Saturday, February 2, 2013

"A SoHo Synagogue Exports Its Own Brand of Jewish Outreach"

By The doorbell kept buzzing at Heather and Teddy Karatz’s art-filled loft on Bond Street in Lower Manhattan on a recent Wednesday night, admitting a stream of stylishly dressed young Jewish professionals: financiers and investors, designers and artists. The crowd nibbled at sliders and salad, chatting about the relative merits of trading commodities or distressed real estate, and comparing their day’s exercise as displayed on their Nike FuelBands. 
Then an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, dressed unexpectedly in a tight black shirt and ripped jeans, called the group, part of the Soho Synagogue, to attention. “Turn off your ringers, and turn on your hearts,” said the rabbi, Mendel Jacobson.  He began reciting, in the original Aramaic, a passage from the Babylonian Talmud about idol worship, translating each sentence into English. Some guests looked bored, others engrossed. 
Soho Synagogue first made headlines more than five years ago when it began hosting buzz-filled downtown parties without obvious religious content. Adding to the mystique of the events was the seeming paradox that these gatherings of attractive, secular young Jews were organized by a young Orthodox couple who had formally broken with the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, but who continued to identify personally with its teachings. Now older than many of their members, the synagogue’s leaders, Rabbi Dovi Scheiner, 36, and his wife Esty, 32, are trying to export what the couple calls the Soho Synagogue “brand” — its fusion of traditional Jewish practice with a modern urban aesthetic — to young distracted Jews in other cities. And, in New York, they are seeking to ramp up religious content, through biweekly Talmud gatherings at members’ lofts and more regular worship services. 
Saturday night marked the debut event of Soho Synagogue Los Angeles: a house party in the Hollywood Hills with a view over the city. There was a D.J. and two open bars, and a crowd flush with actors, filmmakers and others from the entertainment industry, many of whom described themselves as “cultural” or “High Holiday” Jews. The event, news of which spread through word of mouth and private invitation, was free. 
The Scheiners have already hosted several parties in Miami, and want to start similar gatherings in Chicago, the Hamptons, London, Paris, San Francisco, Tel Aviv and Toronto over the next three years. Over time, they plan to layer in Jewish programming, encouraging young Jews in those cities to take the lead in organizing, and if the need arises, helping them to hire their own rabbis. 
“The greater dream which is really exciting,” Rabbi Scheiner said, “is not 10 communities, but a unified global community, so that this sort of diaspora becomes unified through an experience.” 
If the idea of setting up a global network to help Jews reconnect to their tradition sounds familiar, it should. The Lubavitch Chabad Hasidic movement, based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, runs a kind of religious foreign service that sends ambitious young couples around the world to start up satellite congregations and kick-start Jewish life. 
In their own way, that is what the Scheiners are still doing. Raised in the Lubavitch tradition and married in Brooklyn on Sept. 11, 2001, in sight of the smoke from the collapsed World Trade Center, they longed to work in Lower Manhattan to spread Jewish life there. But the Lubavitch rabbi assigned to the area let it be known there were no openings, they said.
After much angst, the couple decided to break out on their own, with the support of their families and a few advisers. “I stole a shlichus,” Rabbi Scheiner recalled telling one of his favorite yeshiva teachers, using the Lubavitch term for a Jewish outreach post. “And he said, ‘You stole it? They stole it!’ ” 
They started small, with Mrs. Scheiner baking challah and offering it to people in their building on Chambers Street. Within a few months, they had their first guest for Shabbat dinner. They listened as nonreligious Jews told stories about stifling Hebrew schools and uninspiring worship services that led to their alienation from the faith. The couple asked them how they could create something appealing and different. 
When the Soho Synagogue started in 2005, with its loft parties and signature cocktails, there was little else like it. Now, many organizations seek to use hip aesthetics to appeal to secular urban Jews in the years between college and marriage. Chabad, for example, started a dedicated ministry for young professionals with branches around the country. The rabbi in charge in Manhattan, Levi Shmotkin, hosts Friday dinners in his Chelsea loft, and events like “Torah With a Twist,” that blend gourmet cocktails with Torah learning. 
While Rabbi Scheiner and his wife remain Orthodox — they do not shake hands with members of the opposite sex, for example — their synagogue is not affiliated with a denomination. In New York, men and women sit separately at their custom-built $20,000-a-month rented sanctuary on Crosby Street; women are allowed to speak at the start and end of services, but not to lead them. Food at the synagogue’s parties is kosher, but attire is anything goes; the trendy Web site — which contains no contact information — shows glamorous party shots of men and women socializing. 
There is no formal membership, and most events are free. At the Los Angeles house party, after introducing themselves as “Dovi and Esty,” they told the 50 guests that the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, or the “Jewish New Year of the Trees” was the other reason for the night’s celebration. Then they passed around a traditional tray of grapes and pomegranates before the music kicked back in. 
“It seems fun,” said Arezoo Vatan, 35, one of the guests, who said she came for purely social reasons. “It’s casual. Everyone is mingling.” She very seldom goes to synagogue, she added, but “it would be nice to be part of a Jewish organization where we could actually meet more Jewish people who are more on our level of Judaism.” 
As the organization moves from parties to more religious events, the Scheiners are still grappling with, and acknowledge that they may face pushback over, issues like the role of women, the couple believes. But so far, Rabbi Scheiner said, the secular Jews they appeal to seem to be accepting their mix of traditional and modern. 
“We are not saying, why do you have a phone in your pocket, why after services are you going to Balthazar or why are you dating a non-Jewish person?” he said. “It’s not my place. We are here to inspire them and open up their eyes and enable them to reconnect and to grow.” 
Ian Lovett contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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