Art is in the eye of the beholder (and the hand of the 4-year-old!)

This only proves what I once said at the Detroit Institute of Arts: “A Four-Year-Old could have painted that!”


A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl


BINGHAMTON, N.Y. – The hottest new abstract artist in town has reason to celebrate.

This summer, she went from selling her work in a coffee shop to having her own gallery show.

After a local newspaper’s feature on her, about 2,000 people came for opening night – everyone from serious collectors to the artist’s preschool teacher. She earned more money than she could comprehend. The gallery owner said it was his most successful show ever and scheduled a second one for October.

So celebrate, the artist did. During a recent visit, she climbed on a big bouncing ball shaped like a frog, grabbed the handles and bounced around the house with laughter pealing and pigtails flying.

The artist is Marla Olmstead. She is 4. [more…]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Rabbi finds faith outside convention

This is an article about my classmate, colleague and friend Rabbi Susie Tendler. Susie is now the Assistant Rabbi at Beth David in Greensboro, NC.

By Nancy H. McLaughlin Staff Writer

News & Record

GREENSBORO — The yarmulke question came up the second day of Rosh Hashana, when Rabbi Susie Tendler, newly arrived at Beth David Synagogue, was to stand before the congregation alongside the senior male rabbi.

In Jewish custom, a woman doesn’t wear a head covering until she’s married, and Tendler, 29, is single. On the other hand, virtually all rabbis wear head coverings during religious ceremonies. But most rabbis are men.

Would she or wouldn’t she?

“I don’t just not cover my head to not cover my head or to be rebellious,” Tendler says. She found middle ground that day, wearing a fashionable knitted cap resembling a yarmulke.

Tendler is devout to her faith but less concerned about customs shaped for thousands of years by men.

“I’m attracted to the traditional ways (of Judaism), but I find unconventional ways of understanding them that are me,” says the energetic and engaging young rabbi.

That mix — traditional Jewish beliefs with a modern-day approach — was what appealed to the Greensboro synagogue when they hired her as the first female rabbi for the congregation — making her one of a few female rabbis in the state.

“She’s a very conservative rabbi, but she is also very much herself, and being herself also includes being a young woman,” says Bob Miller, president of the synagogue and a member of the search committee.

“She knows who she is, and I personally respect that.”

Tendler, who has studied ancient Hebrew, recognizes the irony in her embrace of traditional Judaism and the fact that she is a woman.

“I had a college professor who was Muslim, who would comment that if a religion, or anything for that matter, ceases to be applicable to today or to fit into modern times, it ceases to be relevant,” Tendler says.

She is evidence that you can be both, says her mentor, Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va.

“Her visits to the margins of convention make her exquisitely qualified to speak to the hearts of people searching for their grounding in relationship to God and Jewish life,” Moline says.

Tendler, who graduated rabbinical school in May, didn’t have the experience of some other candidates for the position. But she had qualities that aren’t measured on a resume.

“We needed a person who is engaging, who is forthright, who knows how to develop rapport — and who does it instinctively,” Miller says. “That is Susie Tendler.”

Rabbi Eli Havivi, the senior religious leader at the synagogue, says he knew that the day he met her.

“She has a good spark — of spirit, and of personality,” Havivi says. “She is bright and engaging. She looks you in the eye, and she sees you, and then she speaks.”

Sitting in front of a mural of Jerusaleum that’s penciled onto the beige wall of her office — which was battleship gray when she inherited it from her predecessor — Tendler is busy searching the Web for information on an old-fashioned molasses farm for a youth field trip.

The life and rich color she hopes to bring to the mural, which an artist and several children in the congregation are helping her complete, gives unspoken insight into who she is, Havivi says.

“She loves Israel and has an ability to articulate what is in her heart,” Havivi says. “She also has a good sense of art and beauty and the importance of religious education, and religion being not just intellectual, but physical and visual and experiential.”

Her faith always was strong. In the small town of Woodbridge, Va., where she was the only Jewish child in her class and one of three in her school (counting her two brothers), she was excused from the elementary school chorus for months at a time because the Christmas songs practiced for the holidays were more than words to her.

“I wouldn’t sing them because I couldn’t proclaim that Jesus was God,” Tendler says.

Unconventional influences in her faith formation started early.

