Rabbi Dovi Scheiner and his wife, Esty, hop[e to attract yioung, unaffiliated Jewish New Yorkers to their congregation
Super-sceney SoHo temple attracts the new Jew crew
A man in a crisp black suit stands outside the plate-glass doors on Crosby Street, checking off the names of the chosen on a clipboard. Young women with tousled hair and fashionable heels slip inside, followed by men in sharp suits or dark jeans. This is SoHo’s latest hot spot, but you don’t have to be a Hollywood actress or star athlete to get in. You just have to be Jewish.
The SoHo Synagogue, which opened last month where a Gucci store once stood, may be the hottest thing to happen to Jews since Bar Refaeli graced the cover of Sports Illustrated.
“I thought it was a club at first,” says attendee Yoni Zanger, 28, of the sleek new space. “There’s a bouncer outside!”
Rabbi Dovi Scheiner and his wife, Esty, both barely in their 30s, wanted the space to echo a hotel lobby or chic boutique, so that young, mostly lapsed New York Jews, who probably haven’t set foot inside a temple since their bar or bat mitzvahs, would feel at home.
“We had to offer a space they were comfortable with,” says the rabbi, who answers to Dovi and wears Converse sneakers and jeans most days, his tzitzis tassels peeking out from beneath his polo shirt. “People don’t go to temple because it’s not relevant or exciting or engaging or social. So we’ve made it all of those things. If we offer them a place that looks like the synagogue they were dragged to by their parents, they’re going to have a nervous breakdown and never come back.”
But they are coming back. His congregation is about 1,000 strong, and Friday night services have been packed week after week with young, cool Jews.
“It’s Judaism, rebranded,” says congregant Joe Wright. “It maintains the tradition but offers something new.”
The venue itself is an extension of the new Jew crew Scheiner is trying to build. Israeli designer Dror Benshetrit, 34, left the brick walls and pipes exposed, combining them with luxe elements such as his signature throne-like peacock chairs, and a steel-and-glass stairwell that descends dramatically into the basement-level sanctuary. Instead of typical rigid prayer benches, Benshetrit installed low beige couches. Instead of stained-glass windows, he hung single retro-style Edison bulbs. His uncle, hipster fashion designer Yigal Azrouel (also a congregant) draped the circular Torah ark with metallic tafetta. “I’ve never seen a synagogue like this. It’s beautiful, it’s modern, it’s with the times,” says first-time attendee Leslie Gerber-Seid.
The synagogue is open to anyone, and free of dues. Walk-ins are welcome. Scheiner will even wave down curious onlookers from across the street and invite them to take a tour.
On a recent Friday night, Scheiner and his associate rabbi, Mendel Jacobson, whom one congregant refers to as a “rapper-slash-poet-slash-
performer,” lead a short service. It consists of a few prayers, a lot of songs, some dancing, some jokes, a short sermon and one rather bawdy impromptu poem dedicated to Jacobson. Scheiner mentions that next week he will be offering a “lower your self-consciousness cocktail” before services, to relax everyone.
After the 45-minute service, people gather on the main floor, mingling over drinks and hors d’oeuvres. They stay for an hour or so, as if at a cocktail party, then wander off in twos and threes to grab dinner or head home
To build their own synagogue, the Scheiners had to first part the East River. They grew up within the Lubavitch community in Brooklyn, but after getting married on Sept. 11, 2001, felt a connection to downtown Manhattan.
They moved to TriBeCa and began hosting Friday night dinners for a few neighbors. A combination of charisma, Esty’s cooking and their particular blend of spirituality-sans-dogma began attracting a crowd. Soon they were taking over friends’ lofts or renting out spaces to host Jewish get-togethers: rooftop Hanukkah parties and gallery Torah talks. Before long, people began asking if Scheiner would lead them in prayer, which, he says, was unexpected, coming from such a youthful, urban, seemingly nonreligious crowd.
In 2005, the Scheiners threw a party to announce the launch of the SoHo Synagogue. Jewish hip-hop star Matisyahu performed; 400 people showed up. They began holding services wherever they could find a space, and throwing fund-raisers at Cipriani’s, 1Oak and on the Intrepid (which some say felt a bit like a kosher meat market). They signed a lease for the Crosby Street site in 2009. While they inked the deal, a Gucci pop-up store rented it. Now congregants come for prayer, to meet new people and to be part of a community. The shul is even pulling people away from established uptown synagogues.
Jason Hirsch, 36, whose grandparents founded the esteemed Fifth Avenue Synagogue in the 1950s, is dubbed the “Miracle Man” by Scheiner for helping to raise funds for the SoHo venture.
His own family, including his parents, siblings and cousins, donated the menorah and Torah ark among other items. Hirsch also encouraged Jewish donors, such as billionaire businessman Ira Rennert, to back the shul. The Rennert family donated a Torah.
“There’s a deep-rooted tradition in my family to get involved with synagogues and the creation of Jewish life. When I met Dovi, something clicked. I felt like my grandparents were maybe watching me from above,” Hirsch says.
Plus, he says, “I feel comfortable there. Suddenly I have a desire to go to Friday night services, and I’ve never felt that way before.”