their own.
Do you want a shul with or without a mechitza (barrier between men and women)? Do you feel comfortable with women leading prayer? How about musical instruments? Is social action integral to any God-fearing congregation? Are you reconstructionist, humanist, Reform or Conservative?
"I believe the congregation where you belong and where you daven should be a catalyst to connecting to God, not an obstacle," said Daniel Sieradski, 27, the creator of ShulShopper, who is a resident of Jerusalem.
"If you are miserable while you daven, if you hate the place where you pray, how can you expect to foster love for God? A lot of people have the misconception that a relationship with God must be a struggle - as is implied in the world Israel (which means literally struggle with God). As if enjoying oneself while praying is somehow not Jewish. But in reality Judaism is all about serving God out of joy. Prayer can be a beautiful, moving experience if it is done right with people you like."
Although ShulShopper, which lacks Hebrew capability, plans to expand to Israel in the near future, Friday's launching focused on North American Jewish communities.
Sieradski is doubtful that Israelis will go for ShulShopper.
"We are aiming for the Anglo community here, especially tourists and students who are in Israel for a limited period of time. But I have no expectations for the sabra community, though in theory ShulShopper can be a useful tool for every Jew."
Sieradski, who has lived in Israel for three years, said that in comparison to the diverse spiritual options available in North America, Israel has a very uniform spiritual world.
"Most Israelis are either mainstream Orthodox or totally secular. The few Reform or Conservative shuls that exist are simply not growing. That's the reality and people accept it."
In contrast, Sieradski said that anglos who live or visit in Israel are receptive to various "indie-minyans" (independent prayer groups) that explore alternative prayer styles.
David Druce, who worked with Sieradski on ShulShopper, collected data on about 900 synagogues and religious institutions in the Jerusalem area. Only about 10 are non-Orthodox.
"What fascinates me is the tremendous ethnic diversity that exists among the various traditional congregations in Jerusalem," said Druce. "There are communities from Greece, Kurdistan, Indian, Georgia almost every conceivable place. There are different architectural styles."
But Druce admitted that this ethnic diversity was not matched by the same diversity in prayer styles and creativity that characterized the North American spiritual milieu.
"Most people here prefer quick perfunctory prayer," said Druce. "The shul is not a social scene. It's just a place to fulfill your prayer obligation."
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, modern Orthodox head of the Petah Tikva Hesder Yeshiva, said that unlike Americans, Israelis do not need a congregation to foster a strong Jewish identity.
"It is enough for most Israelis to simply be here."
Cherlow said that the main barrier to the development of a strong congregation that does more than just pray together is the community's inability or unwillingness to pay a rabbi's salarly.
"For most rabbis their job in the synagogue is secondary or tertiary."
Meanwhile, ShulShopper has had a successful start. During the four days that it has been up and running there have been 10,000 page views and 1,500 visitors. About 80 congregations have joined and 150 individuals have registered.