Though a devout Jew, she knelt with her best friend for mass at the local Catholic church every week.

Only she never closed her eyes in prayer. She never took Communion.

Her friend, in turn, attended Friday night service at Tendler’s synagogue.

“My parents always encouraged us to be open-minded and respectful and tolerant of other people, of knowing and experiencing,” Tendler says.

The rabbi at her bat mitzvah was Judith Abrams, one of the first 100 female rabbis in the country.

Tendler attended the Alexander Muss High School in Israel right before the Persian Gulf War, when many American students were afraid to visit.

She was the first student to return to Alexander Muss as a teacher, and the other teachers became her mentors.

“Because I had so many different influences, I was able to find my own voice,” Tendler says.

At Beth David, her job includes serving as director of religious education, which includes a cadre of programs and activities aimed at the range of parishioners, from kindergartners to older adults.

She’s also responsible for religious services, from bar mitzvahs to weddings.

A primary focus is strengthening the religious school.

“It’s very, very difficult,” Miller says. “It’s after secular school, and kids are tired. We compete with soccer and football and basketball, and you name it — we compete with it.

“There has to be a principle attraction. There has to be reason for kids to come.”

Activities such as a corn maze and the overnight “pizza in the hut” are part of the plan to get people more involved.

There’s also a new 8 p.m. service on Fridays designed to attract college students and those who might want to eat dinner before service.

Tendler says she sees Judaism as a continuing spiritual journey and recalls reading the story of Noah last year in preparation for a big sermon.

“I read it in a way I had never read it before. … At first I was very excited that I was giving my sermon on Noah, because there’s the rainbow and recreation and the covenant with God and the dove and the olive branch and nature.

“And I thought, ‘Gosh this is beautiful,’ and I read it, and all I saw were these evil things, not just the Tower of Babel, but the evil that pervaded the world and the way his children treated him right afterward.

“It taught me an important lesson about the lenses through which we see things.

“When I read it again a few weeks later, I found the rainbow and the dove and Noah being God’s partner and creating the earth and all those beautiful concepts.”

Her outlook has made many people, including Abrams, the female rabbi and successful author, proud of her and what she’s doing with her life.

“Sometimes people get into the clergy for the wrong reasons,” says Abrams, one of Tendler’s early role models. “She’s in it for the love. Not just the love of God, but the love of people. That’s what you want.”

Contact Nancy H. McLaughlin at 373-7049 or

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Jews should shun the Kabbalah Centre and those who promote it

From the LA Times

Madonna and the Kabbalah Cult

By Yossi Klein Halevi

JERUSALEM — Madonna’s visit to Israel last week, as part of a High Holidays pilgrimage organized by the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre, was greeted here with an enthusiasm deeper than mere excitement at the presence of a pop superstar.

Israelis were understandably grateful to her for showing solidarity with their besieged country and for defying the fear of terrorism that has kept so many tourists away. Her very presence reminded Israelis that they still had friends around the world.

However reassuring, Madonna’s embrace should be treated by Jews warily. The source of her Jewish connection, the Kabbalah Centre, has been repudiated by the mainstream Jewish community for its alleged cult-like behavior. Accusations against the Centre (the pompous spelling is theirs) include exploiting volunteers, breaking up marriages when one partner opposes involvement in the group, and even instructing one terminally ill L.A. man to cure himself by filling his swimming pool with water “blessed” by the Centre’s leaders. (In fact, the Kabbalah Cafe in the Centre’s L.A. headquarters has a sign that reassures patrons that all coffee and tea sold there is made with this water.)

The mainstream Jewish community is so wary of the Centre — which claims to have influenced about 3 million people, including Mick Jagger and Britney Spears — that the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has excluded it from a listing of local Jewish organizations.But no less disturbing for religious Jews than the Centre’s alleged abuses is its doctrinal distortion of cabala, the ancient mystical tradition revered as the inner sanctum of Judaic devotion and thought. [more…]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Still More Press about Torah From Terror

Torah from Terror: Sermons from September 11, 2001


Cleveland Jewish News

The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center have inspired of High Holiday sermons, now preserved on

In 2001, September 11 occurred less than one week before Rosh Hashana (as it does again this year.) Rabbis dispensed with the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur sermons they had prepared and wrote new ones to help their congregations grapple with the horrors they had just witnessed. Theirs were words of grief, anger and consolation.

