Downtown Shabbat: Hot music, cool venue draws more than millennials

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon (front) and the Armon Bizman band at a Late Night Downtown Shabbat at the Jewish History Museum on March 25. (Karen Schaffner/AJP)

Tucson, a.k.a. the Old Pueblo, is known for its laid back attitude, not for bucking a trend. Enter Temple Emanu-El’s Late Night Downtown Shabbat, which is roping in the millennials coming of age in the 21st century, statistically a hard group to round up for synagogue participation.

According to the 2014 Pew Research Center survey report, “Religious Landscape,” 13 percent of the Jewish population, combining older and younger millennials is under age 49. Compared to a Pew study in 2007, the 18-29 age group is up 2 percent while the 30-49 age group is down 2 percent. Although the Reform movement still numbers the largest among Jewish denominations in the United States, 32 percent of Jews born after 1980 identify as secular or Jews of no religion out of 6.8 million American Jews. Meanwhile, according to Pew’s 2013 report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the average age of a regular attendee of Shabbat services is 65, a diminishing population and a challenge for any synagogue.

On one Friday each month, Temple Emanu-El offers an alternative to an alternative crowd. Its Late Night Downtown Shabbat, an all-musical services that begins at 9:30 p.m., is a creative project of Senior Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon. It draws a varying group of Temple Emanu-El members and others from the community, with attendance of about 75 each month. That’s a capacity crowd at the venue, the Jewish History Museum at 564 S. Stone Ave., which was Temple Emanu-El’s first site when it was built in 1910 — and the first synagogue building in the Arizona Territory.

To attract a younger crowd, Cohon commissioned a contemporary musical service written by Armon Bizman (Hebrew for “A Castle in Time”) band members Sam Golden and Bob Hanshaw, both classically trained. “I didn’t want a leftover ’60s folk rock sort of thing,” says Cohon.

The band is composed of members from the recently disbanded Indie rock group Sun Bones and features Golden, Hanshaw, Chris Herald, Seth Vietti and guest soloist Lindsey O’Shea. The music is a mash-up of old-school/alternative rock/contemporary jazz, punctuated by a cappella harmonic singing set to Reform prayer texts for Shabbat.

Along with the music, people may be drawn to Cohon’s more relaxed presence or the informal atmosphere at this intimate space. Dress is wildly varied and participation plentiful with many clapping, singing and moving with the music of the prayers. The mix of ages is obvious with older hipsters, avid Temple Emanu-El congregants and 20 -and 30-somethings rarely seen at regular services. Onegs always follow, sometimes provided by world-class Tucson chef Janos Wilder.

Jamie Kelly, 13; Susan Kelly, 50; and Vivian Wilson, 72, were three generations of a family attending a Downtown Shabbat in March. Dressed in jeans and rock-out shirts, with Jamie’s face bright red from food-coloring her hair, the happy trio said they saw a flyer for the service and decided to give it a try. “We like to keep us all together,” said matriarch Wilson, with a grin.

Lani Gentry, 29, from Cleveland, Ohio, was “checking Tucson out” when she attended Down-town Shabbat for the first time last month. She heard about it from new friends; late night services fit her lifestyle. “Seven thirty is too early for me,” she says. “I like to go out with my friends after work on Fridays. I stay up late.” She also likes the atmosphere. “It’s small and reminds me of what a synagogue should be like, intimate and with people here that maybe I could know.”

The next Late Night Downtown Shabbat will be held May 13. For more information, call Temple Emanu-El at 327-4501.