The Battery’s Up
Wed, 01/02/2008
Special To The Jewish Week

Battery Park City is a neighborhood made from scratch. Its 92 acres sit on landfill, soil excavated during the construction of the World Trade Center in the 1960s. Atop what used to be dilapidated piers, a village of high-rise and low-rise housing, plazas, playgrounds and pocket parks has arisen, with a population of about 10,000 people.

The Jewish community is self-invented, too. While the first Jewish community in North America — dating back to 1654 — was in Lower Manhattan, and the first synagogue not far away on Mill Street, the growing community moved further uptown and its synagogues followed. In the early 1980s, when Jews joined the first group of residents to move into Battery Park City, there hadn’t been a Jewish presence in this southernmost end of Lower Manhattan for more than a century.

“There’s now an explosion of families looking to have a Jewish experience in a very creative way, in lots of different ways. That’s fantastic,” says Elizabeth Berger, who last month was named president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, the city’s largest Business Improvement District. Berger, who has lived downtown, “below Fulton Street,” for 25 years, now lives in an area she describes as “the suburbs of Battery Park City.”

Today, Battery Park City residents have their choice of the Battery Park Synagogue, which meets in an apartment in Gateway Plaza, Battery Park City’s first residential development; the Synagogue for the Arts in Tribeca; or two congregations that meet further east, Chabad of Downtown on Fulton Street, or the Wall Street Synagogue on Beekman Place. The Wall Street Synagogue is the oldest, dating back to 1929, when it was founded to serve the business community and then later extended its efforts to serve the growing residential community. Other communal institutions include Tribeca Hebrew and the Jewish Community Project, JCP.

Other than Chabad, none of the synagogues are affiliated with a movemnet, and the leaders of each eschew denominational labels. Battery Park Synagogue is an egalitarian congregation, Synagogue for the Arts “eclectic Orthodox,” and Wall Street “Ashkenaz traditional.” Labels don’t mean much to residents either.

“We all have a very strong sense of Jewish community,” says Norman Kleiman, the president and a founding member of Battery Park Synagogue, which held its first High Holy Day services in 1985. “This is a true community synagogue. We didn’t build a synagogue and look for members. We already felt a bond with each other. We all tended to congregate in the same restaurants, our kids went to the same schools, so it was a natural outgrowth for us to form a synagogue,” says Kleiman, who moved to Battery Park City in the early 1980s.

The congregation meets several times a month, and they use the prayer book of the Conservative movement in their participatory service. Their sukkah, atop the Terrace Club in Battery Park City, is open to all, looking out over the water.

“It’s a very warm neighborhood. I just never thought of it as a Jewish neighborhood,” says Nancy Aronson, a lecture agent who has lived in Battery Park City for six years. “I have a Jewish home, a mezuzah on my door, I do nice meals. I met a couple of my Jewish neighbors talking about Passover. I bring them leftovers — that’s my version of Jewish community in Gateway Plaza.”

But whatever Jewish feeling is missing from her neighborhood, Aronson, who describes herself as Conservative, says she gets from the Synagogue for the Arts, where she is an active member. “It feels like home. It’s the most warm and tolerant place to worship.”

Aronson bakes her own challah, or buys it uptown. The local wine store carries three varieties of kosher wine; grocery stores sell frozen chicken soup, cheese blintzes and potato pancakes — all kosher — but no challah. Some residents go to the Lower East Side, or search for loaves in neighborhoods further north.

“Battery Park City is appealing to me because it has a small-town feel in a big city. I know my neighbors, I know their kids. I know the store owners,” says Anna Rachmansky, a freelance writer and editor and mother of two young kids. She and her husband, who are both on the board of UJA-Federation of New York and its Russian division, have been members of Chabad since moving to the neighborhood three years ago. For her, Battery Park City is “like a shtetl, just a bit more metropolitan, of course.”

Jewish life downtown, particularly in Battery Park City, is lower profile than in other sections of New York City. Walking around Battery Park City, with its streets oriented to Manhattan’s grid, and its tree-lined esplanade following the river for more than a mile, one might catch sight of couples dressed in ultra-Orthodox style, walking along the water or sipping sodas in the nearby Ritz-Carlton Hotel. These folks are not local residents but visitors, as Battery Park City has become a popular destination for “shidduch dates.”

Nowhere else in Manhattan can one live this close to the river, and the water and skyscapes are magnificent. If the esplanade is the front porch, the backyard features ball fields, art installations, a yacht harbor and the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center, with its vaulted ceiling and stately palm trees, featuring live entertainment through the year. The shops provide a nearby if expensive local mall, and Century 21’s flagship store is a short walk away.

This is a neighborhood filled with the presence of memory, whether in the many monuments standing along the water’s edge, or the absence of the World Trade Towers. The Jewish imperative to remember can be strongly felt here. Battery Park features a memorial to members of the U.S. Merchant Marine who were buried at sea and other memorials to the armed forces, and a small, almost hidden tribute to Emma Lazarus, whose words are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, never far from view here.

Along the esplanade, memorials honor fallen NYPD officers and those who died in the great Irish famine. The Museum of Jewish Heritage, conceived in part as a Holocaust memorial, includes Andy Goldsworthy’s outdoor sculptural installation, Garden of Stones, a memorial garden and contemplative space.