Thanks to the efforts of two men, we can still learn from those words today. Rabbi Neil Gillman, a professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Jason Miller in the rabbinical school at JTS, have preserved over 100 sermons on the Web site, Torah from Terror: The Rabbinic Response to 9/11. Reading through these sermons is a sobering experience. Three years ago, we vowed that things would never again be the same. For most people, life has returned to its familiar rhythms. Not so in this Web site where you feel the raw emotions and hear the questions which had so few answers. Some excerpts from Torah from Terror:

Rabbi David B. Cohen, Congregation Sinai, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: When the children of Israel defeated the Canaanites, Deborah composed a song to bless God and the Jewish people. Near the song’s end, Deborah spoke of the mother of Sisera, the murdered Canaanite general. The Midrash states that the mother of Sisera cried, screamed, and moaned one hundred times while waiting for her son to come back from battle. According to the Bible, the shofar is sounded only nine times on Rosh Hashana. The rabbis of the Talmud expand the number to 30 times.Yet for 2,000 years, the tradition has been to sound the Shofar 100 times on Rosh Hashana. Whence the number one hundred? Every Shofar blast, we are told, corresponds to one of the 100 anguished cries and moans of Sisera’s mother.If the Bible bewails the death of one of Israel’s enemies, how much more might we cry out for friends and neighbors we’ve lost this past week? How many agonies will our hearts have to bear?

Rabbi Wayne Dosick, The Elijah Minyan, San Diego, California: My holy father used to tell the story of Yom Kippur, 1942, the first Yom Kippur after Pearl Harbor, the first Yom Kippur that America was at war in World War II. In the small Orthodox shul which he attended, the men sat downstairs, and the women sat upstairs in the balcony.As the chazzan chanted the Kol Nidre prayer, when he came to the words, M’Yom Kippurim zeh ad Yom Kippurim habah, alenu l’tova … ” From this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur, may it be for us for good …,” a great cry arose from the balcony and washed across the whole shul. The wives and mothers had just sent their husbands and sons to war, and they greatly feared what would happen from one Yom Kippur until the next.Then and now, the days that unfold, one by one, from one Yom Kippur until the next, tell the tale of our lives. And the great question always looms, “Who shall live, and who die? Who shall live out the measure of days, and who will be cut off mid-way?”The answers to those questions, we know, are in God’s hands. Yet, this year, as we gather for our Yom Kippur worship and meditation, we are filled with wondering. For the Divine response that was given to us this year is bewildering, and overwhelming, and filled with pain.

Torah from Terror: The Rabbinic Response to 9/11 contains 138 sermons from rabbis in 25 states and three provinces. If you have access to a sermon delivered following September 11, 2001, the Web site’s creators would like to hear from you.

Mark Mietkiewicz is a Toronto-based Internet producer who writes, lectures and teaches about the Jewish Internet. He can be reached at

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Jews for Jesus defends name, campus campaign

University of Michigan Daily

By Victoria Edwards

September 23, 2004

Clad in T-shirts proclaiming “Jews for Jesus,” members of the seemingly paradoxical organization have made themselves a presence on the Diag — prompting criticism from mainstream Jewish groups.

The group, from San Francisco, says it is nearing the end of a three-week evangelical outreach on the campus. Jews for Jesus volunteer Dena Schultz said the group is targeting cities with a population of more than 25,000 Jews.

“The organization desires to engage Jewish people in the claims of Jesus being the Messiah. Jewish people all over the world are considering Hinduism, Buddhism, but one taboo is still believing in Jesus. We encourage them to see for themselves,” said Shaun Buchhalter, director of Detroit’s Jews For Jesus.

Buchhalter, who was born to a Jewish family and raised secular, said all of the organization’s staff was born or married into Jewish families. He added that they work with volunteers on campus who were born into non-Jewish families.

Buchhalter said although a basic belief in Judaism is the belief in one God, secular atheistic Jews are still considered Jewish. Therefore accepting Jesus as the Messiah doesn’t make him any less Jewish.

“We’re Jewish people who came to believe Jesus is the Messiah. We believe the only way is through Jesus and his sacrifice. We don’t want to exclude the Jewish people,” Buchhalter said.

He said the reaction of Jewish people on the University’s campus has been mixed with curiosity and hostility, although some appeared receptive.

