Prospect Park Frum

Fledgling Modern Orthodox congregation in Brownstone Brooklyn is new beachhead for Upper West Side crowd.

01/03/12
Staff Writer
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On most nights, Wolf and Deer, a trendy new wine bar owned by a pair of Sabras in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, attracts a fashionable crowd sipping an international selection of wines and beers.

On one recent night, the cuisine was strictly kosher — some wines, latkes, doughnuts.

At the Chanukah party sponsored by a new Modern Orthodox synagogue, several dozen Jewish residents of the area — ranging from college students to retirees — celebrated the Festival of Lights with a menorah lighting, socializing and words of Torah by Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein, the founding spiritual leader of the Prospect Heights Shul.

A native of Berkeley, Calif., Rabbi Finkelstein was ordained in June by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

The party was the latest — and one of the biggest — activities of the fledgling congregation, which marked its six-month anniversary this week at a community meeting.

The shul serves a growing number of Modern Orthodox Jews in Prospect Heights and adjacent Park Slope, and sometimes draws people from nearby Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill.

It is, says Rabbi Finkelstein, the only Modern Orthodox synagogue between Flatbush and the Lower East Side. The area, usually thought of as a mecca of liberal Jewry as well as a place where tensions can run high when it comes to the sale of Sabra hummus at the local food co-op, has in recent years quietly become home to a growing number of young Orthodox Jews, many escaping the high rents of Manhattan, according to the rabbi.

“People want a shul where they feel comfortable,” he rabbi says. “It’s a little like an out-of-town community,” where everyone knows everyone, and invites one another for Shabbat meals.

So far, it’s a shul without a permanent site. A search is underway for an appropriate, centrally located space to rent, probably a storefront on a major avenue; until then, Carlebach-style Friday evening worship services take place in the common rooms of members’ apartment buildings; the location is posted weekly on the shul’s Facebook page. Saturday morning services, which will make use of a Torah scroll owned by one member family, will begin when the permanent site opens. Crowded High Holy Days services were held in the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music.

Once the shul moves into its own venue, it will make a pitch to attract more members from other, pricier parts of the city, and make “The Slope,” as residents call the area, a Modern Orthodox neighborhood of choice.

Think Upper West Side South — many of the young Orthodox residents of Park Slope and Prospects Heights come from the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The Brownstone Brooklyn area, whose overall Caucasian population has increased in recent decades, was home to some 11,000 Jewish households — probably representing a total Jewish population of at least 25,000 — according to a 2002 survey by UJA-Federation. The count may be higher today.

The area boasts several non-Orthodox congregations and other Jewish institutions, as well as a few Chabad Houses. There are also a few established Orthodox synagogues there; largely led by Chabad rabbis, they are, according to members of the Prospect Heights Shul, de facto Chabad — in other words, not Modern Orthodox — congregations.

At a recent Shabbat lunch hosted by Rabbi Finkelstein, a tableful of shul members shared their vision of a congregation that fits their spiritual needs: an institution that follows Jewish law but is open to social action, expanded women’s roles in the leadership of the shul “beyond the ritual realms,” joint activities with non-Orthodox congregations and the recitation of the blessing for the State of Israel on Shabbat — actions so-called right-wing synagogues often frown on.

“People are happy to have other options,” says Israel-born Eli Basher, who attends worship services at the Prospect Heights Shul.

Such a new Orthodox congregation in an urban setting is “a phenomenon usually associated with suburban locales” where Orthodox congregations typically follow the establishment of non-Orthodox ones, says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University.

The area has numerous vibrant Reform and Conservative congregations, including Congregation Beth Elohim and the Park Slope Jewish Center.

The regulars at the Prospect Heights Shul’s Friday evening services — some 40-50 show up each week — are a cross-section, Rabbi Finkelstein says, of veteran residents of the area who have lived there for decades, and younger people, in their 20s and 30s, who have moved there in recent years, attracted by lower-than-Manhattan rents. It’s largely a hip, artsy crowd.

