Phyllis Blackman had been alternately attending the West Side Jewish Center and a Chabad synagogue when she suddenly sprained her ankle and found herself unable to walk more than a block. "And then like magic, they opened this synagogue around the corner from me," she said, referring to the Jewish Enrichment Center on the second floor of 176 Madison Ave. at 34th Street. "I had known the rabbi from [his previous pulpit at] the Murray Hill Synagogue. When he opened here, he called me and invited me to check it out."
The rabbi, Daniel Green, opened the Jewish Enrichment Center in August and Blackman said, "it is really making a difference in the neighborhood. It was a happy discovery. The people are very welcoming. There is a nice variety of people: single and married, but mostly single."
Rabbi Green, 27, a graduate of Yeshiva University, said he had been at the Murray Hill Synagogue as an assistant and then the senior rabbi for 22 years before deciding to start the JEC.
"Midtown Manhattan is the hub, the center of American Jewry in many ways," he said. "You literally have hundreds of thousands of Jews who work in the area on a daily basis, and there was no vibrant Jewish center that people could come to connect with."
Citing figures from UJA-Federation's 1991 population study, Rabbi Green said 73,000 Jews live on the East Side: south of Central Park from 10th to 50th streets. That means that as a residential community, it has a larger Jewish population than either the Upper East Side or Upper West Side, he said.
"I felt this area needed more than a synagogue, it needed a center," said Rabbi Green. "We don't define ourselves as a synagogue, although we have services. Rather, we consider ourselves as an outreach center where people can grow and learn at their own pace."
He said the JEC hopes to attract primarily those who may be "intimidated by the word 'synagogue.' People are searching for a place that's open, unintimidating and unobtrusive, where they can grow at their own pace and at their own level. Our target audience is those who live or work in Midtown."
To do that, the rabbi said the JEC has developed educational and social activities.
"The socials have no religious overtones to them, but simply are social outlets where people can come, meet and hopefully, from that, broaden their Judaism," he said.
Esther Loewy, 30, met her fiance at one of the dinners Rabbi Green organized when he was at the Murray Hill Synagogue. Loewy, who handles public relations for an Internet company, said a friend had told her about the dinners, which were held at a local restaurant after Friday night services.
"I called Rabbi Green and he said to send a check for the dinner and come," said Loewy of the conversation she had in December 1997. "I said, 'How about a credit card?' He said, 'No problem.' I was impressed because it showed he was prepared to accommodate people who preferred to pay that way. ... I went alone to the services and dinner; I was told that many of the people would also be single. The rabbi introduced himself and I was surprised that he was so young. He was very warm, congenial and charismatic. There were about 100 people at the dinner, and maybe 80 were single."
Loewy said she ate at a table with an "interesting, dynamic" group of singles from just about every walk of life. The group included a designer as well as someone who did public relations for Rolling Stone magazine. A young man who would later become her fiance, Steven Katz, walked her home that night. They dated for a year and were engaged Dec. 6. A June wedding is planned.
Loewy agreed with Rabbi Green that until the JEC was started, there was a "vacuum in Midtown for non-judgmental, open forums that foster intellectual, philosophical discussions." And she said Rabbi Green's sermons "relate to what's going on. There's no fire and brimstone. and he's not preaching at you but sharing his thoughts and knowledge. ... His youth works to his advantage."
Several of those who met Rabbi Green at the Murray Hill Synagogue have followed him to the JEC, including Loewy.
"I believe in the concept of a start-up: the entrepreneurial spirit," she said of Rabbi Green's efforts. "He is someone who has drive and passion and appeals to a wide variety of people."
Another congregant who followed Rabbi Green to the JEC is Ezra Altman, 29, who said the rabbi took about 30 congregants with him from the Murray Hill Synagogue.
"I liked his non-synagogue activities and classes," he said. "At Murray Hill, they were at different places and different times. Here, they are always at the same time and place. And this [synagogue] is near to me and attracts mostly young, single people. ... This neighborhood doesn't have as much outreach as other areas, like the Upper West Side, which has a lot of activities that don't exist in Midtown on the East Side."
The JEC recently joined with Maimonides College to offer fully accredited courses in Jewish studies. Rabbi Green said he expects to offer the courses in coming months both at the synagogue and on the Internet. The synagogue has also joined forces with Modern Jewish Matchmaking, which uses interviews, common sense and computers to determine possible soul mates.
The JEC is also home to the Manhattan chapter of the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization each Monday evening. The two are working to coordinate events in the future.
Later this year, the JEC plans to open a satellite location in the West Village. Rabbi Green said the area "has many Jews and much spirituality. What it now needs is Jewish spirituality."
The JEC holds a variety of activities throughout the week. Here are some of them:There is a weekday morning minyan at 7:45 a.m. and a daily afternoon service at 1:45 p.m. At 4:45 p.m., a daily Sephardic minyan is held, attended by Jews of predominantly Syrian descent.
The Shabbat services, at 6:30 p.m. Fridays and 9:30 a.m. Saturdays, are designed for worshipers with an intermediate knowledge of Hebrew. The prayer books have an English translation but a book with transliterated prayers is also available.
A beginners' service for those with no knowledge of Hebrew is held at 9:30 a.m. and is led by Rabbi Zev Reichman.
Each Friday evening at 7:30 p.m., the JEC hosts a dinner.
On Mondays at 6:15 p.m., Rabbi Green hold a class in which he explains how to practically observe Jewish rituals and customs. On Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., participants are paired with a volunteer tutor; together they delve into a topic of their own choosing. Free courses in beginning and intermediate Hebrew are offered at 8:30 p.m.On Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Rabbi Reichman teaches an introductory course in Kabbalah. The lecture, which attracts more than 100 young people, is followed by a reception sponsored by the JECís Young Professionals Division. That group is also planning to host events at local clubs to maximize the appeal and success of the evenings.
On Thursday evening, Jewish scholars deliver advanced-level lectures. The lectures have attracted as many as 150 people.
For further information, call Rabbi Green at 889-5532.
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