SoHo social.
Thursday night at a Soho social. Photo by Dan Keinan
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Dan Keinan
SoHo synagogue. Someone said the previous tenant in the building - how symbolic - was a Gucci store. Photo by Dan Keinan

SoHo, NEW YORK - It's Thursday at 10 P.M. About 200 men and women in their 20s and 30s are gathered around, with a song by the Black Eyed Peas playing in the background. The women are wearing fashionable dresses, some of them quite revealing. A few of the men wear suits, others are in sports jackets and some are in jeans. The people in the crowd mingle, sipping vodka and soft drinks; there are lots of hugs and kisses. A few try to strike up a conversation with someone of the opposite sex. The atmosphere is liberated, although sometimes there is tension in the air. And so it goes, until midnight.

While the atmosphere is undoubtedly like that of a nightclub or bar, this is neither: It is the only synagogue in SoHo (i.e., in the part of Manhattan south of Houston Street ) - simply named the SoHo Synagogue. The New York Post wrote recently that the synagogue, which just opened in June, is the hottest thing that's happened to the Jews since model Bar Refaeli appeared as the cover girl of the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated. And others share the opinion of the Post.

"Summer Night Party" is the name of the gathering, but Rabbi Dovi Scheiner, who has organized it along with his wife Esty, doesn't conceal their secondary goal: matchmaking. Indeed, they organize such encounters every month, and their main aim is to bring the young people of SoHo and downtown Manhattan closer to their Judaism. Their synagogue has a somewhat Modern Orthodox atmosphere, but apparently attracts more Reform and Conservative Jews.

One can see many similarities to a club or private cocktail party at this Thursday night event. At the synagogue's entrance stands an attractive young woman checking the names of those who enter against a list, just like at a bar. Inside, everything is bustling. The very unusual holy ark is wide open. Where is the Torah scroll, I ask Scheiner, who has been an Orthodox rabbi for 15 years, after being ordained by Chabad Rabbi Yitzchak Yehudah Yaroslavsky in Kiryat Malakhi.

"We thought that at an event of this kind there's no place for a Torah, so we removed it and left the ark open so everyone would see that," he replies.

This is a Manhattan crowd. Among them is national poker champion Andy Frankenberger. He is wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball shirt - not exactly fashionable in a city like New York, with its Yankees fans.

"What can you do?" laughs Frankenberger. "I'm originally from Massachusetts and I'm a Red Sox fan. I don't think anyone will mess with me."

So are you a professional poker player, I ask him. Is that what you do? "Yes," he replies, "and it's a lucrative profession." (According to Wikipedia he won a million dollars on August 1. ) "I used to work as a derivatives trader at J.P. Morgan and I got tired of it," he adds. "I started playing poker, I loved it and was very successful."

Asked what he's doing at Soho Synagogue, Frankenberger says: "I come here for events but sometimes for services, too. There's a very good balance here between prayers and social activities."

Melissa Kronfeld is wearing a gold sequined dress, and is full of energy. During the day she works with nongovernment organizations on behalf of Israeli-American businessman David Avital, who is involved in real estate among other things. Avital also promotes left-wing causes and, for example, supports the Seeds of Peace coexistence organization.

For her part, Kronfeld used to be a reporter for The New York Post and now writes for the Daily Cool website. Recently she organized a conference on security cooperation between the United States and Israel at the Harvard Club in New York. She thinks the synagogue is wonderful.

"This is the place where you'll find young Jews who have nowhere to go," she explains. "Our parents' synagogues don't suit us. Dovi and Esty inspire me. I go to services every Friday. My boyfriend is Catholic and he comes with me. He doesn't understand exactly what they're praying or saying, but he likes it. He is really moved by the synagogue. And when a Catholic feels that, comes back and feels stronger afterward - it says something. And as far as we Jews are concerned, when we're all together it gives us an impact. It gives an opportunity to young Jews here to feel okay, even if they aren't observant."

It's hard to hear people above the loud music. Among those present are Ari Ackerman, who started a successful Internet firm called Bunk1, which found - or created - an interesting niche: Summer camps all over the United States post photos of children on his company website, and parents pay to see them. This service is used by some 1,500 camps, according to Ackerman, who is the grandson of Israeli businessman Meshulam Riklis. Ackerman owns a huge, beautiful penthouse in downtown Manhattan and has hosted several synagogue events - one of them attended by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While Ackerman says he is also connected to the Modern Orthodox Kehillath Jeshurun synagogue on the Upper East Side and likes its rabbi, Haskel Lookstein, he notes that at the moment he lives downtown and the SoHo Synagogue is much more suitable to him, both because of its atmosphere and the crowd it attracts.

Earlier we had met Ackerman, who is in his late thirties, at home, where he has a photo of Grandpa Meshulam and Ariel Sharon at the farm of the former prime minister; it was taken three months before Sharon's stroke.