Rabbi Jason Miller, assistant director of the University Hillel Foundation, said Hillel is ignoring Jews for Jesus, based on the recommendation of the Jewish Community Council of Metro Detroit.

“We are following the recommendation of that committee that Jewish communal organizations (like Hillel) do not respond to the Jews for Jesus Campaign. That will only help them publicize their message,” Miller said in an e-mail.

Instead, Miller said Hillel has chosen to inform as many of the 6,000 Jewish students on campus as possible that “Jews for Jesus is an organization of Christians that employs coercive techniques and indoctrinating propaganda in its efforts to convert Jews.”

LSA sophomore Perry Teicher, the student vice-chair for Hillel, said he has qualms with the underlying beliefs of the organization as well as how they’re spreading their message across campus.

“I completely respect having someone believe what they want. I don’t like people trying to impose their beliefs, especially when they conflict with the truth. The basic belief is you can’t believe in Jesus and be a Jew,” Teicher said.

In response, LSA junior David Morley has started distributing pamphlets for Jews for Judaism, a group that combats Jews for Jesus. Although Morley doesn’t belong to Jews for Judaism, he says, “I have followed (Jews for Jesus representatives) around and handed out Jews for Judaism literature.”

He added that although Jews for Jesus challenges the basic premise of the Jewish faith, it has actually strengthened the faith of Jewish students on campus. “I feel it made the Jewish community on campus stronger — it gives all the Jews something to feel strongly about,” Morely said.

Miller said combating the organization on campus is something he has encouraged other religious organizations on campus to get involved in as well.

“I sent a letter to our colleagues in the Association of Religious Counselors at U of M, urging them to speak out against Jews for Jesus on behalf of the religious community,” Miller said. “We have, thus far, been disappointed in that the Christian community does not realize that this is its problem as well. Jews for Jesus is promoting its religious views above everyone else’s and in doing, has violated the unwritten rules of public discourse at the University.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Group counters the picketers at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor

Picketers have been harassing Shabbat morning services at Ann Arbor’s Beth Israel Congregation every week since last Rosh Hashanah. They carry vile signs such as “Zionism Begets Nazism.” While they are not physically threatening, it is a terrible precedent to have picketers interfering with Jewish religious services (the first known instance since Nazi Germany) or any other peaceful religious service for that matter.

A new group has responded with a campaign called SPURN (Synagogue Protest UNACCEPTABLE!Respond Now), with 2 major goals: 1) Break the silence of major civic and religious leaders about this anti-Semitism, and 2) Transform this negative into a positive by raising money for Magen David Adom USA, the Israeli Red Cross, turning our frustration over the picketers into constructive action.

Below are some documents that might be of interest:

Op-ed piece from Washtenaw County Jewish Federation President Neal Elyakin and Federation Executive Director Jeff Levin

Ann Arbor News editorial

As of today, 146 donors have given $6,007.50. While 129 of the 146 pledges come from members, former members, or relatives of members (including a donation of tzedakah money from a 10-year-old congregant!), 17 are from people without these synagogue ties. We have donations from Israel, Florida, and Minnesota, and word is spreading to other places. For more information, see the SPURN web site.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Apples and Honey in Ann Arbor

Israeli mezuzot were placed on the four doors of the gymnasium. Rabbi Jason Miller, assistant director University of Michigan Hillel, made the first basket on the new basketball court. [more…]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Shanah Tovah to all our friends and family!

Our Family message for 5765

A cute animation for the New Year

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Jewish students celebrate the new year

Here is the [Univ. of Michigan] Michigan Daily’s Rosh Hashanah article (please note corrections at bottom of page)

By Justin Miller and Leah Guttman, Daily Staff Reporters

September 16, 2004

Rosh Hashanah, which begins a 10 day period of repentance known as the Days of Awe and the Jewish New Year, started at sundown yesterday and will end at sunup tomorrow.

“Rosh Hashanah is a festive day, yet it does not resemble the celebration of the secular New Year,” said Rabbi Jason Miller, assistant director of the Hillel Foundation. “Rather, Jews spend much of the holiday in synagogue praying and seeking atonement of their misdeeds from the past year.”