“The Sphere,” a symbol of world peace, by Fritz Koenig, once in the plaza of the World Trade Center, now stands, damaged, in Battery Park, as a temporary memorial to the victims of 9/11. Memorial exhibitions are now housed in the Tribute WTC Visitor Center on Liberty Street, until the National September 11th Memorial and Museum is completed in 2010.

In the aftermath of 9/11, residents of Battery Park City had to evacuate, local schools were closed, and about half the residents relocated, never to return.

“We lost everything,” Kleiman says. The Battery Park Synagogue was closed for a year, and its membership was cut by three-quarters. “We’ve been rebuilding ever since.”

Cantor Zachary Koenigsberg, a third-generation cantor who serves as clerical leader of Battery Park Synagogue, explains that the congregation  continues to commemorate 9/11 in its Yizkor service, which includes readings related to the experiences of community members.

At the Synagogue for the Arts, about 10 percent of their membership relocated after 9/11. The two synagogues have done joint commemorative ceremonies on anniversaries, and one year for Selichot, the Saturday evening before Rosh HaShanah, they joined together in a candlelit walk to Ground Zero.

“One of the ironic joys of 9/11 is the way people came together. Downtown has come back even stronger. That has been a great thing to be part of,” says Berger of the Downtown Alliance, who’s a member of the Synagogue for the Arts. She speaks of an “incredible explosion of opportunity in the Jewish community as a result of 9/11. Tragedy is the breeding ground of great optimism. I think that people made an affirmative commitment to stay or come back.”

“It’s up to residents to make their interests and needs known,” Berger notes. “The history of synagogues in lower Manhattan is that they were created as a response to the business community.”

Indeed, the Synagogue for the Arts was founded as the Civic Center Synagogue in 1938 to serve Jewish lawyers and civil servants working nearby. When Rabbi Jonathan Glass arrived in 1989, he guided the shul’s transformation toward serving the growing community of artists and others living in the area. The synagogue, housed in its striking 1967 building, features an art gallery and regular concerts. It continues to have a daily minyan, attended primarily by commuters, a different population than its  multi-lingual, multi-ethnic congregation.

Rabbi Glass also volunteers at the Hallmark, a senior residence in Battery Park City, often holding Yizkor services and pre-holiday programs. Some residents are members of the shul, but the synagogue right now is not wheelchair accessible.

Rabbi Meyer Hager, who leads the Wall Street Synagogue where there are six services every weekday, is the second rabbi in the synagogue’s almost 80-year history; the first was his father, Rabbi Joseph Hager. For residents of Battery Park City who attend the shul, the walk across the narrow part of the island takes about 20 minutes.

“Our doors are always open to anyone downtown,” he says. “The neighborhood is not like the Upper West Side or the Lower East Side. Maybe someday. It takes time.”

“People in Battery Park City know us,” Rochel Katz says. She and her husband, Rabbi Shmaya Katz, founded the Chabad of Downtown nine years ago. Their Chabad House on Fulton Street attracts people from all of the downtown neighborhoods. Several people interviewed mentioned the traditional kiddush, with Rochel Katz’s cholent, served every week.

“I can’t help but feel that there is still room for another shul — perhaps of the Reform or Reconstructionst movement,” Rachmansky says. “Our family has been a big supporter of Chabad and we love it. But there are others in the community who I think would worship in their own way and don’t have an outlet for it down here within walking distance. Having another synagogue in the neighborhood would be a wonderful community sanctuary.”

She points to the tremendous development in terms of residential housing downtown, and believes “the demand for Jewish family programming and education will increase sharply down here based on pure population issues alone.” Rachmansky, who was born in Moscow, has piloted a Russian Enrichment program at JCP called “Privet,” with after-school classes for kids to expose them to Russian language and culture.

Welcoming the idea of a Jewish day school in the area, she says, “I think the likes of Heschel or Ramaz should consider a downtown annex. Recently, Claremont Prep, a private school based on the Upper West Side, established a downtown presence.” A new public elementary school is slated to open on Battery Place, near the southern tip of Battery Park City.

A Jewish educational institution with a downtown presence, Touro College moved its graduate business programs last June to Lower Broadway, between Wall Street and Exchange Place. As Charles Snow, dean of business programs, explains, “We felt it would certainly be helpful for the school and for students to be within the business environment of the Wall Street community.” The 80 students enrolled in its MBA programs, with evening classes, come from 20 countries, and about one third are Jewish, of different backgrounds. Its vending machines are kosher, and the school is closed on all Jewish holidays, but otherwise the school has a secular atmosphere.

Conversations about downtown often turn again to food. Kosher food, like Jewish life, is slightly below the radar, but present and diverse. One can taste vegetarian dim sum at a kosher Chinese restaurant in Chinatown; deli, pita sandwiches, salads and pizza in several eateries through the financial center and at the kosher café in the Museum of Jewish Heritage. At the Synagogue for the Arts, a hot kiddush lunch of two versions of homemade vegetarian cholent, puddings and baked goods is served every Shabbat.

Also new to the neighborhood is Crumb’s Bakery, on Beaver Street between Hanover and Wall Streets. It’s now open weekdays, and will open on weekends in 2008. All of its many varieties of cupcakes and cookies are dairy and certified kosher. When I mentioned the downtown challah dilemma to the owner, Jason Bauer, he said he’d take it “under advisement.”