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Friday Night Lights

Ten years after Sept. 11, in a Lower Manhattan neighborhood that hasn’t had a dedicated Jewish sanctuary since before the Civil War, a new synagogue opens

Allison Hoffman
August 29, 2011
Soho Synagogue at night.(John M. Hall)
Soho Synagogue at night.(John M. Hall)

Sept. 11, 2001, started out as a beautiful day, clear and blue and crisp. It was a gorgeous day to be getting married, as Esty Levy planned to that evening in Brooklyn. But after the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center ruined that perfect sky, she and her fiancé, Dovi Scheiner, called their rabbi, feeling that they could not proceed with their celebration. “He said it had to go ahead,” said Levy, now Esty Scheiner. “He said it wasn’t dancing in the face of sadness, it was a mitzvah.” So, in a city gripped by chaos and fear, Esty and Dovi created a tiny island of joy, raising their chuppah and saying their vows as planned.

Now, just in time for the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks and their wedding, the Scheiners have fulfilled another mitzvah. They’ve opened a new synagogue in Soho, a Manhattan neighborhood that Scheiner says hasn’t had a dedicated Jewish sanctuary since before the Civil War. The opening of the Scheiners’ shul, called simply the Soho Synagogue, caps a story that began with the couple’s decision, in early 2002, to leave their insular Hasidic community—both were raised Lubavitch, she in Crown Heights, he in Borough Park—for Lower Manhattan. They felt it was their responsibility to help their new community rebuild. “The neighborhood had very little Jewish infrastructure, as opposed to the Upper West Side or the Lower East Side,” Dovi Scheiner said. “And people needed people.”

The newlyweds found an apartment on Chambers Street, just north of ground zero. The first thing Esty did was start delivering home-baked challahs to her neighbors on Fridays. “I’d just knock on the doors,” she said. Her husband recalled: “It’s hard to remember now, but people opened their doors with smiles.” The circle of regular challah recipients eventually included Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his City Hall staff, who referred to Esty as the challah lady. Meanwhile, the Scheiners also started inviting near-strangers for Shabbat dinners. “Most of those conversations were, ‘Where were you?’ ” he said, referring to Sept. 11. “Just telling, re-telling.”

Over the years, those intimate dinners morphed into Friday-night cocktail parties in lofts and vacant spaces around downtown that gained a reputation among young professionals as great mixers for Jewish singles. As of this summer, and with an assist from two of New York’s biggest Jewish philanthropists—Michael Steinhardt and Ira Rennert—the Scheiners’ synagogue finally has a home of its own, in a space that previously held a Gucci pop-up sneaker store.

When it held its first Friday night service, the Soho Synagogue joined a blossoming landscape of Jewish life in lower Manhattan, which is now home to hubs like the 92nd Street Y’s three-year-old outpost at Tribeca’s northwestern edge, near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, and the Jewish Community Project, an educational center geared to young families just around the corner from the Odeon, the famous bistro that was at the vanguard of the neighborhood’s resurgent nightlife in the 1980s. In the past few years, Chabad has also assigned staff to serve residents in Tribeca and nearby Battery Park. “We wanted to be involved in a community, and it felt like things were shifting down here,” said Zalman Paris, who left his posting in Midtown Manhattan three years ago to become the rabbi at Chabad’s Tribeca outpost.

Two full-time synagogues—the Wall Street Synagogue and Synagogue for the Arts—and a small Chabad center were established in New York’s financial district decades ago to serve observant office workers during the business week. But the first real effort to organize Jewish life in the area came 25 years ago with the independent Battery Park Synagogue, started by Jews attracted to the area’s first residential developments, in Battery Park City. “There was nothing else,” said Norman Kleiman, a research ophthalmologist at Columbia University who is the synagogue’s president. “We all had kids and felt it was important to have a community, and it was an opportunity to build a congregation that was not in our parents’ image.”

