Hampton Synagogue Opens an ‘Off-Season’ Outpost in Manhattan

By Cara Greenberg

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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It’s finally here: a synagogue in New York City for people who summer in the Hamptons.

Thirteen years ago in Westhampton, Rabbi Marc Schneier founded the Hampton Synagogue, a spiritual center for urbanites nestled in the well-to-do wilds of Long Island for the summer season. In what seemed like a New York minute, the synagogue became a magnet for chic shucklers, including Steven Spielberg, Marvin Hamlisch and Tovah Feldshuh.

That congregation has since mushroomed to include more than 500 families, and the rabbi has now decided that the members of his flock, many of whom enjoy primary residences in Bloomingdale’s country, need a religious outpost in Manhattan for the winter months.

“My challenge is to galvanize those Westhampton families who were not attending services in the city on a regular basis to maintain their level of participation through the quote unquote ‘off-season,’” said Schneier, the 44-year-old former real estate broker — who is also a co-founder, with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, of a foundation dedicated to improving race relations. “Why should people only experience the spirit of the Hampton Synagogue on a five- or six-month basis?”

To that end, Schneier has created the New York Synagogue, which in its nascent phase will hold Friday-night and Saturday-morning services in a leased space at the New York Genealogical Society on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. For the shul’s temporary sanctuary, Israeli architect Edward Jacobs transformed a distinguished but dowdy coffered-ceiling room that had been used mainly for bake sales into an airy house of prayer with postmodern accoutrements, including an ark and a mechitza fashioned from swirling strips of plastic. Lining the walls, oddly, are patrician portraits of people who don’t look like anybody’s uncle from Minsk. The 1928 Genealogical Society building, which houses many pre-1840 Jewish family archives, also contains the offices of the Order of Colonial Lords of Manors, the Society of Mayflower Descendants and Pilgrims of the United States.

Last weekend’s “soft opening” of the New York Synagogue drew between 150 and 175 people on Friday night, with a larger crowd “rocking and rolling” on Saturday, according to Schneier. An overflow crowd is expected this weekend, when the synagogue opens officially with the dedication of new Torah scrolls and the participation of a 14-person choir from the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, under its director Eli Jaffe.

As in Westhampton, the service will end with what has become a staple: its full-on, lavish Kiddush, catered by its neighboring restaurant, Mendy’s.

As in Westhampton, there will be no annual dues. Instead, the congregation is counted on to generously support the synagogue through an annual dinner dance, an event that at the Hamptons raises more than $1 million. “We’re not a club,” said Michael Weisbrod, president of the congregation. “Anybody who wants to come can come.”

And, as in Westhampton, the heart of the congregation will likely be a coterie of Modern Orthodox regulars who live within walking distance of the shul.

Still, the rabbi insisted, the New York Synagogue is open to those at every level of observance. “I like to say I’m an Orthodox rabbi with a Conservative congregation and Reform members,” said Schneier, an 18th-generation member of a rabbinic dynasty from Austria and Hungary. (His father, Arthur Schneier, is the longtime rabbi of the Park East Synagogue ten blocks north.) “We’re very eclectic and very user-friendly.”

Indeed, visitors to the inaugural services were greeted by the up-tempo opening notes of Cantor Israel Rand and his five male back-up singers — a whiskered Jewish version of the Persuasions — before slipping into seats in the “separate-but-equal” seating that became a selling point for the Hamptons headquarters.

It may be the only professional choir — a cappella, of course — in an Orthodox shul, at least according to Schneier’s estimation. And it certainly isn’t tame. Led by Rand, one of the country’s top cantors, choir director Itzchak Haimov, and the four-part Renanim choir, the liturgy practically swings.

Schneier is also hard at work planning regular Friday-night programs for young adults in their 20s and 30s, which are slated to start on November 7 at Mendy’s kosher restaurant, next door to the shul. “Close to 70% of the Manhattan Jewish community is single,” Schneier pointed out. While he has no designs on becoming the Orthodox East Side answer to the West Side’s B’Nai Jeshurun, with its ecstatic dancing, “I’m open to anything,” he said.

And the congregation plans eventually to build a new synagogue, seven stories above ground and six below, on the site of a dilapidated building next door that was donated by “a friend of the congregation and rabbi,” Weisbrod said. Jacobs is slated to design the interior of the new building, which should be ready around 2006. “We already have pledges of $20 million, and plenty of time to raise more,” said Weisbrod.

For those who want to continue, or sample, the “Shabbat experience of the Hamptons” in an urban setting, the New York Synagogue will hold Friday-night and Saturday services in their leased space from now through April. Come May 1, the rabbi and the cantor will be back at the beach.

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