The new Orthodox synagogue recently opened on Manhattan's Upper East Side is perceived as a threat to the seniority and status of the larger, more established synagogues in the area.
"I set up this synagogue for those who don't belong," says the new rabbi on the block, Marc Schneier, who has opened the doors to Reform worshipers and is aiming to attract Manhattan's Jewish singles' community.
Above all, the rabbis and gabbais (sextons) fear the competition for the souls (and pockets) of Manhattan's East Side Jews, especially those dubbed as "non-aligned." The overwhelming majority of these are young people who are not synagogue members and keep away from the Jewish establishment. This fear has triggered a mutual mud-slinging battle between the two sides. What complicates things further is that one of the oldest synagogues in the area is headed by Schneier's father.
"For the first time in 50 years, a new Ashkenazi synagogue has opened here," says a functionary in a Jewish community center in Manhattan. "Instead of being happy, the rabbis and gabbais are eaten up by jealousy."
"I wouldn't have believed that Jews who lay tefillin could be capable of such a crude fight," says a local rabbi.
"On my way to my new synagogue on Saturday, I run into worshipers, including rabbis and gabbais, walking to the old synagogues, and their furious looks and threats simply scare me," says Rabbi Marc Schneier. "Fortunately, the local media have not yet become aware of the synagogue war in Manhattan," he adds.
The New York Times recently published an in-depth piece about what has happened to the large synagogues that once thrived in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Following the mass emigration of Jews from these boroughs, the newspaper reports, some of the synagogues were converted into churches and others became community centers, run by non-Jewish welfare organizations.
But two new Orthodox synagogues have recently opened in the exclusive area of the fifties and sixties in East Manhattan. Last Hanukkah a Sephardi Orthodox synagogue, built by Lily Safra to honor her late husband, wth an investment of millions of dollars, was inaugurated. This Sephardi synagogue is not considered a threat to the old Ashkenazi congregations. But the opening of an Ashkenazi synagogue in the area has disrupted the calm.
A `non-Jewish' act
The new New York Synagogue started operating about three months ago in a rented hall near the corner of 58th Street and Park Avenue - a junction of prestigious boutiques, luxury office buildings and apartments of Manhattan's elite. Rumor had it that hundreds of worshipers, mostly young people, crowd the synagogue on Sabbath eves and Saturday mornings. The heads of the two large Orthodox synagogues, Ateret Zvi and Zichron Efraim, better known as Park East Synagogue, did not like these rumors, especially the reports of prayers accompanied by a superb cantor and choir. These are the two synagogues of Manhattan's Orthodox elite, but apart from Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and festivals, attendance is sparse.
"On Sabbath eve sometimes we have no more than two minyans," admitted a former president of one of the two synagogues. "A little more come on Saturday morning."
Rabbis we spoke to say the Park East Synagogue stands to lose the most from the new synagogue's activity. Established in 1890, this was the first Orthodox Synagogue in North America with an English-speaking rabbi. Today it is considered one of the most prestigious synagogues in the United States, boasting 600 member families. Arthur Schneier, Park East Synagogue's rabbi for more than 40 years, is Marc Schneier's father. The relations between father and son are tense. Rabbis say Arthur Schneier's calm reaction to his son's initiative is merely a facade. In private conversations, he reportedly speaks of it with anger and feels hurt and threatened.
Members of the Ateret Zvi Synagogue complain that Marc Schneier committed a grave and "non Jewish" act. He should not have set up an additional place of prayer near our synagogue, some say. Ateret Zvi was established in 1958 in an especially prestigious location, on East 62nd Street, near Fifth Avenue. Its regular worshipers include writer Eli Weisel and it has won a reputation for its cantor, Yosef Malovany, who is considered one of the best in the world. A few weeks ago, Ya'akov Karmeyer, a graduate of Yeshiva University who served a few years as rabbi in Hong Kong, was appointed Ateret Zvi's rabbi.
"Just when the young new rabbi is planning special programs to attract young people to his synagogue, the new synagogue opens, competing for the same public," complains a veteran Ateret Zvi member. Rabbis accuse Schneier of trespassing. A known Manhattan rabbi who asked to remain anonymous said "if I were in his shoes, I'd open the synagogue further away from the old synagogues."
In an effort to block the Sabbath throng to the new synagogue, rabbis and heads of the veteran synagogues have come out with a grave charge against the new one. "Many of those who come to pray there are Reform Jews, and Jews who do not observe the Sabbath," an old functionary said. "Schneier himself does not observe prayer regulations customary to Orthodox synagogues. He talks to the worshipers and gives instructions in the midst of prayer sessions in which talking is forbidden, like during the Shma and before the Amida prayer.' I question his title as an Orthodox rabbi," he says.
Marc Schneier sees no reason to apologize for taking in Reform worshipers. "Even my old synagogue in Long Island had Reform worshipers, and I'm proud of the fact that an Orthodox synagogue can attract them," he says. Schneier reminds those who question his qualifications as an Orthodox rabbi that he was ordained by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, regarded as the leader of the modern Orthodox movement in America.
Religious pundits also criticize Marc Schneier's ways of attracting worshipers. For example, he offeres them free Sabbath eve dinners after prayers in the synagogue. Schneier is proud that "in a recent Sabbath more than 200 young people came to dinner." He explains that in his view, an Orthodox synagogue also has a social function.
Marc Schneier has already proved his capability in establishing the prestigious Orthodox Hampton Synagogue in the Hamptons on Long Island. Today Hampton Synagogue is considered one of the largest, most active congregations in North America. Schneier says he intends to raise millions of dollars to build a permanent building for the Manhattan synagogue, not far from the temporary site, and turn it into a spiritual center.
Schneier says he opened New York Synagogue following requests from worshipers in Hampton Synagogue, many of whom live in Manhattan during the winter months. He says more than 200 worshipers come to prayers on Friday night and on Saturday morning more than 300. His main target audience consists of Manhattan Jews who do not visit synagogues regularly, especially the singles, so there is no competition with the old synagogues.
Marc Schneier, who has served as president of the New York Board of Rabbis, says that according to the Jewish Federations' census, 68 percent of Manhattan's 250,000 Jews are single. He estimates that less than 40,000 of Manhattan's Jewish residents are registered as active synagogue members. "And those who do not belong are the public for whom I set up the new synagogue," he says.
Cantor Israel Rand conducts the Sabbath prayers in the new synagogue, accompanied by a six-man choir, conducted by Yitzhak Chaimof. "This is the only Orthodox synagogue in New York in which a cantor accompanied by a choir passes the ark regularly," says Schneier.
Saul Trau, a religious functionary from the Upper East Side and former president of Ateret Zvi, prayed in the new synagogue one Saturday and says he was favorably impressed by the prayer and way it was held. "There really were hundreds of worshipers there," he reports. In his opinion, as long as the synagogue is new, it provides the best show in town. But in the long term, the novelty will wear off, and the threat will be removed from the old synagogues.
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