Wall Street Woes Challenge Shuls To Confront Crisis

By Anthony Weiss

Published September 25, 2008, issue of October 03, 2008.
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On September 17, as the financial markets teetered on the brink of outright collapse, a networking group of financial executives gathered in a conference room at Temple Israel in Westport, Conn., to talk things over.

Matthew Bud, a synagogue member who organizes the group, recalled that the mood was grim as participants practiced their networking pitches and compared notes on their résumés. Once the meeting ended, Bud strolled over to the social hall to hear another synagogue member, Arthur Levitt Jr., former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, explain the crisis to a packed audience.

For Temple Israel and several other synagogues in the New York metropolitan area, the latest crises on Wall Street have infiltrated their halls. Th ese synagogus draw significant numbers of members from the financial sector, including the very financial companies that have made headlines in recent weeks.

The High Holy Days are a time of introspection and vulnerability for many Jews, but for these synagogues, the vulnerabilities will be particularly raw this year. Members have lost jobs, or work with the fear that they might. Hefty membership dues suddenly loom large. In response, many rabbis and synagogue directors are scrambling for ways to speak directly to their members.

“It’s the elephant in the room, it’s the elephant in the city,” said Dovi Scheiner, rabbi of the SoHo Synagogue. Scheiner estimates that roughly half of his constituents come from the financial sector. “I think that as a rabbi in times like these, not to address these issues head-on would be a dereliction of duty,” he said.

Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hampton Synagogue in Long Island’s Westhampton Beach said that several of his congregants had been forced to sell their second homes in response to the downturn. Still, he and a number of rabbis have drawn upon the financial crisis to touch on more universal themes.

“My message to the congregation is that in difficult and trying times, we need to embrace and cling to things that do not change — the power of prayer, the power of repentance, the power of faith,” Schneier told the Forward.

For many struck by the financial sector’s woes, the synagogue is serving its most basic function, as a place of refuge in times of distress. Rabbi Jonathan Stein of Temple Shaaray Tefila on Manhattan’s Upper East Side said that he had placed personal phone calls to a dozen synagogue members who worked for Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG to offer his support.

At Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side, the rabbi and the president wrote to the entire congregation, saying they did not want anyone to miss High Holy Day services or drop a membership because of financial difficulties brought on by the Wall Street crisis. Other synagogues have told members that they would work to accommodate those who were having trouble affording membership dues, tickets for High Holy Day services, and tuition for religious school and day school.

Rabbis at several synagogues said that they have also worked to connect members who have lost their jobs with other members in their industry to rework their résumés, make a connections or even find new jobs.

“We’re not a job placement service, but once in a while, we’re able to make shidduch,” Stein said.

The fast-changing pace of the financial crisis has forced rabbis to adapt quickly, and sometimes in unexpected ways. Rachel Katz, rebbetzin of the Chabad of Downtown, which is located in Manhattan’s Financial District, said that on a recent Sabbath, when the synagogue crowded with gloomy stockbrokers, her husband, Rabbi Shmarya Katz, tried to lighten the mood by jokingly suggesting that everyone wish a refuah sheleima, or speedy recovery, for the New York Stock Exchange.

“He’s being cute, but it turns into a real prayer,” Rachel Katz recalled. Describing the downcast faces of the congregations, she said, “I’m looking around, thinking it’s really sad, but I see people are in better moods.”

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