"Dovi, the rabbi, is very charismatic," he explains. "He has extraordinary marketing ability, he's a genius at 'selling' religion in the downtown area. At the synagogue get-togethers, you have a feeling you're at a club. At some cool party. There are lots of interesting people here. Hollywood producers, doctors, high-tech and fashion people, artists."

Soul and connections

Back at the Thursday night gathering, there is another Ari - Ari Goldberg, who has a social media firm with a website (styleCaster) designed mainly for women aged 18-34, focusing on "cool stuff" - clothes, but also relationships. He found several of his partners in the project among synagogue members, they raised $5 million and today, after three-and-a-half years, they have 25 employees.

Goldberg: "This synagogue is a good place - not only for the soul and for meeting other Jews, but for business connections, too. It's a very hip place. I don't like that the synagogue is portrayed as a nightclub, but this is a place with many successful and beautiful young people. So it's true that Dovi is a great marketer. In order to attract people to Judaism, you have to know how to market too."

There are many synagogues all over the city, but not here. People say that once, more than 200 years ago, there was a Spanish-Portuguese one here. Today Soho Synagogue, established in 2005, has about 1,000 members, although the concept of paying members doesn't exactly exist here. Instead, those frequenting the place are called "friends" and their names appear on an Internet mailing list; additional funding comes from donations from them and outside sources. Besides services, the synagogue organizes a number of events for the friends. One was held recently on the Intrepid aircraft carrier-cum-museum, a trendy place for classy events; another was at the famous Cipriani Wall Street Ballroom. At one event, Jewish hip-hop artist Matisyahu performed.

Asked what he thinks about being called a "cool" rabbi, Scheiner, 34 - who is simply dressed and wears a skullcap - says: "I really don't think in such terms. I'm a rabbi, and what I'm trying to do is to give a sense of what Judaism is to young people who most probably would never attend a synagogue. And also to create the conditions for Jewish men and women to meet, at a time when there are many intermarriages, and in a place where there was no synagogue in the past ... And if I have to wash the floor, I'm willing to do that in order to enable these people to be together."

As the synagogue's website (http://www.sohosynagogue.org/) puts it: "The SoHo Synagogue seeks to reinvent the synagogue as a relaxed and enjoyable setting for personal growth and communal connection."

It cost $650,000 to renovate the building in which the synagogue is located. The suppliers and contractors charged lower prices, says Scheiner, "otherwise we would have had to spend $1 million." In addition, the synagogue pays annual rent of $250,000; the money comes from its "friends." Moshe Lax, a businessman who deals in diamonds, is one of Soho Synagogue's major donors; other funders include billionaire investor Ira Rennert and well-known philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who supports the Birthright project.

'Divine providence'

Dovi Scheiner grew up in Boro Park in a Chabad family; his wife is from Crown Heights. Their wedding took place on September 11, 2001, he explains, "a very sad day. My wife and I believe in divine providence, and our conclusion was that this tragedy was related to our destiny. And so afterward, we were attracted to the community in southern Manhattan. We wanted to join the Chabad rabbis in the area, but they didn't want us."

The Scheiners' challenge was to build a congregation from the ground up. "We didn't have friends. We didn't know where to start. We didn't have money, we didn't have anything. Until one day we happened to meet Scott Kluge, and he opened the door for us," says Scheiner.

Kluge is a producer; among his efforts are the film "Hesher," starring Natalie Portman, and the play "All My Sons." Seven years ago, he met Scheiner and his wife at the popular Tribeca Film Festival. The rabbi told him he wanted to bring the young people of downtown Manhattan closer to Judaism. He had no synagogue and would invite people to his home for Friday night meals, but few came. Kluge suggested he invite and host people in his own home, and Dovi and Esty would bring the food.

"More and more people joined those dinners," Kluge explains. "Eventually it became very crowded and we had to create a waiting list. Incidentally, have you tasted Esty's food? She's a great cook ...

"Dovi is a smart man. He understands that young people downtown don't want to have a religious agenda pushed on them. He tells these guys: Do whatever you want. They don't feel threatened and that's how he connects to them. And this approach is genuine and honest. The synagogue in SoHo is a place where nobody will try to judge whether you're Jewish enough."

Still, it was slow going, at first. "We didn't have a physical place," says Scheiner. "We started a website and that's how we became a virtual synagogue. Over the years we had gatherings in private homes. More and more people joined us ... The idea of a virtual congregation may sound very progressive but it turns out that when it comes to religion you need a physical place. You can have a holiday party in a home or a rented place. But it's still not the same as a synagogue.

"For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we used to rent a space for prayers. In hindsight, though, we were in the right place at the right time: Downtown is a very anti-establishment place, and the fact that we didn't come with the 'brand' of a familiar institution actually helped us. So we created our own brand and were able to attract a congregation of hundreds of young people."

