Don’t Mention God: An Atheist Synagogue Thrives in Australia

The congregants at Kolenu celebrate Friday night prayers a little differently from other synagogues. For starters, everyone sits in circles and there is only singing – and just wait till you hear the prayers. The second in a five-part series on Jews Down Under

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A typical Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kolenu shul in Melbourne.
A typical Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kolenu shul in Melbourne.Credit: Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Melbourne
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Melbourne

MELBOURNE – Among the crowd attending Friday night services here a few weeks ago was an interfaith group that had come all the way from France. Australia’s second-largest city was the latest stop on their eight-month world tour that focuses on studying the practices of different religious denominations.

But if their aim was to experience a typical Kabbalat Shabbat service, these French visitors had clearly come to the wrong shul. That’s because there is nothing typical about Kolenu.

Take the venue, for starters. Unlike most shuls, Kolenu has no Torah ark and no bimah. Services are held, at least for the meantime, at the clubhouse of SKIF (an acronym for Sotsyalistisher Kinder Farband, or Socialist Children’s Union), the Bundist youth movement. That’s rather ironic, given that this Jewish socialist movement – which had its heyday in the early 20th century – is as secular as it gets.

The congregants here do not sit in horizontal rows, but in concentric circles. The prayers are not led by a hazan or rabbi, but by a group of guitarists and drummers sitting in the innermost circle. They’re known as the Levi’im – named after the musicians and singers who once accompanied the Cohanim, or priests, in their holy work at the ancient temples.

There is no chanting and there are no moments of quiet prayer at this shul. (Neither is there any of the usual chatter.) There is only song. Besides Kabbalat Shabbat classics, like “Lecha Dodi” and “Yedid Nefesh,” the song list includes a medley of contemporary Israeli folk numbers. In many ways, this feels more like a Zionist youth camp kumzits than a Shabbat synagogue service.

Yet perhaps the strangest thing about this Friday night prayer service is that there is hardly any mention of God.

That famous “Shma Yisrael” prayer – the one that starts with the words “Hear O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One”? At Kolenu, it’s been replaced with this: “Hear O Israel, Our People is One, Humanity is One.”

That’s because this shul – by most accounts, one of Australia’s fastest growing and certainly one of its liveliest – caters to atheists.

And while it incorporates prayers and rituals from other denominations, it is probably safe to say there is no other shul like it on Earth.

“On an ideological level, we have much in common with the Humanistic Judaism movement that came out of America, because we also believe that Judaism can exist without God,” says Ashley Densham, one of Kolenu’s founding members. “But the way we express ourselves, and the feel of our service, is very uniquely Australian – and even Israeli in some ways.”

The Israeli inspiration, he says, comes from Nava Tehila, a Jerusalem-based congregation that served as a model for Kolenu. The prayer service at Nava Tehila, which is affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement, also incorporates a lot of guitars, drums and singing, and many of the melodies sung at Kolenu were written by members of this Jerusalem synagogue. But unlike its Kolenu counterpart, the Nava Tehila prayer book does not omit the name of God. And at Nava Tehila, unlike Kolenu, there is a rabbi in charge.

Where Kolenu differs, perhaps, from most other Humanistic congregations worldwide is in its heavy emphasis on music and singing, and in the fact that its services are held entirely in Hebrew (transliterated prayer books are available for non-Hebrew readers).

Melbourne is the biggest Jewish city in Australia and while it has many shuls, most are Orthodox. By providing another non-Orthodox alternative for services, Kolenu has also contributed a bit to shifting the denominational balance in the Shtetl on the Yarra.

Kolenu co-founder Ashley Densham. “On an ideological level, we have much in common with the Humanistic Judaism movement that came out of America, because we also believe that Judaism can exist without God.”Credit: Judy Maltz

With one voice

Kolenu was established 10 years ago this month by a group of alumni of Habonim Dror – the international socialist-Zionist youth movement long popular in Australia. All in their early twenties at the time, these former youth movement activists were looking for practical ways to express themselves as cultural and secular Jews.

“We decided to start with a Kabbalat Shabbat service that would be very musical, entirely in Hebrew, but not focused on God,” relays Densham, 30, whose older brother Aaron was also part of the founding group.

For the first few years, they rotated between different friends’ homes before eventually moving to the SKIF clubhouse, which can accommodate up to 120 people. But that was not big enough for the huge crowds that started showing up for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. And so, during this high season of the year, Kolenu would move its services to the much larger Habonim Dror clubhouse.

Kolenu means “our voice” and, as Densham notes, it was a name that fit well with the musical focus of the congregation. “We thought it very much represented us because we all sing with one voice together, and we wanted to attract members who were interested not in just sitting and observing, but in actively adding their voices.”

In the first few years of its existence, Kolenu would draw about 30 to 50 people for its Friday night services, mainly young adults in their early twenties, fresh out of the youth movement. After it moved to the SKIF clubhouse, the crowds started getting much bigger. No longer just young singles, many families with young children began showing up, often bringing grandma and grandpa along with them too. And the Habonim Dror crowd was soon joined by graduates of the other big non-Orthodox youth movements in Australia, like SKIF (whose members already knew the building inside out) and Netzer, the Reform movement youth movement.

