On a recent Friday evening — the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath day of rest — joyful music emanated from the Ahavath Torah Congregation on Central Street.
But on this night, there was something different about both the music and the Sabbath service. The Boston Community Choir, an all-volunteer, multicultural, intergenerational, multidenominational group of singers, was leading the temple’s congregation in a service featuring gospel-influenced Jewish melodies in a creative Kabbalat Shabbat, Hebrew for the ritual welcoming of the Sabbath.
With Rosh Hashana celebrated earlier this month and the solemn observance of Yom Kippur set to begin Friday evening, Ahavath Torah congregants and other observant Jews in the area will be marking the holidays in a traditional fashion.
But in many ways and on many other days, one is very likely to find other, nontraditional activity in the Stoughton temple, drawing both Jewish and non-Jewish residents from Stoughton and neighboring communities who like blues or jazz, enjoy a good comedian, have interest in hearing an interesting speaker, or simply enjoy a scotch and cigar.
While these activities are not the type of events one would ordinarily expect from a Conservative congregation such as Ahavath Torah, the temple’s rabbi and president say they have become part of the fabric of the synagogue and are important to keeping and attracting new congregants at a time when fewer and fewer people are attending religious services and the Jewish population is shrinking in many communities.
“You have to be broader and think outside the box,” said Rabbi Jonathan Hausman, aka Rabbi J, a native of Bridgeport, Conn., who has led the synagogue since 1996. “I wanted a synagogue that is as dynamic as the one I grew up in.”
Thinking outside the box has led to a Passover jazz brunch, another popular way of celebrating a well-known Jewish holiday, and even a scotch-and-cigars night.
“The events have become a point of pride for our congregation,” said Alan Lader, president of the temple, who has been a lay leader since 2009.
The gospel-flavored service on July 19 kicked off what Hausman called the temple‘s summer arts festival. Two days later, it was the scene of what it called the first annual Boston Blues Festival, with well-known local talent such as the Boston Baked Blues with the Temple Horns, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Toni Lynn Washington, and Satch Romano. The synagogue was bulging at the seams with blues fans.
On July 23, the temple hosted international Jewish recording artist Sam Glaser and his band.
“The whole thing has kind of evolved,” said Lader. “We like all kinds of music.”
“We’re not afraid of trying anything,” said Hausman. “Some things work, and some things don’t.”
Hausman said it helps that performers are “very fair” when it comes to setting fees for performing at a nonprofit religious institution.
The temple’s Hausman Memorial Lecture Series, named for the rabbi’s parents, has featured author Diana West and pollster and presidential adviser Pat Caddell.
The stakes are high when it comes to keeping current congregants and attracting new ones. In 2012, the Public Religion Research Institute conducted what it called a Jewish Values Survey. It reported that only about 35 percent of the 1,004 self-identified American Jews it surveyed reported being a member of a local synagogue.
Those who identified themselves as Conservative Jews were about 25 percent more likely to be a member than self-identified Reform Jews, while among those who identified themselves as “just Jewish,” only one in 20 is a member of a congregation.
For several months earlier this year, Ahavath Torah had discussed a proposed regionalization with Temple Beth Emunah in Brockton and Temple Beth Am in Randolph. The process went so far as to determine that the new regional synagogue would be housed in Brockton and possibly beginning services in July 2014.
But on June 4, more than 100 members of Ahavath Torah overwhelmingly voted in favor of removing the synagogue from the process, with most, according to synagogue officials, citing as the deciding factors the loss of identity and independence and the congregation’s century-old roots in Stoughton.
Meanwhile, the arts and culture beat goes on in Stoughton. On Sept. 1, the Afro-Semitic Experience concert helped prepare congregants for the High Holidays, and on Sept. 22, a passel of the best Boston-based comedians — hosted by Jimmy Tingle and including Steven Wright, Lenny Clarke, and Tony V — will perform at the synagogue to benefit the family of Bob Lazarus, a synagogue member who died in 2009 and had a three-decade-long career as a comedian and actor.
Hausman said the many ways Ahavath Torah is open to all in the Stoughton area have made it an important community resource.
“We’re hosting a fund-raiser for the Fire Department here,” he said. “When the town needed another testing center for Advanced Placement students, it was here. These people are our neighbors and our friends.”Rich Fahey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.