Iconic Synagogue on the Upper West Side Faces Tough Uphill Financial Battle

Modern Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue Halts Construction on New Manhattan Building, Citing Higher Costs

Financial Troubles: Construction on Lincoln Square Synagogue’s half-finished new home has been halted.
Financial Troubles: Construction on Lincoln Square Synagogue’s half-finished new home has been halted.

By Joy Resmovits

Published October 15, 2010, issue of October 29, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Four decades after Lincoln Square Synagogue moved into its rounded building near Lincoln Center, the iconic Modern Orthodox congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is facing an uncertain future, following the decision to halt construction on its new building and the resignation of its president.

LSS, the subject of public attention this year after former member Elena Kagan was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, has been building a new home a block away from its current location. The project broke ground in 2007 and was expected to be finished 12 to 18 months later.

Three years on, though, the project has yet to be completed, and on October 11 the synagogue announced on its website that construction was being suspended pending the naming of a venture partner or major donor.

The public announcements followed several meetings among synagogue leaders and, later, the synagogue’s members, at which everyone mulled the predicament: Simply put, there is not enough money to proceed.

LSS is just one of several Orthodox institutions in New York that have faced similar challenges in recent years. The Ramaz School stopped construction on a planned building project, and Young Israel of New Rochelle, in nearby Westchester County, underestimated the costs of its new building, delaying its opening.

At LSS, some congregants who asked not to be identified expressed concern that the recent upheaval and financial woes marked the beginning of the end for the storied synagogue. But Shaul Robinson, the congregation’s senior rabbi, says LSS has no plans to close. “We have a steep hill to climb, but we’re committed to it,” he said. “I have no doubt that it will continue to exist.”

LSS has attracted national attention ever since the mid-1960s, when Rabbi Shlomo Riskin — then a charismatic young graduate of Yeshiva University — inspired its then-Conservative congregants to greater levels of observance. Riskin, who could not be reached for comment, brought music, social events, lectures and adult-learning programs to the congregation, thus attracting many new members. The synagogue eventually reoriented itself as a Modern Orthodox community.

“The Lincoln Square Synagogue was, through the 1980s, the cutting-edge synagogue in the Orthodox world and, by extension, in the religious world — in women, singles, outreach to the unaffiliated,” said Jerome Chanes, a longtime member of LSS and a Forward contributing editor.

In 1983, Riskin left LSS and immigrated to Israel to become chief rabbi of Efrat, a large settlement in the Israeli occupied West Bank. The congregation then went through a succession of rabbis — including one who left to start a breakaway synagogue, also on the Upper West Side. But since 2005 the congregation has been under the leadership of Robinson, a Scottish rabbi who studied under Riskin.

Several years ago, the synagogue opted to build a new structure nearby, and orchestrated a land swap with developer American Continental Properties, owner of the Lincoln Towers complex. The deal yielded about $18.5 million for the synagogue, according to several members who were privy to the information.

Following the land swap, LSS entered into an arrangement by which it now rents its original space from the developer. But the contract stipulates that if ACP decides to build on the site that currently houses the synagogue, the congregation will have to find and finance an interim space, since the new building has not been completed.

A capital campaign to fund construction has raised about $7 million so far. But at a recent meeting, the synagogue leadership announced that the costs had grown tremendously. This left a shortfall of about $17 million, several members told the Forward.

“We’re still looking into what the final cost will be,” said Gloria Kestenbaum, a synagogue member who handles some of its communications. She added that financial information is confidential.

“It is an expensive building to build,” she said. “Because of the way the building was built, with fast-tracking, I think that the people in charge of the building were not always aware of the costs as they were coming up.”

Steel was more expensive than expected. There were redundancies. The synagogue had to enhance the foundation of the neighboring West End Synagogue. A settlement with a neighboring residential building cost another million dollars.

LSS is hurting financially, but just how much is unclear. Several sources have said that the synagogue is lagging on its rental payments to the developer, but Kestenbaum, speaking on behalf of LSS, said, “We have not missed any.”

She added that there “are no immediate plans for borrowing for this project. We don’t want to put the synagogue’s future in jeopardy.”

Robinson said that the announcement of construction setbacks has prompted some member donations.

Requests for comment from ACP were not returned.

According to a memo sent out to members, the congregation’s president, Scott Liebman, who did not return requests for comment, stepped down from his post late in the week of October 11. “Scott decided that it is in the shul’s best interest to have a fresh start with new leadership to manage the building project,” said the letter, signed by the synagogue’s three vice presidents.

Down the block, on Amsterdam Avenue, a large area is fenced off with wire and boards. Through slats, passersby can see the beginning of LSS’s new building, now composed of shining steel and winding pipes. If and when construction starts up again, the building would take only months to complete, Robinson said. “The new shul will… be a headquarters for Modern Orthodoxy in New York City, if not beyond,” he vowed.

In the meantime, he said, “It’s enormously frustrating.”

Contact Joy Resmovits at resmovits@forward.com

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.