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Synagogue, and ‘Spiritual Starbucks’

To find the 10th man for a minyan, the quorum required in Orthodox Jewish services, some rabbis on the Lower East Side of Manhattan have been known in recent years to step into the street and stop passers-by. Are you Jewish? they ask.

It is a troubling notion for the remaining Jewish population of a neighborhood that in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the American portal for Jewish immigrants — hundreds of synagogues once thrived there — and where now a few dozen synagogues struggle in a place jammed with Indian and Thai restaurants and secular-minded young people.

So if there is trepidation among the older members of the weather-worn Community Synagogue on East Sixth Street about the changes coming with the start of the High Holy Days this week, it is leavened with a sense of forbearance in the absence of alternatives.

Starting this evening with Rosh Hashana services, Rabbi Simon Jacobson, a Lubavitcher rabbi from Crown Heights and founder of the Meaningful Life Center — a project known for blending religious teaching with tai chi, introductory kabbalah and Hasidic rap — will become a kind of Jewish mystic-in-residence at the traditional, Orthodox Community Synagogue.

Inspired by the movement known as Chabad, a Hasidic sect with a missionary tradition around the world, Rabbi Jacobson said he would offer his programs — which until now he has operated on an itinerant basis around the city — at the Sixth Street synagogue in hopes of creating “a spiritual Starbucks.”

The plan is to attract people, regardless of their faith, from all over the city, he said. But the goal is to restore Jewish identity to those estranged from Judaism and, if possible, to add them to the membership rolls of Community Synagogue.

Like many Lubavitchers, Rabbi Jacobson embodies a paradoxical mix of strictly conservative theology and a freewheeling, nonjudgmental hipster style. He is partial to drum circles. He is friendly with the Hasidic reggae-rap-klezmer artist known as Matisyahu.

Of course, this is not everyone’s cup of tea.

“Is there tension because we love things the way they are and he wants to make everything completely different?” asked Ruth Greenberg, 90, a member of the congregation, which had about 250 members when she joined in 1950 and now counts not quite 100. “Not at all, not at all. We may not like each other, but that doesn’t mean there’s tension.”

The realities are unmistakable. The building needs work. The pews and the pipes date from the mid-19th century, when the place was built as St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (which effectively died on June 15, 1904, along with about 1,000 of its parishioners, in a fire aboard the steamship General Slocum, en route to a church picnic). The roof leaks.

Aside from the higher religious imperative of sustaining the faith, the collaboration with the Meaningful Life Center represents a new source of income for the synagogue. In lieu of rent, receipts from all the classes and events that Rabbi Jacobson arranges — including workshops on relationships, mysticism, reincarnation and one he calls “the kabbalah of cooking” — will be split between the center and the temple.

“We want to keep this congregation alive,” said Brenda Pace, a former president of the synagogue, who is in her late 60s. “If we need the help of outsiders to do that, so be it.”

Community’s full-time rabbi, Charlie Buckholtz, will continue to lead the congregation. He has never had to struggle to make a minyan. Most Saturdays in the sanctuary, which holds up to 700 people, there are at least 20 or 30 men and about the same number of women, divided by a decorative partition.

But he describes the charismatic Rabbi Jacobson as a perfect fit for a neighborhood that has evolved from Jewish to Beat to Flower Child to Loisaida Squatter to a mix of all of the above, plus an influx of young professionals, including many who are secular Jews.

“This area used to be a place with a deli or a shul on every corner,” he said. “There are lots of young, unaffiliated Jews living here. They just do not go to synagogue.” In terms of Jewish practice, he added, “It is a kind of tundra, and we are trying to figure out how to resettle it.”

The partnership of the Lubavitchers’ outreach tradition with more conventional synagogues like Community has invigorated several declining congregations around the country, said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

Continue reading article on The New York Times…

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