NEW YORK – Some might say a retail location on a trendy block in SoHo, across
the street from the downtown branch of Bloomingdale’s, is an unlikely location
for a new synagogue. But its leader, Dovi Scheiner, can’t think of a place more
appropriate for a congregation that will be predominantly young, hip – and
unlikely to go to synagogue anywhere else.
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The SoHo Synagogue, which will
have its inaugural service Friday and a party to celebrate its opening on June
12, is the first synagogue to open in the neighborhood in almost 100 years (a
Spanish- Portuguese synagogue once had a location on Crosby Street in the early
Its opening is a slap in the face to more conventional
models of synagogues and congregation-building.
Indeed, it styles itself
deliberately as representing “a fresh vision for translating the inspiration of
Judaism for a new generation,” said Scheiner.
It’s an unusual
congregation that goes against the demographic tides: The vast majority of the
synagogue’s donors are single Jews in their 20s and 30s who are “typically not
committed to anything,” Scheiner added.
Attendees at the group’s High
Holy Day services in various locations over the past few years have numbered
between 500 and 1,000.
The young participants – not to be called
“members,” as in traditional synagogue parlance, Scheiner is quick to state –
are mostly secular Jews or Jews who were raised traditionally but whose
observance has lapsed. Membership, Scheiner says, implies
“We want people to feel comfortable, regardless of whether
or not they give money,” he said. “Membership brings a sense of complacency,
rights and entitlements. We want a sense of ownership – it’s more about
The building’s construction comes from fundraising among
this group, rather than backing from wealthy philanthropists or Jewish
“That to me says Am Yisrael chai” [the people of Israel
lives], Scheiner said, while acknowledging that raising the money was an “uphill
Now, he added, the synagogue was a year or two away from being
fully financially stable.
“It’s completely counterintuitive,” Scheiner
said. “It’s an unbelievable message about the continuity of Jewish life. This is
a generation of Jews that has been alienated from institutional Judaism. They
find the grandiose synagogues of old irrelevant and uninspiring.”
me something that’s personally relevant, in a Jewish sense, and I’ll stay,” said
Ben Jablonski, a young donor to the synagogue, of his first thoughts in
connecting with the community. Jablonski moved to New York from Australia in
2006 and found a community of like-minded people among the group of SoHo
“This is a concept that speaks to me,” he
Jablonski is a good fit for Scheiner’s vision of a
“post-denominational” community, said the synagogue leader, who set out to
create a community of young Jews with “no parental supervision.”
synagogue itself reflects both spiritual and social priorities.
there is a traditional prayer space with a mechitzah (a barrier separating men
from women), the collapsible chairs have artwork on the back, and the upstairs
area includes not only Torah texts, but glassware and bottles.
the attendees are “far to the left” of traditional Judaism, Scheiner said.
Nevertheless, he hasn’t encountered much opposition to traditional
Upstairs, Scheiner and his family have an office and an
apartment, where social gatherings will be held. Prior to the building’s
construction, the group met in various apartments and other venues and hosted
parties to raise funds for the space.
“Services were tough without the
infrastructure,” Jablonski said, “but the demand was always
Friday night services, held irregularly in various venues,
attracted 50 to 80 people each time.
Scheiner wants his services to be
instructional, without being pedantic.
“Word of mouth pulls people in,
and I’m committed not to lose them,” he said.
With a proper facility, the
synagogue can now focus on adult education, with educational dinners featuring
discussions of elements of Judaism and Torah.
“No one wants to leave,”
Jablonski said of previous events. “You usually close out a bar, not a
Even the architecture of the new space – a former retail location
that has been stripped down to the bare brick on its walls, and opened up to
outdoor light – deliberately reaches for the unconventional.
virtually unrecognizable, from the outside, as a synagogue,” Scheiner
Architect Dror Benshetrit said he thought Scheiner “was crazy at
“It’s crazy, to take a retail space in the middle of a prime SoHo
location and open a synagogue,” Benshetrit recalled thinking. “But he seemed so
confident, and knew what he was doing. He was sure this thing would work, and I
told myself, I’ve never seen someone so determined. Usually it’s me trying to
convince my client to do something unusual, and they’re the ones who hold the
calculator and are afraid.”
Scheiner told Benshetrit he didn’t want “just
a synagogue,” but rather, Benshetrit recalled, he wanted to “challenge what a
sanctuary is – to create something that can transform and change.”
result, each element of the architecture holds significance.
designed an aron kodesh that is a perfect circle: “such a powerful visual of
eternity and the source of life.”
The design of the space, Scheiner said,
exemplifies its ethos.
“We wanted to be revolutionary. You think a
synagogue has to be a certain way – but it doesn’t,” he said.