The rabbi, who spent four years studying at Chovevei Torah, the “open” rabbinical school based in Riverdale, heard about the growing Jewish population in Park Slope and Prospect Heights, thought it might be “a natural fit for a Modern Orthodox community,” and arranged some exploratory meetings last spring in residents’ apartments. He expected 10 or 15 people at the first meeting. “Thirty-five people came.” And the same number came to subsequent meetings.

Rabbi Finkelstein decided the area — about two square miles of private homes along the side streets and boutiques and mom-and-pop stores along the main streets — was fertile ground for a new synagogue.

His hiring is “a sign that people are becoming more informed and excited about the mission of YCT and the caliber of rabbis we are training,” says Rabbi Dov Linzer, the yeshiva’s dean.

The Prospect Heights Shul is not affiliated with any Orthodox organization, but is investigating becoming an Orthodox Union-member congregation, Rabbi Finkelstein says. There are no dues yet; High Holy Days tickets and seed money from members and outside supporters pay the congregation’s modest expenses, including the rabbi’s salary.

“I looked at a bunch of jobs,” mostly assistant rabbi positions in other cities, Rabbi Finkelstein, 28, says. “I chose this job ... a start-up shul” — with its low initial salary and high range of responsibilities — “because I wanted to be doing work that’s connected to creating community.”

The rabbi, says Moshe Weidenfeld, a member of the shul’s steering committee, was quickly accepted because he is “leadership ... representative of us.”

“It’s a perfect match” of rabbi and community, says Rebecca Basher, another steering committee member. “He makes you think. He really appeals to our young, educated congregants.”

For some Orthodox Jews, Park Slope and Prospect Heights are admittedly a tough sell. Kosher restaurants, groceries and Judaica shops are a few subway stops or a 10-minute car ride away. “It’s a great place” — with general quality-of-life attractions like a nearby park and museums, safe streets and quality housing stock, quick commuting to Manhattan — “if you don’t need all the ‘Jewish things’” close by, says Shanee Epstein, who has lived there more than two decades.

“It’s definitely not convenient,” Rebecca Basher says. “You need to be involved to make things happen.”

 

The synagogue's website is prospectheightshul.org

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

04/22/2014 - 02:02

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My family davened in Kol Israel from 1950-1971.It was a wonderful place to grow up in. The changing neighborhood finally forced our move. We stayed as long as we could for the shul.Its great that it is coming back. I hope that the yurtizt bulbs are turned on at the appropriate time. Would someone up date me on the shul.

We are a west sider young family who is planning to move to the area and are thrilled with the new Prospect Heights modern orthodox shul that has embraced Carlebach davening.

We are really really looking forward to making a home there and raising our children as progressive orthodox Jews!

too bad the shul doesn't exist a year later....typical Jewish Week jumping the gun to find the next progressive big thing....I wonder why the paper does so much free press for YCT

Who told you the shul no longer exists? It most certainly does - although Rabbi Finkelstein is no longer the rabbi, and they have moved to a different and more appropriate location.

Yes, many congregants from the established Cong. Bnai Jacob have left because their needs have not been met by this so called modern orthodox shul whose Chabad rabbi has a lifetime contract and who votes in the shul elections with a sizeable amount of proxies in hand. It is refreshing that there are more options in the neighborhood and that these former congregants don't have to move elsewhere. I wish this new congregation much success!

The problems that have inflicted Bnai Jacob are due to the heavy handed tactics of a Chabad Rabbi and clan that has turned off the biggest supports of CBJ .
Kol Israel has blossomed because of the dedication of Rabbi Schwartz (Orthodox) and Rabbi Kirshenbaum ( Chabad)
Rabbi Finkelstein fills a void in the Brownstown Brooklyn area .

Hopefully, there will be room for everybody.

