High Holy Days in Unholy Places

Services at a New York comedy club, performance space, theater, other unorthodox sites has rabbis of city’s traditional synagogues worried.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
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David Broza
David Broza
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK – On Rosh Hashanah, Evan Greene and his wife, Ashley Shaw, both 31, will be among the hundreds in attendance at High Holy Day services under the gloriously rococo-meets-Moorish painted ceiling of the Prince George Ballroom, a Manhattan event space. Greene and Shaw, who do not belong to a synagogue, have been going to the free services offered by Ohel Ayalah for the last several years. This will be the 10th year that Ohel Ayalah, started and run by Rabbi Judith Hauptman, offers services without charge to a mostly 20- and 30-something crowd.

“We love the services. Rabbi Hauptman fills a very important niche for folks who haven’t caught on with a synagogue or don’t participate religiously often enough to justify paying membership dues,” said Greene, an actor who by day works in nonprofit development. A few years ago he Googled around to see what synagogues charge for membership and was, he said, turned off by the high fees. “She steps in with these free services. It’s just a warm, welcoming environment, a service which welcomes folks of every level of Judaic knowledge and observance,” said Greene, who lives in Williamsburg.

Ohel Ayalah may be one of the oldest of the free or low-cost High Holy Day services currently offered in New York, but in the scramble to engage the unaffiliated there is a burgeoning number of decidedly unorthodox options this year. Services, which range from free to $50 per ticket (less for students), are leaping off the High Holy Days prayer book’s page to offer musical accompaniment. One, offered by virtual congregation Sim Shalom, which offers online services year-round, is hosting worship accompanied by a jazz quartet live-streamed from a Manhattan comedy club. Its High Holy Day services last year were sold out, its website says.

Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Lab/Shul will lead Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in a 1,000-seat college theater in lower Manhattan — with liturgy projected on the walls and accompanied by musicians David Broza, Neshama Carlebach and Shira Kline.

These new pop-up options — similar to the “mushroom synagogues” populating the Lower East Side a century ago — are creating tension with some synagogue leaders, who see the efforts as siphoning off a population that they, too, are trying to attract and bring in to year-round, dues-paying congregational engagement.

“This one-day or two-day-a-year kind of presentation doesn’t really address the issue of how do we get people to make a commitment, in terms of membership and community. These services may be momentarily inspirational but does it have a lasting effect?” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the longtime rabbi of a Brooklyn Heights Conservative synagogue, not far from where Ohel Ayalah will offer its Brooklyn High Holy Day service (it also has services in Queens), and the executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis.

His criticism is of the groups offering the free or inexpensive services rather than the people who attend them. Reform and Conservative synagogues in New York, with some notable exceptions, are grappling with declining, aging memberships. Like all houses of worship, they require a constant infusion of young new members to be able to continue paying rabbis’ salaries and heating bills.

“Congregations are struggling very often to meet their needs and now someone comes in and says we’re offering this for free?” said Potasnik. “High Holy Day tickets is a significant part of budgetary fundraising. People respond during that period. It’s not the entire story, but it is important. We all suffer because there are people who are not walking through the doors.”

The problem is, young Jews here for a variety of reasons are loathe to cross the threshold into synagogue life.

Jews falling away from Judaism

According to the most recent Jewish population study by UJA-Federation of New York, there is “a growing number of Jews who are less engaged in Jewish life.”

Many more New York-area Jews - 59 percent - attend synagogue just on the High Holy Days or on special occasions or not at all than the 29 percent who attend weekly or monthly. Twelve percent attend three to nine times a year, the study found.

There has also been a shift away from denominational identification. A plurality of New York-area Jews, 37 percent, described themselves in the Jewish federation study as just Jewish, secular, cultural or “no religion.”

While the sale of tickets to non-members for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services raises critical funds for synagogues, many offer free “overflow” services for the community.

Still, “there’s a perception that it’s pay to play. We did ourselves a disservice by asking people to pay to daven. It’s not where people are. We need to make it accessible, make it warm, let them know it’s okay if they don’t know Hebrew,” said Hindy Poupko Galena, executive director of the Council of Young Jewish Presidents, an affiliate of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council. Her group is spearheading use of an app called GrapeVine, designed to connect young adults to Jewish experiences they can locate on their mobile devices. “There’s a lot of wariness and the more info we can give people up front, the more likely they are to walk in.”

She and her organization were at an Upper West Side street fair on a Sunday before Rosh Hashanah, handing out free jars of honey and telling young people about GrapeVine, which lists 21 free High Holy Day services around New York City.

“People have felt that there was a barrier to entry [to synagogues] that was too high. That might be psychological, or it might be they met the wrong usher,” said Rabbi Dan Ain, who, with blues musician Jeremiah Lockwood, will be leading Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at a downtown Brooklyn performance space called Roulette.

“I don’t mean to disparage other institutions that have beautiful holy communities. But for whatever reason there is a large percentage of people who have not connected to those communities,” he said.

“Why are they not going to synagogues? Because they cost money, first and foremost, and because services are long and boring for people who are not Judaically knowledgable,” said Ohel Ayalah’s Hauptman, a professor of Talmud at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

The first year she held High Holy Day services, at the time just in Manhattan and in a social hall rented from a church, 190 people came, Hauptman said. Last year for Yom Kippur eve services about 825 people, most in their 20s and 30s, came to back-to-back services in Manhattan, and many more were at the Ohel Ayalah services held in Brooklyn and Queens. “My mission is to keep them Jewish in those interim years when they’re living as young singles in the city,” said Hauptman.

Nothing new

And while it may appear to be a new phenomenon, it actually goes back a century.

Hundreds of independent High Holy Day services happened in Yiddish theaters, social halls and bars in Manhattan between 1901 and 1934, according to Rabbi Dan Judson, who works as the director of professional development and placement at Hebrew College, a rabbinical seminary in Boston. He is also the faculty expert on synagogue finances at the Union for Reform Judaism.

Judson says these “mushroom synagogues” attracted about 300,000 people each year. Owners of the bars and theaters would put out a sign a few days before the holidays advertising a famous cantor leading services — which wasn’t always the case.

“When immigrants came to this country in large numbers, the vast number stopped attending services regularly except for the High Holy Days,” he said. “The phenomenon of the three times a year Jews is not new. It goes back 100 years.” In 1904 just 25 percent of men on the Lower East Side said they attended synagogue regularly.

The mushroom synagogues phenomenon led to a fierce backlash from the Jewish establishment.

“The rabbis pleaded for Jews to stop going and the Conservative movement set up a committee on ending mushroom synagogues. Thirty-five Orthodox synagogues set up an organization whose motto was ‘don’t forsake the prayer hall for the dance hall,’ “ Judson said.

In 1934 a coalition of major Brooklyn synagogues called the mushroom synagogues “a dire threat and a sacrilege.” After intense lobbying by Jewish leaders, the New York State legislature passed a law that same year rendering it illegal to hold for-profit religious services and misrepresent the qualifications of the person leading them. New York City’s attorneys general threatened prosecution and that ended the whole enterprise.

But the mushroom synagogues were successful because they filled a need, Judson said. “It was religion at bargain prices.”

Just like today.

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