March 14, 2008
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan
Second installment of a three-part series on Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan. For first installment, go to Opening The Soul.New York
Alan H. Feiler
Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon has heard the criticism before. The gentle, soft-spoken senior spiritual leader of B’nai Jeshurun — an unaffiliated synagogue on the Upper West Side considered a national model for Jewish rejuvenation and innovation — doesn’t flinch when hearing that some people criticize his congregation’s services for being geared more toward pulling heartstrings than stimulating intellects.
But he countered that the congregation of approximately 1,850 families and individuals offers an impressive host of lectures and adult education classes and programming throughout the week during the course of the year. Also, the synagogue’s Saturday morning services usually feature a substantive sermon about the Torah portion and/or related weighty topics.
Still, the rabbi insisted that Shabbat and holiday services should be oriented toward feeling and absorbing, rather than dissection or analysis.
“Prayer is more for the heart than the head,” Rabbi Matalon said. “We don’t stop and reflect on the prayer. That is something that can be done on Wednesday nights in a class. You have to study prayer outside of prayer. You can’t do it during prayer. Prayer is an activity of the soul, not the mind. Study of Torah is for the mind.
“We are not an anti-intellectual congregation,” he cautioned. “We have plenty of classes. But Friday night is not an intellectual activity. The service shouldn’t be a learner’s minyan.”
Because it explores and borrows from all of Judaism’s branches and traditions, including neo-Chasidism, BJ — as B’nai Jeshurun is widely known — appeals to Jews of all backgrounds, from right-wing Orthodoxy to the unaffiliated, said Rabbi Felicia L. Sol, who came to the synagogue in 1996. That trans-denominationalism, she said, is part of the congregation’s strength.
“The labels are not important to us,” she said. “We just want to be as open and inclusive as possible. [Congregants] come from a huge spectrum. BJ can meet people with more knowledge or less.”
Another strength is the congregation’s lack of judgmentalism. For example, it’s well-known at BJ that many congregants dine out together after Friday night services. While some spiritual leaders might frown on such activity — since it involves financial transactions at non-kosher establishments on the Sabbath — BJ’s leaders do not discourage congregants. (When eating out together on Friday evenings, some congregants say they try to never discuss work matters, and dine only at restaurants that enforce ethical workplace practices, to maintain the feeling of Shabbat.)
To detractors, Rabbi Matalon said, without hesitation, “Let them frown. These people are trying the best they can to preserve a Shabbat consciousness, even if it transgresses halachic rules. It’s not all-or-nothing here. They take elements of Shabbat. Some will become more traditional and some won’t, but at least they’re coming to shul and have a community and carry the Shabbat consciousness.”
In the spirit of experimentalism, BJ’s Rabbi Marcelo R. Bronstein cited two auxiliary services that have become popular with the congregation. One is called the “Wandering Minyan” (“Because we never know where they’re going to be,” he said with a laugh) for worshippers who prefer intimate, chavurah-style services without children in attendance. There is also a “Contemplative Service,” at which participants spend much of the time in silence and/or chanting a particular phrase from the siddur.
“[The late Jewish musician and teacher] Shlomo Carlebach used to do this in Jerusalem,” said Rabbi Bronstein. “It’s kabbalistic, with mishnayot, repetition. It’s everything, but less and slower, and it’s for people with that inclination.”
That notion, to be all things for all people under one roof, is BJ’s overall goal, Rabbi Bronstein said. While that might sound like a tall order, he said the result tends to be joyful and meaningful worship.
“We often mix things together that you don’t often see mixed, and people are often stunned by this,” he said. “One guy once visited BJ and watched and said, ‘I’m sorry, but this is not Jewish.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘It’s just too happy.’”
No Quick Fixes
The question is not a new one. BJ’s rabbis and congregants hear it frequently from people visiting their synagogue. At times, they seem a bit tired of the query.
Can what you do here be replicated at other congregations?
Because of the demographics and nature of the Jewish community of the Upper West Side, many people feel the question is a non-starter.
Because it came together in the late ’80s and early ’90s in an urban center with a large number of young Jews, with a charismatic spiritual leader (See history sidebar) and at the start of the “Being Jewish is Cool” movement, BJ is the result of a “perfect storm” of factors that made it a success that cannot be duplicated, according to writer and former congregant Sue Fishkoff.
Rabbi Bronstein, for one, is not so sure about that. “Nothing can really be replicated fully, except maybe Starbucks,” he conceded, chuckling. “But I’m positive that if we had a congregation in Baltimore or elsewhere, it would happen there. At my old congregation in Santiago [Chile], you saw the same type of energy. It’s all about the passion, and that’s contagious. We believe everyone has that passion and wants to change the world and make it better.
“It might not happen elsewhere in the same manner as here. But elements could resonate in other places, if you apply the essence of BJ.”
