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