Jazzing up the jewish new year

| 15 Sep 2015 | 12:52


For many of his congregants, High Holy Days are the only time of a year when they get to see their rabbi, Steven Blane, in person.

Most of the time, Blane presides on their computer screens. The founder and spiritual leader of Sim Shalom, a virtual synagogue, Blane conducts services out of a small room on Riverside Drive, within a four-room apartment that he shares with his wife, Carol, and two puppies, Sammy and Ari.

The room is sparse: a sofa, a chair, an Asian-styled dark bamboo divider and a workstation atop a Persian rug. Blane, equipped with a keyboard, a studio microphone and a large monitor with a camera, streams live services every Friday night from there.

Blane, bald, bespectacled, and sporting an earring in his left earlobe, sits in front of the bamboo divider. “I'm on,” he said into the camera at 7 p.m. on a recent Friday. “I'm on now.”

A typical service lasts about an hour. “I start by singing jazz, to warm it up,” said Blane, a former Broadway singer who plays the piano, guitar and ukulele. About 30 minutes in, he puts on his kippah, and begins to sing and to celebrate the liturgy. “Now I'm a rabbi,” he says. He interacts with the congregants via a chat window, which shares the screen with the live video.

He greets congregants by name as they join the service online. “It's like a family,” said Sharon Schorr a Sim Shalom congregant.

Schorr and her husband, Jamie, met Blane in 2012, at their daughter's wedding. They found the idea of an online synagogue intriguing, and Jamie Schorr later joined its board of directors. “You can even pull it up on your smart phone,” said Sharon Schorr. “It's nice to be able to sit in your family room, with your dog next to you and drink a glass of wine, while watching Rabbi Blane conducting the service.”

Rabbi Steven Blane Performing on Rosh Hashanah from Rui (Ellie) Miao on Vimeo.

On Monday, the first day of the Jewish New Year, though, Blane was on stage at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, leading a jazz band in a decidedly unconventional Rosh Hashana service.

Wearing a kippah and a scarf embellished with tzitzit and backed by players on bass, saxophone, piano and drums, the 58-year-old Blane sang and nodded his head to jazz inflected sacred songs. Shadowed under the stage lights, young and older filled the space, immersing themselves into the fusion of jazz and ritual.

“If next year you wind up in a traditional synagogue, don't sing the song that way,” Blane said to laughter and applause. “They will throw you out.”

Blane grew up in a “Conservadox” family in Jersey City and attended Yeshiva school as a child. It was a cloistered education, he said.

“I rode bus to school, spent all day in Jewish school with Jewish kids, and rode bus home, (the bus ride) was horrible,” he said.

But he also had fun. “I played sports with my local neighborhood kids—black, white, Latino,” he said.

Growing up in a mixed urban community had a huge influence on him. “The Jewish world is very small,” he said. “If people find what we do is interesting and feel like this is a comfortable place for them, I don't see what the problem is.”

Mindy Squeo, 52, was a member of a traditional synagogue for 18 years. She came across Sim Shalom on Facebook three years ago, and has been participating in it since then. “It's all the same prayers you sing at a traditional synagogue,” she said, “but it's light and fun.”

Some have been less welcoming of the virtual synagogue, which Blane founded in 2009, but Blane believes that he is doing the right thing.

A 2013 Pew Research Center survey showed that one in five Jews described themselves having no religion, suggesting that Jewish identity has fundamentally changed in America. Blane said that just confirmed what he had been hearing and experiencing. “Every synagogue is desperate to get people to fill their boxes, but they are just not coming, not as they used to,” he said. “This [online service] is the answer — it's a combination” of the old and new.

In 2010, Blane founded the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, an online rabbinical school where students could be ordained in a year, as opposed to the four or five-year curriculums at most Jewish rabbinical academies. He said that this program was born in response to needs.

“The mainstream seminaries have a great education model, but it just doesn't work anymore,” Blane said. “They require rabbinical candidates to move to Israel for a year, which is not a bad thing; however, if you are married and have a baby, you are out. In that way the seminaries restrict the candidates greatly.”

Equally provocative is the institute's broad acceptance of candidates. Blane embraces Jewish Universalism, which Blane, on the Sim Shalom's website, means welcoming the “diversity of the Jewish world without judgement, conditions or requirements and asserts that all paths to the divine are equally Holy.” One-third of his rabbinical school students are converts.

In 2012, he ordained an openly gay man who is the son of a Muslim father and African American mother, and is a former Catholic from Brazil. “I'm very progressive,” Blane said.

He equally welcomes those who want to convert to Judaism, and understands those who want to walk away from the faith. His eldest daughter, Megan, married earlier this month to a non-Jew; she is an antitheist, opposed to any religion. “I struggled to find out why,” he said, “but it is what it is.”

Still, it's passion that drives him. He's a lifelong learner—he's been exploring Meerkat and Snapchat to share his service; he jogs every morning; and he sings and plays at a few clubs and coffee houses.

“I've never been more comfortable than where I am now in life,” he said.

Blane and band play The Bitter End on Yom Kippur, Sept. 23 at 10:30 a.m.