Soho Synagogue opened its doors in early June. A celebratory event took place at Capital, a bank that was turned into a successful banquet hall. About 1,000 people attended. At 11 P.M., with everyone dressed in white, a procession left the party and walked to the synagogue, a distance of seven blocks, with a police escort.

Subway map motif

The architecture of the SoHo Synagogue is impressive and modern: Herzliya-born Dror Benshetrit, 34, designed the premises; he has been working in New York for almost 10 years in product and fashion design, interior design and architecture. He has designed shoes for Puma, clothes for the Target chain - and 65 luxury housing units on an island in Abu Dhabi.

"I took everything I know about a synagogue and tried to rethink it," he says. "After all, we're located in a trendy place. Very modern, very New York, downtown, very young and meant for people who don't exactly go to synagogues. They're more likely to go to cocktail parties."

From the outside it's hard to tell what's behind the glass exterior. Except for the word "synagogue" that's written there, the building's facade is reminiscent of an elegant store; if you make an effort, you can see something that appears to be a prayer shawl motif. Inside the entrance is a space for receptions, with an attractive glass table and a brick wall. Someone tells us that the previous tenant in the building - how symbolic - was a Gucci store; the synagogue is in what was its basement.

Further inside is a beautiful hall, in which there is room for 100 seats or for 200 standees. The circular ark, mounted on the wall, has doors with a Star of David; when you open them, the two triangles separate. On both sides stand two dark blue armchairs, seats of "honor," which resemble the open tail feathers of a peacock. On the walls are paintings, another invention by Benshetrit, which can be turned into chairs if necessary. The decor includes the original brick walls, with the color scraped off. Very SoHo. Seven bricks in the shape of a menorah stand out from one wall. And in other place there is another menorah that reminds one of the way a New York subway map is drawn; the same is true of some of the lights. The floor is concrete, stained dark gray and black.

A 'hipster' congregation

Over 100 people gather in the synagogue for a recent Shabbat evening service. Most are elegantly dressed. Men are asked to sit separately from women; some raise an eyebrow at this demand, but do as they are told. The prayers seem to be in an Orthodox style, with some familiar melodies, although Scheiner has taken his congregants into consideration by creating an abbreviated service.

"My feeling," says Scheiner, "is that about half the members don't necessarily want to attend services. There's a quarter who expect it and another quarter who are quite neutral."

Who are your congregants?

Scheiner: "In the media they've been described as a 'hipster' congregation. I don't think that's accurate. What you see here is a congregation in their 20s and 30s. About 20 percent are native New Yorkers, about half live in the city but come from other states, and the rest are people born outside the United States. Our people are highly educated and very ambitious. They are the dreamers who came here to make it big. They work hard in order to make a lot of money. Some describe them as yuppies. That's an outdated but quite accurate description."

After some thought, Scheiner adds: "Our people are in a good place in their lives. Other synagogues attract young people ... who need support. And that's fine. Here we have people who are usually in a very good way, professionally - in a situation of ascent and growth."

So why do they come?

"They aren't religious. Their parents may have attended a Reform or Conservative synagogue. Most of them didn't have a good experience with the Hebrew school where they studied for a few hours a week to prepare for their bar mitzvahs. Now they're alone in the city, trying to fulfill a dream, and want to connect to Jews. Their first reason for coming here is to meet a partner. A second reason: They seek a sense of community and belonging. And a third reason: spirituality."

Scheiner continues: "We are trying to deal with a problem that people don't talk about much. I think that our religion is fine; the problem today is with the leaders, the teachers and rabbis. Many rabbis work without inspiration and don't put the values of Judaism in [the right] context. It's not that there are no great rabbis or great leaders. But they have lost the connection with the younger generation by not providing inspiration, not showing the beauty in Judaism."

So what do you do?

"We take a young person who says to himself, I'm a modern person in a modern world, and Judaism doesn't suit this world, and we ... succeed in inspiring enthusiasm. That doesn't mean they have to put on phylacteries in the morning. It's enough for me if they show up at a party or a social event. Maybe they won't come to Rosh Hashanah service, but they'll come to a party in a gallery or to a barbecue. It's even possible that that's as far as they'll get with their Judaism. That's the person we're aiming at. I have no problem with that. The only agenda I have is that they be part of a community. For me - dayeinu [that's sufficient]. If we are able to influence 300 to 500 people who without us would have no connection to Judaism or Jews - then we've done our job."

Your prayers sound Orthodox.

"I don't like those definitions. You attended a service. Was it Orthodox? It's so abbreviated that it's doubtful whether Orthodox people would feel comfortable with it. We maintain traditional standards but we aren't Orthodox. An Orthodox person wouldn't feel comfortable here. A Reform or Conservative Jew is likely to feel more comfortable. If we were Orthodox we wouldn't pray in English and skip parts of the service. What we have here is fusion. I prefer to describe myself as post-denominational."