It is a time when families gather around the dinner table to eat, sing songs and celebrate the new year. Prior to the holiday, a shofar, a musical ram’s horn, is blown from the synagogue 100 times a day to alert Jews of the coming Days of Awe.

Some Jewish students will have their classes cancelled. Unlike other University classes, no Judaic Studies classes will be held during Rosh Hashanah as professors teaching those classes and most of their students will be observing the holiday themselves. For other University courses, students who choose to miss class must provide advanced notice of their absence and make up missing work.

LSA sophomore Rachel Perlin said she was “just going to (Wednesday) evening services, not Thursday services because it’s the second week of school.”

Some students would like the University to officially observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which would result in the cancellation of all classes.

“I think it’s unfair for any important holiday to have classes or work on it,” LSA Sophomore Katy Willens said. “If any religion has a day of rest, it should be honored.”

But LSA junior David Morley thinks that is impractical.

“It’s OK for the University to hold classes because it would be impossible to observe every religious holiday. However, there should be an understanding of what Rosh Hashanah is. It should be up to the professors whether or not to hold classes, but they should not be able to have exams,” Morley said.

The debate over classes centers around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur being the two most holy Jewish holidays.

While the concept of original sin does not exist in Judaism, sin is hardly absent from the religion. Sin is accumulated over the course of the year and is wiped clean one week after Rosh Hashanah, during Yom Kippur, or the “Day of Atonement.”

“There are two ways to repent: one is for sins committed between human beings. In order to repent you have to ask that specific person for forgiveness,” Miller said. “For sins against God you must ask forgiveness from God.”

In some Jewish families, asking for forgiveness has been a tradition passed on from parent to child.

“My dad started a tradition of telling family members and friends he’s sorry for doing something that hurt them,” said Emma Levine, an LSA sophomore. “Recently, on Yom Kippur, I’ve also started telling people close and important to me that I’m sorry for anything hurtful I’ve said or done in the past year.”

Choosing to attend services is just another act of balancing religion and school for many Jewish students.

“It’s good to continue traditions in college and it’s important to develop your own stance on how you feel about your religion,” said Perlin.

But Miller recognizes that forming a unique outlook is not the easiest thing for students to do.

“It’s a very difficult time for college students, facing decisions of whether or not to go home to their parents’ house or congregation or stay in Ann Arbor,” he said. “When students go off to college, they, through self-discovery, tend to explore different options. The student that grew up very observant and decides that they’re no longer in their parents’ house, they’re going to become less observant. The flip side is true as well.”


Rosh Hashanah began Sept. 15 at sundown, BUT DID NOT END UNTIL FRIDAY EVENING (SEPT 17) AT SUNDOWN.

Prior to the holiday [of Rosh Hashanah], the shofar is blown once a day for a month. On the holiday, the there are 100 blasts of the shofar [or ram’s horn].

Rabbi Jason Miller said that SOME students who grow up in an observant home MAY become less observant with the newfound independence that college life presents them with and the opposite is true as well.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

The Holy Spirits

Happy hour goes righteous as New Jersey’s religious institutions hit the taverns to attract young believers.

By Sharon Waters

New Jersey Monthly Magazine (Sept. 2004)

It’s Sunday night at Just Jake’s bar and restaurant in Montclair. The room is filled with 40 young adults drinking beer and munching appetizers. Amid the conversation and clinking of glasses, two priests begin speaking.

Cheers erupt occasionally from the adjacent bar area, where the Giants are on the big-screen TV. But in this back room, the crowd is silent and respectful. This is what they came for: to hear a talk titled “Forget Mars and Venus—We’re From Earth,” about relationships human and divine.

At La Pastaria in Summit, managers, teachers, and carpenters listen as a priest peppers his discussion of Jesus and spirituality with references from The Producers to Palm Pilots, Monica Lewinsky to Mel Gibson. At Sportz Bar and Grille in Fairfield, the discussion on Monday nights in the fall isn’t about who’s playing the Jets, but what it means to be Jewish.

All across the state, bars and restaurants are proving to be popular if unlikely sites for religious rap sessions. The drink and conversation flow freely as priests, pastors, rabbis, and ministers search for creative ways to reintroduce men and women in their twenties and thirties to their spiritual roots. The Roman Catholic Church, which pioneered this outreach program, gave it a name: Theology on Tap.

