A-List Judaism
01/02/08
Staff Writer
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Walking into the high-ceilinged space overlooking Ground Zero, you’re not sure if you’ve entered an apartment or an art gallery. Every surface gleams white; the furniture is black, white and ultra-modern; original contemporary art is on the walls and the lighting fixtures could double as sculpture. But it’s no art gallery. It’s the home of Rabbi Dovi Scheiner, 28, and his wife, Esty, and also the center of activity, despite its present non-Soho location, for the Soho Synagogue, launched in April 2005. Windows reaching nearly to the 13-foot ceilings overlook the frenzy of building activity going on two stories below, at Ground Zero, and let in its muffled sounds. But every week or so, they are drowned out by the sounds of young Jews who gather around a long marble table for a Shabbat dinner, or a book party or Sunday brunch. Like their environment, the people who come to events here are beautiful, sleek and affluent. And they are part of a burgeoning Jewish community that, compared to the rest of Manhattan, is disproportionately young, single and wealthy. In 2005, when it was last counted, the population of Lower Manhattan below Canal Street (but not including Chinatown), was up 26 percent over five years earlier, according to Joseph Salvo, director of the population division at New York City’s Department of City Planning. At that point the population numbered about 48,000 people. Assuming the same rate of growth in the two years since then, the population could easily be 60,000, said Salvo in an interview. He estimated that the Jewish population probably accounts for 25 to 30 percent of the overall community downtown, which means there may be 18,000 Jews in Lower Manhattan today. “A lot of [the growth] is young, working-age people of high income, predominantly singles with very high levels of education, upwardly mobile people who are looking to live where they work,” like people in the financial services industry, Salvo said. The area’s median income is $90,000 a year, 50 percent higher than Manhattan residents overall. “Who is going to serve these young people?” he asks. “Nightlife down here has already picked up.” And the Scheiners are part of that experience, offering “Torah cocktail parties” and fundraising events in followers’ lofts and in high-end party spaces. They don’t run daily or Shabbat worship services, though they hope to in a Soho space they have just started raising money to rent. Their aim is to find a retail, street-level space “and to create the world’s first-ever lounge-themed sanctuary,” said Rabbi Scheiner in an interview. He started fundraising at High Holy Day services for 200 people this fall, held in a nearby private school’s party space. Services were brief and there was plenty of socializing, say some who attended. The rabbi has received commitments for $230,000 of the $600,000 that he says the synagogue’s first year in Soho will require. The strategy has been to offer the population he wants to reach the kind of upscale activities and surroundings they are comfortable with, and then draw them into something deeper. “We’ve had to nurture and engage,” Rabbi Scheiner said. “Establish street cred and then cash in that credibility for a greater spiritual value and depth. For example, “we had a wild, wild party for our 2006 benefit, and then we sent out an e-mail for a Kabbalah class at the Soho Grand. It sold out in a few moments. “It didn’t occur to people that they could be so inspired,” he added. “What I’m in touch with here is a new generation.” The Scheiners, who are from the Lubavitch community, are taking the traditional Chabad emissaries’ approach, with a twist — offering Shabbat dinners and homemade challah, Torah talk and Kabbalah classes, but holding them in stylish venues with fabulous art. At Soho Synagogue’s glossy base on the south side of the World Trade Center site, Rabbi Scheiner runs a weekly study and discussion class for about a dozen people ages 21 to 26, along with the parties. Each party or event has an entry fee. For a mid-November brunch, advertised as “sumptuous and sociable” on an e-mailed invitation, the fee was $25, and limited to 50 people. The event sold out within four hours. “The $25 brunch is the least expensive thing I’ve seen,” says Jill Donenfeld, 23, a downtown caterer who lives in Soho. She said the price of other synagogue events is usually between $40 and $65, which many of her peers consider steep. Donenfeld is nonetheless a big fan of the Scheiners’ work, and donated $1,000 to the new fundraising effort, though “it was a fairly large sum and that was a pretty big deal for me.” The appeal of the Scheiners’ approach is that “no matter what your relationship to Judaism may be, they stress the idea of Jews getting together,” she said. “While they are extremely Orthodox, they don’t enforce any of those rules on the congregants. It’s a really easygoing way of acting out your Judaism.” Rabbi Scheiner said the fees charged for synagogue parties barely cover costs. “Honestly, it’s been incredibly difficult to support ourselves. The model we’re presenting is very upscale because we feel that that’s what works. We’re dealing with people who surround themselves with high-quality experiences, whether it’s going to a restaurant or to a club. So we have to project that.” The Scheiners aim for a young crowd; the contact form on the Soho Synagogue Web site asks your age, and the only ages to choose from are 21 to 38. This unique approach works well for some. “It’s appealing to most of the New York crowd. A lot of my friends in New York I’ve met through Soho Synagogue,” said Adi Neumann, an Israeli supermodel who has appeared in Vogue and Victoria’s Secret ads, and lives on the Lower East Side. Neumann, 25, says she has been a regular since Soho Synagogue’s start. “I love the social connections. From Dovi, I really saw a way of combining things without having to make too many sacrifices but can still feel that I’m prioritizing my religion.” Peripatetic and savvy when it comes to marketing, Rabbi Scheiner uses a promotional approach consistent with his goal — with slick graphics and featuring women in slinky cocktail dresses. The style and programming are not for everyone, though. Tony Sosnick is a 38-year-old art collector and manufacturer of high-end men’s grooming products, who, together with his wife Katrin and the Scheiners, developed the idea for Soho Synagogue. The Sosnicks brought in several friends who put in money and time to get the project off the ground, Tony said. But after meeting weekly in his Soho loft for four months, Sosnick said he soured on Rabbi Scheiner’s approach when the rabbi started talking about having “an ‘A-list’ crowd” at the High Holy Day services planned for a Tribeca party space. “His idea was a young Jewish nightclub, almost like a velvet-rope place, and he would send out e-mails [that read] ‘Get High on the High Holidays’ with a picture of a model leaning up against a wall like a Calvin Klein ad,” Sosnick said. “We had a great concept, which was warm and family oriented, and he turned it into a nightclub scene, which I think is cheesy and completely wrong. “None of the people I know who donated money, time and their energy early on are still involved,” Sosnick continued. “I don’t think it’s going to last because he’s not building any foundation or any community.” The Sosnicks and their two sons have since joined services and preschool programs at the Jewish Community Project Downtown which, he said, is closer to the original concept they were discussing with the Scheiners. “Young Jewish singles get married and move on and join real synagogues because they have families and get more mature and stop going to the nightclubs,” said Sosnick, while acknowledging that the married couples are replaced by new singles. In response, Rabbi Scheiner said, “Tony and Katrin were wonderful friends, but some of the conceptualizations didn’t necessarily match the realities. Thank God, I’ve seen tremendous fruition in our efforts.” And he does seem to be drawing his target market. Soho Synagogue’s most recent benefit was held last June in the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden atrium. It sold out within three weeks of tickets going on sale, and 1,950 people attended. When the Scheiners first got married six years ago, they wanted to do outreach as official emissaries of the Lubavitch movement. But they encountered a saturated market — there has been an official Lubavitch emissary in Lower Manhattan since 1998 — and decided to branch out on their own. In 2002, they moved to an apartment at the northern end of Battery Park City and last May moved to the Ground Zero apartment. “When we came to town, people were leaving. People thought we were crazy, but we had our mission,” Rabbi Scheiner said as his wife braided challahs nearby in the kitchen. “Everything has changed. Now you have new blood here every day.”

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11/03/2009 - 11:26

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