By 1993, Battery Park synagogue had established itself in a meeting room at the World Trade Center—one that happened to be directly above the garage where a truck bomb exploded that February, in the first terrorist attack on the complex. The synagogue’s prayer books were destroyed in that attack, Kleiman said. In 2001, the falling twin towers crushed the Marriott hotel where the group was scheduled to hold High Holiday services. In the aftermath of the attacks, many members simply left—especially those with young children. Of the 100 children enrolled in Hebrew school classes before the attacks, only 10 eventually came to classes. “It was a huge blow,” Kleiman said. Today, the synagogue has bounced back. It has a part-time rabbi and cantor to conduct regular services in a converted two-bedroom apartment in Battery Park for a membership that has grown to about 150 families. “They’re not very religious or interested in coming regularly to Shabbat,” Kleiman said. “But we handle the full birth to death, weddings, brises, funerals.”

It was the attacks, and the destruction of so much office space, that accelerated the neighborhood’s conversion from a predominantly commercial zone to a thriving residential one. In the past decade, the resident population of neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan—Tribeca, Soho, the Financial District, and Battery Park—has grown by more than 25,000, accounting for more than half of Manhattan’s total population increase in the period, according to the 2010 census. It’s not clear how many of those new residents are Jewish—the decennial census of the city’s Jewish population, conducted by UJA-Federation of New York, won’t be complete until next year—but the last study, in 2002, showed that the neighborhood was about 17 percent Jewish. The profusion of new Jewish groups, many of them catering to families with young children, speaks to the growing size and engagement of the community.

The Jewish Community Project, which grew out of a small group of Jewish families who decided to stay downtown after the Sept. 11 attacks, emerged from the wave of Jewish startups that began springing up in the neighborhood then. One project was a short-lived school called Tribeca Hebrew, established by a group that included Michael Dorf, the founder of the Knitting Factory, a former fixture of downtown nightlife, and another was a Conservative congregation called the Downtown Synagogue, which is now defunct, according to a former board member, Abbie Kozolchyk.

“People are moving down here for the lifestyle, the low density of the buildings, access to downtown culture and Wall Street, living closer to the river, and the schools, which have the best reputation in the city,” said Darren Levine, the Jewish Community Project executive director. Levine said his organization now has a budget of $4.5 million and serves more than 1,000 families, offering a range of programs from Tot Shabbats to Hebrew classes for teenagers. “It’s a combination of unaffiliated Jews and families who find themselves downtown and wanting to connect,” said Levine, a Reform rabbi who moved downtown from the Upper East Side in 2006.

As for the newest neighborhood presence, the Soho Synagogue, the Scheiners acknowledge they still have a long way to go to offer a comprehensive slate of Jewish services. Currently they have a Hebrew school for children ages 5 to 9, but formal religious services are being held only on Friday nights, using a self-written Orthodox-style prayer packet with a title page that riffs on the famous Magritte painting of a pipe: “(This is not a) Prayer Book,” it reads. After the High Holidays, the Scheiners plan to add services for young children on Shabbat mornings and a single Torah reading at noon. ”We’re serving people who move here from another state or another country,” Dovi Scheiner said. “Their first priority is the social scene, and then at some point they say, ‘What about Jewish stuff?’ ”

For now, the Scheiners head a few blocks south on Saturday mornings to the Synagogue for the Arts, the Orthodox congregation in Tribeca that was originally dedicated as the Civic Center Synagogue in 1938. Before Sept. 11, the synagogue mainly served artists who had moved downtown and had begun having children in middle age. “These are people for whom 9/11 was a profound, transformative experience,” said Jonathan Glass, who took over as rabbi in 1989. But the past few years have brought a wave of new congregants who fit a radically different profile: people Glass described as “ultra-Modern Orthodox”—people who might once have automatically moved uptown but instead have decided to bring their Jewish lives downtown with them.

The new crowd, Glass said, has the luxury of seeing their neighborhood unshadowed by the experience of terrorism, and brings a new energy to the synagogue. “It’s a whole different mentality,” Glass said of these new residents and the Sept. 11 attacks. “Intellectually, they relate to it, but at the back of their minds, they’ll be saying, ‘Why are you making such a big deal about it?’ ” Recently a new father volunteered to sponsor the post-service kiddush on Sept. 10 in honor of his baby girl, but Glass warned him that he plans to conduct a full yizkor memorial dedicated to Sept. 11 victims and then invite survivors to speak. “I didn’t want to overshadow the simcha, but I thought it was important,” Glass said. “We have to be careful not to forget it, of course those who went through it but even those who didn’t, because it’s part of who we are as a neighborhood, and really as a country.”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.