Begun in 1981 by the Archdiocese of Chicago, Theology on Tap has become popular in New Jersey. Within the past two years, Catholic parishes in Summit, Somerset, Upper Saddle River, Montclair, West Orange, Ocean Township, Westfield, and Pennington started participating in the program. The two-hour meetings, which are run independently by each parish, typically draw 40 to 100 people; they usually open with a formal presentation followed by a question-and-answer or discussion period.

“There are so few opportunities to socialize in an informal setting with regard to your faith, and this is a great opportunity,” says Steve Wolcott, a 39-year-old portfolio manager from Springfield, at a June session in Summit. “It’s casual, plus we’re all here for a purpose: to connect with our faith.”

For many young adults, college is the last place they participate in group discussions or any formal learning about theology. But for some, the terrorist attacks of 2001 have fueled a strong desire to connect to faith and put life events into a spiritual context. “September 11 changed everything,” says Father Joseph Reilly, rector of the College Seminary at Seton Hall University. “That rocked people’s world like it never had been before. That was a metaphor for people realizing that maybe values in their lives or their connection to God was something to rely on, because it was the only thing that made sense.” Theology on Tap provides a forum for young adults who are unsure of how to return to a house of worship they may not have visited for years, says Reilly, who also assists parishes in Bayonne and Roseland.

“I always got the feeling that they thought they were hypocrites if they just walked in the door” of a church, says Father Jim Chern of Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church in West Orange. “So I said, Maybe this would give them a little bit of an opening. We’re meeting them on their ground, meeting them in their territory.”

If any priest can make a 20-something comfortable enough to return to church, it’s 30-year-old Chern. His office features relics of devotion to his two masters: God and the New York Yankees. A crucifix lies next to a Yankees hat on the coffee table, a Bible near a copy of Time with a cover story about the team’s 1998 World Series victory.

Chern uncorked Montclair’s Theology on Tap in January 2002 with Father Bill Sheridan of Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church. The monthly sessions alternate between Just Jake’s and McGurk’s Tavern in West Orange.

Sheridan, 41, and Chern spend roughly 10 hours outlining, writing, and revising their 30-minute talks. After their presentation, attendees discuss the topic among themselves, and then the priests field their questions for about an hour. Each session offers time for mingling before and after.

Chern and Sheridan wear clerical collars and their presentations can sound like homilies, but before the night ends, they take a laid-back approach so newcomers won’t be scared off. “I’m not going to start sending you church envelopes, and it’s not an automatic thing where now you’re sucked in,” Chern says. “I’d rather have it be, you come and feel comfortable to talk and have made some connections with people. Hopefully from that you’ll make the decision that you want to join this parish.” At his next Theology on Tap session, nearly three-quarters of the last class return for a refill.

David O’Brien, 36, director of parish ministry for St. Teresa of Avila in Summit, started his Theology on Tap program in January 2003 as an outreach to recent college graduates who are turned off by the formality of the traditional hometown services they’ve returned to.

Providence Wissel fits O’Brien’s target group. The single Summit resident, who was raised a Catholic, says that at 35 she finds herself Christian, not Catholic. She rarely attends Mass because she works on Sundays, in retail sales—an effective excuse, she admits. “It seemed like the ideal setting outside of church to meet people of a similar faith,” Wissel says of Theology on Tap. “To me, this is better than sitting in a pew. This is discussion. This is more being part of a community. It’s more comfortable, and I think it’s more useful.”

If the sessions were held in a church basement instead of a bar, Wissel says, she probably wouldn’t attend. “It has to be enticing. I honestly think that’s what God would have had in mind. They sat around at the Last Supper. It’s really the same thing,” she says. “It’s breaking bread. It’s putting enjoyment and sharing into a setting with like-minded people who have similar beliefs and share and discuss things from a Christian perspective.”

And in a time when semi-anonymous online dating is popular, Theology on Tap provides a low-key, almost old-fashioned way for singles to mingle. Organizers see friendships formed and phone numbers and e-mail addresses exchanged.

Theology on Tap is a template that can be used for any faith, says Judi Black, coordinator of the program in Chicago. “We don’t even use the word Catholic,” Black says. “It’s a program where you provide the speakers to do your theology, whatever that is. You’re working within the context of your own religious persuasion, whatever that is.”