To export this “essence,” the synagogue has mentored several congregations around the country and produced a booklet expounding on the BJ model. In addition, BJ has a rabbinic fellowship program to train rabbinical students from all of the denominations’ seminaries.
“It’s not all just about the Upper West Side,” Rabbi Bronstein said. “You can see this happening in other places, too. There’s a new way of doing things which is not the same way. It takes a lot of mentoring and humility and courage and wisdom to change your ways. It’s difficult.”
Congregations should take the spirit of BJ but reinterpret it according to their own traditions, history, culture and demographic situation, advised Rabbi Matalon.
“We don’t believe in copying or emulating. Different communities and geographic areas may take some of the ruach [spirit] and intentions and put it in their own context,” he said. “But the spirit of this community can be done most anywhere. It won’t be identical, but on the inside it’s the same thing, the same connection to Torah.
“The key is to build in areas where you have the trust of your congregation,” Rabbi Matalon added. “Use that credit and try things, but not all at once. Do it with love, and not with power or anger. Begin somewhere meaningful, and don’t be afraid. Synagogue should be a place that’s alive, filled with love and community and song and joy. That’s what brings people to Torah.”
It’s what brought — and continues to bring — Susan Samuels to BJ. “I walked in for a service on a Friday night 10 years ago, and I never left,” said Ms. Samuels, who lives in Westchester County, N.Y.
Although several large suburban synagogues are located near her home, she said she prefers driving in for BJ, which is a good half-hour ride into the city. “It’s weird, but there’s no place like it,” she said.
Ms. Samuels is co-chair of BJ’s Judith Bernstein Lunch Program, which provides kosher vegetarian meals for the needy every Thursday afternoon in the synagogue’s basement auditorium. The shul also runs a homeless shelter with a nearby church, in addition to myriad social action projects (the environment, gay rights, Darfur, literacy, affordable housing, etc.), interfaith programs and Middle East peace projects.
“This is all a big part of what BJ is all about,” said Ms. Samuels, scanning a room of about 100 people eating lunch at the synagogue on a recent Thursday afternoon. “This congregation is not just about talk but action. It gives back. It’s not just a bunch of Upper West Side Yuppies. But it takes a certain kind of person to come here. You have to be open to new ideas and accepting of diversity.
“I go to other congregations occasionally, and I’m just appalled by the lack of energy,” she said. “People talk and don’t listen, don’t pay attention or participate [at services]. You don’t have to clone BJ. Just take parts of this and make it part of your own congregation.
“Just take the joy and make it your own. That’s all.”
Next week: Local rabbis comment on whether B’nai Jeshurun could be duplicated in Baltimore.
Historical Overview Of B’nai Jeshurun
• Founded in 1825 as the first Ashkenazic congregation in New York City.
• In 1917, BJ moved into its current site at West 88th Street.
• In August 1985, Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, a noted charismatic spiritual leader and human rights champion, was installed as spiritual leader of BJ, which had declined to approximately 40 members, with serious financial woes and difficulty attracting a daily minyan. The American-born Rabbi Meyer, a disciple of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, had previously spent 26 years serving Argentina’s Jewish community.
• Not long after his arrival, Rabbi Meyer recruited his former students in Argentina, Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon and Chazzan Ari Priven, to come to BJ. The synagogue also discontinued its affiliation with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
• In May 1991, the ceiling of the sanctuary at BJ collapsed. The congregation began holding services at the nearby Church of St. Paul and St.Andrew. (Rededicated in December 1996, BJ subsequently decided to discard its bimah, and offers movable chairs rather than pews to afford the sanctuary an air of informality.)
• Rabbi Meyer died in 1993 at age 63. At this point, BJ had a membership of more than 1,100 families.
• Rabbi Marcelo R. Bronstein, another Argentinian disciple of Rabbi Meyer’s, joined BJ in 1995.
• In 1999, BJ released its first CD, “With Every Breath: The Music of Shabbat at BJ” (Knitting Factory), a celebration of the synagogue’s music.
• In February 2001, Rabbi Felicia L. Sol became the first female spiritual leader in BJ’s history.
• Today, BJ operates on a $5 million annual budget, including upkeep of its facility; rent at the church for Saturday morning services and the congregational offices at 2109 Broadway; a lunch program and homeless shelter; a program to visit the sick and comfort mourners; and myriad study and social action programs.
• BJ also has an enrollment of approximately 320 students in its religious school housed at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, an educational institution on the Upper West Side committed to Jewish pluralism and observance.
• Since 1996, BJ has sponsored the Marshall T. Meyer Fellows program, a two-year apprenticeship at the congregation for students from rabbinical schools of all denominations.
For information about BJ, call 212-787-7600 or check out www.bj.org .