What Israelis Can Learn From New York’s 50 Shades of Judaism

How one secular Israeli found himself joining a Reform synagogue in Manhattan.

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Orthodox Jews and African-Americans hold a joint ceremony at the Bayit Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, to pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.
Orthodox Jews and African-Americans hold a joint ceremony at the Bayit Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, to pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Credit: Natan Dvir

Of the 8.5 million people who live in New York City, 1.5 million of them are Jews. But what is striking in this city is not the numbers, but rather the unusual openness concerning religion. This is a place where you can find 50 shades of Judaism — and no one judges your choice, at least not publicly.

I know modern Orthodox Jews who dine in non-kosher restaurants, ordering only fish, poultry or vegetarian dishes. I have seen people with peyot (sidelocks)and tzitzit (ritual fringes) attend the bar mitzvah parties of their completely non-religious relatives. There is something refreshing in that everyone is free to choose their denomination of Judaism.

And here is how I made my choice.

After my son was born, we contemplated what preschool to send him to. Anyone who knows New York knows that it is challenging to find a space in any decent educational institution from preschool to elementary school, high school, and of course college. There is fierce competition for every space in every suitable educational institution. My wife and I wanted a liberal nursery school with a not–too–smothering approach to Judaism. During our search we visited the nursery school at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I didn’t give much thought as to whether it was Reform or Conservative. There was something in the atmosphere of the “Early Childhood Center” that made it feel like the right place for us.

Over the years my son and daughter had a variety of teachers, ranging from David, a Haredi Jew with peyot and tzitzit, who taught in the nursery school for one year (and was excellent), to Olympia, an African-American who gave the children a lot of love. There was, and still is, Zet,a nursery school teacher, who is also not Jewish, but has become an institution in the school.

A synagogue in Soho. Credit: Dan Keinan

The most popular teacher in the nursery school was Mariano Weinstein, an Israeli artist who retrained as a preschool teacher. Weinstein, who also makes movies, became a star teacher adored by the children. He is still there.

The children learned everything American youngsters learns in preschool, but also learned Hebrew and celebrated the Jewish holidays. In many respects, it reminded me a an Israeli preschool, but here they put an even greater emphasis on anything connected to religion.

Confessions of a secular Orthodox Jew

Through the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue’s preschool, I became aware of the Reform synagogue that has some 1,000 seats. The truth is I didn’t want to call myself a “Reform Jew.” I don’t like such labels. When I was asked what I was I at first replied that I’m a secular Orthodox Jew — meaning I live a secular life, I have a strong connection with my Jewish culture, and the synagogue I went to, when and if I went, was an Orthodox one that operated mostly during the holiday period. The prayers I was used to were those that were mumbled by the cantor in such a way that it was always difficult to follow exactly where he was.

I regarded this complex of the synagogue and Early Childhood Center at Stephen Wise as more of a community center, one of many on the very liberal and Jewish Upper West Side. Here in the neighborhood it is possible to find a synagogue for every denomination that you can imagine. And the activities are not only religious ones. For example, at Stephen Wise there is a shelter for homeless men where synagogue members volunteer to prepare dinner or sleep there with them. I volunteered too. And I believe I really did get more out of the experience than the homeless people did. Once Israeli rock star Miki Gavrielov came there and sang his huge hit “Ani V’atah” (“You and I Will Change the World” for them.

A service at Park East Synagogue in New York, February 19, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Gradually I found myself going to synagogue on the holidays with the children. In fact, I started going to the synagogue more than I ever did in my life. The Israeli- American Ammiel Hirsch was appointed the rabbi of the congregation, and infused the synagogue with energy. I thought it was nice to see men and women sitting together. It was heartwarming that entire families could experience the service together without being separated by a mehitza.

The cantor, Dan Singer, has a magnificent voice. He manages to create a warm, spiritual feeling that is a critical component of the atmosphere at the synagogue.

The prayers that are chosen and the way they are delivered encourages participation of the congregation. There's no question that Singer's presence is key in attracting people to the synagogue.

While attending services, I also learned to appreciate Ammi Hirsch’s sermons. He is a liberal Jew with a deep attachment to Israel. His sermons deal with the essence of life, the connection to Judaism, Jewish philosophy, current events and their link to Israel. Hirsch believes that whoever lives outside of Israel and wants to keep their Jewish connection must go to synagogue, though it doesn’t matter which one. Not attending synagogue means assimilation at a later stage.

My son and daughter were b’nei mitzvah at Stephen Wise. They worked on the preparations for the occasion or months. It was a special experience for them. At Stephen Wise girls can stand on the bimah at age 13, with a tallit (prayer shawl), and lead the service wearing a short skirt and high heels. To someone who had never been in a Reform synagogue before, it seemed a bit strange at first. But the truth is that there is a sort of beauty in children working so hard in order to connect to their Judaism even if they are not exactly “religious.”

At Stephen Wise, like at many other synagogues around the United States, there is openness toward intermarried couples — that’ true for spouses who converted, as well as those who did not. This approach is inspired not only by a liberal outlook that values openness and acceptance of the other, but is also a result of pragmatism. With the rates of assimilation and intermarriage so high, narrow–mindedness and rejection would only push the intermarried couples out of the Jewish fold. Luring Israelis to shul

Rabbi Hirsch has also created a unique program intended to bring Israelis living in the United States to his synagogue. Israelis living in the United States who think they can abstain from Jewish communal activities are mistaken, he argues. New York is not Tel Aviv.

Research shows that many of the children or grandchildren of Israelis who immigrate to the United States end up assimilating. Hirsch maintains that if Judaism is important to you — whether as a religion or cultural heritage — then one must be connected to some Jewish institutions. In order to encourage Israelis to attend synagogue he offers them a free membership (or asks for a very small donation.) He had to work hard to convince the synagogue board to agree to this concession. Today the Chofshi B’Manhattan (Free in Manhattan) Israeli Outreach Initiative offers unique cultural activities to Israelis who never dreamed of visiting a synagogue.

Do I feel Reform? The truth is, I don’t think about it too much. I don’t think people here give a great deal of thought to what synagogue they attend. They decide according to what is convenient for them, how close it is to where they live, whether it matches their musical taste, whether they prefer to hear more Hebrew or more English in the service. All these seem to be rather trivial matters, rather than major ideological decisions.

So before someone attacks the Reform or Conservative movements, or any other denomination of Judaism, I would urge them to pause and think. American Judaism is now at a critical stage concerning the next generation. There is serious assimilation, intermarriage, and a weakening of the links to Judaism and also to Israel. Israeli diplomats in the United States are working hard to connect to these communities. They understand that this is where the organized mass of American Jewry is, and if Israel wants to reach American Jews, then it must do so now because this link is eroding. Ask American Jews who understand matters and they will tell you that even among the modern Orthodox there is a weakening of the bond with Israel.

The last thing American Jews need are declarations against the way they spend their time in synagogue — whether it is twice a year or ten times a year.

The decision to attend synagogue is a personal and private choice. It might be worthwhile for all of us — especially in Israel — to embrace the attitude that is the norm in New York, where everyone has the right to choose how she or he wants to pray and fulfill their faith.

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