And what about music? I doubt if you can connect to this congregation without music.

"We're constantly trying to think of solutions. There won't be instruments but there may be an a cappella choir.

The Thursday night party at the synagogue is at its height now. Menahem Sanderowicz and Henry Stimler are mingling, hoping especially to meet women. I had previously met Sanderowicz at an upscale cafe near Fifth Avenue. He uses the cafe as an office and is successfully teaching Hebrew to the Romanian waiter. It was Sanderowicz who told me about the so-called coolest synagogue in New York. He also told me about a project he is starting with Stimler: the "sexiest kosher restaurant in the world." He says $2.5 million will be invested in it and it will be called Jezebel: "It's a biblical name, but as opposed to the usual situation in the Bible, Jezebel wasn't a serious woman. She was mischievous and knew how to enjoy life."

Jezebel will be located on West Broadway in SoHo, a very chic and expensive area, three blocks from the synagogue. "The kosher restaurants in New York are still in the dark ages. We'll do for kosher food what Cipriani did for Italian food and Novo for Asian food," Sanderowicz says, referring to two famous Manhattan eateries.

Sanderowicz is from a family of diamond dealers from Antwerp; he studied in the yeshiva in Gush Etzion, and defines himself as Orthodox, but also "cool." "Today's synagogues are boring," he says. "They don't know how to connect to young people. Dovi, the rabbi, understands how young people think."

"In my opinion," British-born Stimler told me when we first met, "Soho's the coolest synagogue in the world. I come from an Orthodox background, but today I'm a Jew who lives in the present, without restrictions that have become outdated. I'm very proud of my Jewishness. I feel like a Jewish prince ... Dovi understands the fast pace of this city and the nature of his congregation. He has changed tradition and turned it into a club. He has pretty girls, handsome guys, there's a doorman, there's a guest list, a beautiful synagogue. It's really super cool to go there. The truth is that in synagogues today, it's hard to connect to God. And with Dovi it's fun to say 'I'm a Jew.' There's no ghetto mentality."

Back at the party Stimler and Sanderowicz don't have much time for talking. As Rabbi Scheiner passes by, Sanderowicz says, raising his voice over the loud music, "He's a genius, look what he's done here. I told you this is the coolest and sexiest synagogue in New York. I didn't disappoint you, did I?" W

Sabras, too

There are Israelis at the SoHo Synagogue,too. For example, Yigal Azrouel, a successful fashion designer who works in New York, and comes from an Orthodox family from Ashdod. While he is involved in the successful Kabbalah Center in Manhattan, he really likes this synagogue, and asserts, "There's very strong and positive energy here. The congregation is very hip. Dovi is a very open, very friendly person. This is a rabbi who's willing to try new things. A rabbi like Dovi can connect with Israelis, too."

Also on hand is Ohad Maiman, 34, the son of businessman Yossi Maiman and an artist who combines photography and painting, and has an impressive studio in SoHo. He says that the last time he had been in a synagogue before going to Soho Synagogue was at his bar mitzvah.

Maiman: "It should be made clear that this synagogue is not an ordinary one. It's first of all a community center. Some people say Dovi is more a public relations person than a rabbi. I say that he's doing something exceptional. He's bringing together Jews who weren't connected to Judaism and probably wouldn't have met many other Jews were it not for him. He doesn't force you to observe the commandments.

"Maybe the expression a 'sexy synagogue' is somewhat exaggerated, but there's no question that this is a stylish sort of place where the young people of SoHo are addressed in their own language. I've met several friends in the SoHo Synagogue and dated several girls."

We caught supermodel Adi Neumann on the phone while on a photo shoot in Israel. She had met Scheiner by chance through a friend. "We spent a lot of Friday night meals together. That's how it was for years. Maybe seven or eight years. I'm not religious and I didn't attend synagogue in Israel, but when you're outside Israel you begin to become closer to Judaism. When I arrived in New York," she continued, over the phone, "the fact that I'm Jewish helped me professionally, but I wanted more than that. Dovi and his wife Esty are people that you can connect with. It's harder to deal with a 70-year-old rabbi with a long beard. At these encounters, whether a dinner or a reception, you talk a little about the holidays and about kabbalah. These are people that you would never usually see in a synagogue. I drove Dovi crazy with lots of questions."

Neumann's name is listed on a plaque on the synagogue's wall together with another Israeli, Tal Perry. Not necessarily because they are important donors, but they were among the first members of the synagogue.

Dovi is thinking of doing something in Israel too some day.

Neumann: "I'm not sure it would work. In Israel if you're not religious and you want to feel some spirituality, you go to the Western Wall and put in a note. In New York it's harder and that's why what Dovi is doing is so unique."