When asked why the services are held exclusively in Hebrew, Densham explains: “Our feeling was that if we’re culturally Jewish, we have to be singing and reading in Jewish languages. Interestingly, now that we have more Bundist participation, a question we may have to answer in the future is: Do we want to include more Yiddish songs?”

The congregation has about 300 dues-paying members (“We encourage but don’t force people to pay dues,” Densham says), and before COVID, close to 120 people regularly showed up for the Friday evening services – which is quite high on average for Melbourne. (The congregation does not hold a Shabbat morning service.)

Among those present at the recent Kabbalat Shabbat attended by the French interfaith group was Havi Rubinstein, her husband and two boys. Rubinstein, who grew up in an Orthodox home affiliated to the Chabad outreach movement, began attending services at Kolenu about three years ago. That followed a long period in which she didn’t go to shul at all.

“Like many people who leave the Orthodox world, I had a period of apathy toward Judaism, and the idea of going to shul just didn’t appeal to me,” says the 45-year-old pharmacist. “Some friends from my new social network introduced me to Kolenu, and I instantly fell in love.”

The fact that there is hardly any mention of God in the prayer book was actually a plus for her, says Rubinstein. “Having grown up Orthodox, I’m one of those rare people who actually understands the meaning of the prayers I’m reciting, and it got to the point where I couldn’t say them anymore because I didn’t believe in what I was saying,” she explains.

“What drew me to Kolenu was that they adapted the prayers in such a way that I can say the words that actually align with what I think and feel, and I can feel that I’m being intellectually honest when I recite them,” she adds.

Leah Justin, who was also at the service, joined Kolenu about five years ago after hearing about it from her children. Her grandson, now 18, was the first child to have a bar mitzvah there.

Growing up, Justin attended an Orthodox synagogue in Melbourne, even though her family wasn’t overly observant. “At one point, I told my mom that I couldn’t do this anymore and that it was meaningless to me,” she recounts.

Still, she wasn’t completely prepared for how different things would be at Kolenu. “The first time I attended services and saw that God’s name had been removed from the siddur, it was shocking,” she says. “But I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the text that it very quickly didn’t bother me at all.”

Board member Alice Chipkin is a relatively recent transplant to Melbourne, having grown up in Sydney. “As a young adult, whenever I’d visit friends in Melbourne I’d make sure to attend Kabbalat Shabbat services at Kolenu because that was always a highlight,” says the 30-year-old high school teacher.

Chipkin, who was active in Netzer as a teenager, says her family “straddled multiple streams of Judaism at different points.” Her mother, a Jew by choice, initially converted through the Reform movement. She subsequently underwent a second conversion, this time along with her children, through the Orthodox movement. Chipkin has moved around Australia quite a bit over the years, but says she takes her Kolenu siddur with her wherever she goes.

“Kolenu is for me the alignment of all my values and desire to be in a place of a deep and meaningful Jewish connection,” she says.

Congregants at a Kolenu Kabbalat Shabbat service last month.Credit: Judy Maltz

Alternative prayer

Aside for a few staples, like “Lecha Dodi” and “Yedid Nefesh,” the Kabbalat Shabbat service at Kolenu switches up every week with a different medley of songs. “We think it’s more fun that way,” Densham says.

It also includes a prayer for the State of Israel – but one very different from that commonly recited in synagogues around the world, and not only because it omits God’s name. Written specifically for this progressive-minded congregation, it says: “May the State of Israel be a worthy instrument for providing all of its inhabitants with a good life. May it be a place where love, friendship and fraternity prevail, and where hostility, hatred and jealousy are no more. May it be filled with serenity, tranquility, peace and prosperity, and may it always be a Light Unto the Nations, fully actualizing the vision of its founders, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence.”

Because Kolenu is not bound by religious restrictions, unlike many of the Orthodox shuls in town, it had no problem moving its services to Zoom during the pandemic.

“We reached a lot of people who wouldn’t have been able to attend our services before,” says Densham. “I’m talking not only about people in Sydney and Perth, but also people as far away as Israel and the United States.” Last year’s online Yom Kippur service, he boasts, had more than 1,000 participants.

In February, following a two-year hiatus, Kolenu began holding in-person services once again, initially in the backyard of Densham’s parents. When the weather started getting cooler a few months ago, the congregation moved back to the SKIF clubhouse.

While the numbers aren’t yet back to what they used to be pre-COVID, the service attended by the French interfaith group was the biggest since they moved indoors with more than 100 participants.

Densham is already starting to worry whether the space they use for the High Holy Days will suffice this year. “Our problem is that it can only accommodate 750 people,” he says. “That’s the number of people we had the Yom Kippur before COVID, which was a record. Our assumption is that we’ll have even more this year. So, we may have no choice but to hold two separate services or back-to-back service.”

Such are the concerns these days of a founding father of Melbourne’s hopping atheist shul.

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