The gathering of Jewish men at Sportz Bar & Grille in Fairfield is called Torah on Tap. Its mix of beer, kosher pretzels, and rabbinical instruction provides a modern method for teaching Judaism to a new generation, says Rabbi Jason A. Miller, 28,
a former rabbinic intern at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, who started the program in November 2002 to reach young adults and other Jews who may be uncomfortable with the idea of attending a synagogue. “We’re trying to make Jewish learning fun,” says Miller, who recently was appointed associate director at the University of Michigan’s Hillel Foundation, a worldwide Jewish outreach program for college students. “It’s something so different from learning in the synagogue environment. Some people have their hang-ups about that. It doesn’t have the feel of an institution.”

Some members of his Conservative congregation thought it was a prank when Miller hung flyers that showed a yarmulke-wearing man pulling a beer tap. Every few months, about three dozen adults, mostly men, gather in a private room at the sports bar to hear Miller discuss the Torah or a contemporary topic, like Jews in sports.

Last fall the First Presbyterian Church of Rumson began holding an alternative worship service every other Tuesday evening in its fellowship hall. Each presentation has a scriptural theme, and features music, movie clips, skits, maybe even a dance routine, to reinforce the message. With refreshments served, the aim is to create a coffeehouse atmosphere in which young adults feel welcome and participate, says the pastor, the Reverend John Monroe. “You don’t have to be in a church mode when you enter,” Monroe says. “It’s geared for people who don’t find traditional church engaging.”

Discussions often focus on weighty topics—war, atheism, bioethics, forgiveness, the pursuit of happiness. Nearly every Theology on Tap group in New Jersey has presented or planned a session on sexuality, whether it’s the Ocean Township parish’s “Is the Church Anti-Sex?” or the West Orange and Montclair priests offering, “Let’s Talk About Sex—the Sixth and Ninth Commandments,” both presented last fall.

Dan Lancia, a 29-year-old stockbroker from Edison, liked the straightforward style of the June session he attended at Tumulty’s Pub in New Brunswick, organized by St. Matthias Roman Catholic Church in Somerset. “Anytime you put a religious message into real terms like that, I think it really helps,” says Lancia, who also attends conventional church services every week. “Things like this help tie it all together, giving you a practical application of the faith—things you can do in your everyday life.”

Since the Archdiocese of Chicago started Theology on Tap 24 years ago, the program has grown nationally. Now various denominations in 44 states and six countries officially offer the program, says the archdiocese’s Black, each institution having obtained permission to host from the archdiocese, which copyrighted Theology on Tap and sells a how-to manual for $25. But Black says that she knows of many more organizations presenting similar programs. “There’s a recognition out there that the young-adult community is probably the least served community,” Black says.

Mary Korfmacher, 24, attends Mass every week at Westfield’s Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, sits on its pastoral council, and taught fourth grade at its parochial school. She’s saddened that more of her peers aren’t involved in the church, which is why she wanted to bring Theology on Tap to Westfield. At first her pastoral council questioned who would attend the sessions, noting that few young adults attend Mass. That, Korfmacher says, is the whole point.

“The older generation wants to put blame on us: ‘Why aren’t you coming?’ ” she says. “But I think it’s on both groups, because the young adults feel there’s nothing there for them.” Holy Trinity started Theology on Tap this fall, holding its sessions in a room at the Westwood, a banquet hall in Garwood. Patricia Martin, the church’s coordinator of youth and young adult ministry, organized the series with Korfmacher, offering advice based on sessions she attended in Summit.

One group of older parishioners that seem happy to lend support are the owners of the restaurants and bars where Theology on Tap is held. Philip Angelo, who co-owns La Pastaria, offered his restaurant and free food for St. Teresa’s first two sessions. Even after he began charging $9 a plate for appetizers and unlimited pasta and pizza, he still forfeited most of his regular restaurant business during the Thursday night sessions. But Angelo says he was happy to help the church he attends in the town where he lives. “St. Teresa does a lot for us,” he says. “They help our business and they help us spiritually. We feel like we’re a blessed place.”

“The general person would think it would be abnormal to sit in a basement of a bar listening to a priest speak about spirituality,” says Katie Riley, 25, of Leonia, while attending one of St. Matthias’s sessions at a pub in New Brunswick. “But it’s like God can go with you anywhere.”

Sharon Waters is a writer living in Metuchen.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |