Sabbatical in the Big Apple

Rabbi Greg Alexander blowing the shofar at Yankee Stadium during Elul while on sabbatical in New York City with his family
Rabbi Greg Alexander blowing the shofar at Yankee Stadium

My family and I have just returned from a sabbatical in New York City.  The idea was to spend as much time as possible sitting in the different shuls, NGOs and Jewish organisations of this amazing Jewish community and see what we can learn from them.  What is on the cutting edge of their agendas and teaching, how are they structuring their synagogues, programming and music, social justice initiatives, staff teams and more?  Anything that we can learn from or collaborate with in some way.

So Andi and I and the kids spent many hours shul-hopping and synagogue-crawling our way from the tip of Manhattan to Brooklyn and everywhere in between.  Our time there included the High Holy Days and Sukkot and this was the first chance we have had since we came to Temple Israel 13 years ago to sit in someone else’s shul over the yomtovim and see what they do.

So what did we find?  The first thing to say will come as no surprise — New York’s Jewish community is massive.  More than a million Jews in the city, more than two million in New York State and you can pretty much find every kind of Jewish expression or practise, whether religious, social or cultural, happening on a corner near you.  And all you need to do is connect and show up. And we did — a lot.

We found tiny communities like Beloved, a start-up run by a rabbi and her husband out of their home in Brooklyn where they invite people to a Friday night and a Shabbat morning once a month, and run shiurim, meditations and yoga for small groups.  And the Ahavas Yisroel shul in Green Point, Brooklyn (yes, I did get a kick out the fact that we have a Temple Israel in Green Point, Cape Town) which was set up by German Jewish immigrants in 1886 in a lovely little shtibel that reminded me of many South African shuls I have made a minyan in — and our family helped make up the minyan there too. To Tamid Tribeca at the bottom of Manhattan where Rabbi Darren Levine is bringing in a whole different crowd. (Joburgers will remember him from his High Holy Day stint at Bet Emanuel when he was still a rabbinic student). At his start-up shul, you will find a mix of mostly young families but from all backgrounds, Jewish and not, all interested in connecting to Judaism downtown where there are not a huge number of offerings. Tamid is the only non-Orthodox show in the neighbourhood and like Beloved, Tamid is independent but their approach is open and liberal. In fact, Rabbi Darren describes their approach (and whole philosophy) as “you are welcome”. They are creating a “Jewish space of openness”.

To the other end of the size spectrum with the establishment giants like Central Synagogue, and Emanu-El.  They tower over the island with magnificent historical buildings, ginormous communities (with a waiting list for membership) and extraordinary programming.  Rabbi Angela Buchdahl at Central has broken many ceilings (first woman to lead Central Synagogue, first Asian-American rabbi, first ordained rabbi and cantor (both) etc) and has been instrumental in making music the centre of their service.  And they have an exceptional musical team.  

We were blown away when on the Friday night we attended, we heard a very familiar melody begin.  At first we weren’t sure, but when they broke out with ‘Hariu’ we knew that they were singing our tune!  For those who haven’t been to Netzer camp or to a Chessed/Rina Fri night at Temple Israel, Hariu is one of the liturgical hit-tunes to come out of South Africa and apparently it has made it to NYC.  We told Rabbi Angela later that I had been at the Netzer camp when Rina Epstein and Talya Davidoff composed that piece that is now a favourite of our Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat.

Moving to Emanu-El, not only do they have one of the largest synagogue sanctuaries in the world (2000 seats) and over 2000 family members, but with the Streicker Centre they have taken the lead in standout Jewish programming with big-name speakers, sold-out ticket events (and these are $50 a seat) and creative adult-education. On the evening we attended in the lead up to Rosh Hashanah, they reconstructed the ancient Yom Kippur ritual of the scapegoat (not practised since the time of the Temple in Jerusalem) by walking a live goat with two wicker baskets tied on his back through the crowd while we placed notes with something we wanted to be rid of in the baskets.

While the buildings, staff and budgets of each of these synagogues dwarf our own, it was heartening to see that we speak the same language, share the big picture goals and often wrestle with the same problems.

In between those ends of the spectrum lie two of the other shuls we spent time in – Romemu and LabShul, both new players on the scene in the past decade, who are doing innovative things to relook at the way that synagogues function today.  Romemu is described as “Neo-Chassidic” with a deep and powerful service grounded in Chassidic teaching and yet fully inclusive and egalitarian. It is affiliated with Jewish Renewal where Andi is doing her rabbinical studies.  

LabShul describes themselves as an “artist-driven, everybody-friendly, God-optional, pop up, experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings” and they do push the envelope to bring Judaism to people who would not normally set foot in a synagogue.  Running events in night clubs, cafes, theatres and outdoors, LabShul uses art installation, bands and projections to bring new depth to old tradition.

While these are just a few of the communities we got to see, (and these are just the shuls!) you get a sense of how rich the experience was for us and how much we still have to process getting back home.  I hope to engage with as many people as possible to share what we found there and how it can help us bring new ideas to the excellent work this community does here in Cape Town.  

To read the Editor’s column for February click here

To read or download the February issue of the Chronicle in PDF click here

To read the most read article of the December/January issue, click here

Portal to the Jewish Community: to see a list of all the Jewish organisations in Cape Town with links to their websites, click here

Visit the Temple Israel website for more information and news.


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