New SoHo synagogue courts young, hip Jews

Inaugural service scheduled for unconventional community of secular Jews; marks first new synagogue in NY neighborhood in a century.

Soho Synagogue 311 (photo credit: Courtesy SoHo Synagogue)
Soho Synagogue 311
(photo credit: Courtesy SoHo Synagogue)
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.
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 20th century).
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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 calcification.
“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 empowerment.”
The building’s construction comes from fundraising among this group, rather than backing from wealthy philanthropists or Jewish institutions.
“That to me says Am Yisrael chai” [the people of Israel lives], Scheiner said, while acknowledging that raising the money was an “uphill slog.”
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.”
“Show 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 Synagogue adherents.
“This is a concept that speaks to me,” he said.
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.”
The synagogue itself reflects both spiritual and social priorities.
Although 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.
Most of the attendees are “far to the left” of traditional Judaism, Scheiner said. Nevertheless, he hasn’t encountered much opposition to traditional observance.
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 there.”
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 shul.”
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.
“It’s virtually unrecognizable, from the outside, as a synagogue,” Scheiner said.
Architect Dror Benshetrit said he thought Scheiner “was crazy at first.”
“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.”
As a result, each element of the architecture holds significance.
Benshetrit 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.