It is disappointing to read about emerging Orthodox life in Prospect Heights and to see that your article ignores the work and sacrifice of Rabbi Schwartz and his congregation, Kol Israel, on St. John's Place. The congregation, founded in 1922, has endured for many difficult years. Rabbi Schwartz deserves recognition and support for his work in keeping this synagogue open. The neighborhood was sufficiently hostile at one point in time, before gentrification set in, that a gang attacked the congregation on a Kol Nidre night. As the area has improved, Rabbi Schwartz has continued his work of welcoming newcomers. He and the stalwarts who have enabled this beautiful old synagogue to survive deserve the support of newcomers to the area, and the recognition of the larger Jewish community

Many say that the Chovevei Torah institution is not Orthodox. I think maybe the article should mention that as a caution to those who might join so they can investigate how the synagogue is run.

Is there an eruv in the area?

yes. contact rabbi ari kirschenbaum or mr zushe dean for more info, or visit the shabbat tab on their brooklynyid.com site for eruv map

Yes, Cong. Bnai Jacob has sponsored an eruv for several years now. More info here: http://www.parkslopeshul.org/the-eruv.html

This is wonderful news indeed, to finally have a non-right-wing shul, but still Orthodox that expands the leadership of women, promotes brotherhood with the non-Orthodox congregations, and recognise the importance in the blessing of the state of Israel. If all the rest follow suit, we would have then truly achieved achdus.

I have lived in Park Slope for 20 years.

Unfortunately, the article makes no mention of the fact that what currently exists as an orthodox community in Park Slope is also fairly new. It was built only over the past 25 years by the unwavering devotion and extremely hard work and dedication of the Chabad rabbi and his amazing rebbetzin!! who head the "established" Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Bnai Jacob, 401 9th Street (I invite you to visit us on a Shabbat!!) from which many of the people quoted in this article have - for want of a better word - defected, some because of personality conflicts and some from ideology.

"Established orthodox" to many readers of the Jewish Week means a moribund old building full of pensioners - I can assure you that Congregation Bnai Jacob is vibrant, beautiful, and fun. In my mid 50's I am one of the older members of the crew.

Perhaps in creating their own community (which will probably involve a dilution of some halachos as well as the complete negation of dor-acher-dor mesora, (traditions passed down from one generation to the next) they will develop a brand of Modern Orthodox Judaism that will enable them to grow spiritually.

That said, I have met Rabbi Finkelsten and I like him. He is a devoted, sincere young man who is very wellspoken and knowledgeable. I wish him and his community, some of whom are my very dear friends, all the best.

As for me, I will stay with my "real" shul. I do hope that all of the Orthodox congregations of Park Slope and vicinity will continue to pray together, eat together, and dance together with the same kind of enthusiastic friendship for one another that I have enjoyed for the past 20 years.

Steve take it from a "Landsman": you should have done just a tad more homework, i.m.h.o., so your article would have been better balanced. But it's nice to let the world know that Orthodoxy is vibrant, alive, and growing in Park Slope.

I'm fairly new to the neighborhood and attended B'nai Jacob a few times for shabbat services. Pardon me for saying so Eliezer, but it seems a very bizarre place--such a grand, mostly empty building with very few young people. Also, people were not particularly friendly (the rabbi, sad to say, included). And though the services were orthodox, I saw and heard a couple of things that made me feel that the congregation wasn't. Maybe I just happened in at the wrong time, but I didn't feel the vibrancy and fun you write about--really the opposite for me.

Twenty years is a long time for a congregation in an area like Park Slope--why so few congregants?

It would be sad that in order to create a "community" , they would have to dilute halchos and dilute the mesorah. This would not be orthodoxy, modern or otherwise and is cetainly not necessary for people to grow spiritually. Actually just the opposite is necessary. I do think that the article could have disclosed more about the way the shul that would be run which might be non-traditional and more about the Chovevei Torah school (whose rabbis are not admitted to membership in the RCA, which is the largest modern orthodox rabbinical organization) i.e. what "open" orthodoxy really means so that people could make up their own minds.

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