Dozens of men and women were milling around in the lobby of the Jewish Community Center on the upper West Side, dressed in everything from faded jeans to smart tweeds - everything, in fact, but the distinctive black hats, dark suits, tassels and side curls of the ultra-Orthodox.
The absence of anyone from the sect was one of the ironies of a conference that began Wednesday night and ends tonight, because it was devoted to a greater understanding and appreciation of the most religiously strict of all Jews, the Hasidim, "the pious ones."
"You say 'Hasidim' to most Jews," said Rabbi Shaul Magid, associate professor of Jewish philosophy at Jewish Theological Seminary, "and they think of the black hats, mysticism, beards, rebbes and Brooklyn."
But to many other Jews, he said, the Hasidic movement, which traces its roots to the mid-18th century in Poland, is becoming increasingly popular and influential for its literature, music, meditations and ecstatic devotional life.
This has given rise to a variation called neo-Hasidim, which was the theme of every workshop, seminar, report and concert at the community center conference.
"It does not mean Hasidim lite," said Nancy Flam, a Reform movement rabbi and director of the Spirituality Institute based in Northampton, Mass. "It means adapting the beauty and wisdom of Hasidic texts, to explore them for the benefit of all Jewish people."
This was what attracted about 200 rabbis, cantors, educators and others to the center to hear discussions on the role of Hasidic rebbes, music and stories in worship. There was a presentation on the place of food in Hasidism, and one on cabala, the esoteric philosophy developed by rabbis and embraced by many so-called New Age Jews.
'This is not really new stuff," said Magid, who was ordained an Orthodox rabbi but serves as spiritual leader of a Conservative congregation, the Fire Island Synagogue, in Sea View, L.I., which is open only during the summer. "Neo-Hasidism has been building slowly since the '70s and in the past decade has really caught fire."
Its appeal, he said, is to Jews who grew up interested in alternative and artistic ways to celebrate their spirituality. "Many admire the ecstasy and mysticism, even communal life, of the Hasidim," he added, "but that doesn't mean they're ready to move to Eastern Parkway." The street, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is the site of the world headquarters of the Lubavitch movement, the largest of dozens of dynastic Hasidic sects.
The conference was sponsored by the Spirituality Institute and a coalition of New York agencies that included the Institute for Advanced Theology at Bard College, the UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Community Center. Despite a $245-per-head price, it sold out so quickly that more than 100 people were turned away.
"These are people who want to discover and explore the world of Hasidic spirituality and apply it to their lives," said Flam, who grew up in Los Angeles but was ordained in New York by Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary in the West Village.
Among the people who have adapted elements of Hasidism to their own spirituality is Rabbi Michael Paley, a UJA-Federation executive and former chaplain at Columbia University who was a panelist at a session on contemporary neo-Hasidic ethics.
"My meditations and prayers and the way I read texts are influenced by what I've learned from Hasidim," he said. "This is happening in a lot of synagogues."
Paley called this part of a return to traditions and rituals that had been shed by early-20th century Jewish immigrants eager to blend into American culture. "Now," he said, "we need the spiritual, mystical revival that Hasidism represents."
As for the absence of the ultra-Orthodox at the conference, Paley said it was not a deliberate snub. "This is just not their kind of thing," he said.
For Magid, the conference was a chance for religious and institutional leaders to compare notes about a phenomenon that he said has attracted the interest of many Jews who earlier embraced other alternatives in worship, art, medicine and lifestyle.
And, he said, the search for new meaning in old rituals is not limited to Judaism.
"The revival of interest in Gregorian chants is one example," he said. "Another is the renewed interest in dervish dancing, and not just among Sufis [the most mystical sect of Islam]. So, no, we are not alone. We are all seeking new meanings and expressions in the old traditions and teachings."