After more than 40 years of conducting worship services in rented space at Congregation Ohab Zedek on the Upper West Side, the Yom Kippur service held this week by the city’s only Austrian congregation appears as though it will be its last.
Ohab Zedek officials say their congregation needs the space and the Austrian congregation consistently fails to attract a minyan.
The Austrian Consulate, in an effort to help keep the Austrian Jewish heritage alive here, has offered its assistance as the Austrian congregation seeks a new site for Sabbath and holiday services.
In a letter to the Austrian congregation’s leaders in August, Ohab Zedek president Reuben Taub wrote that some of those who attend the Young Professionals Minyan in a ground-floor chapel are "forced to stand in the aisles and hallways" because the Austrian congregation uses a classroom in the rear of the chapel.
Taub said the Young Professionals Minyan attracts at least 125 worshipers for Sabbath services each week.
He also complained that because of the Austrian congregation’s inability to attract an Orthodox minyan, some of its members routinely stand in front of Ohab Zedek to encourage those heading for Ohab Zedek to attend their service.
"As one would expect, typically several members feel remorse and try to accommodate by davening with the [Austrian congregation]," Taub wrote. "This aspect of davening at Ohab Zedek naturally makes many people feel uncomfortable."
Lola Sprinzeles, a longtime member of the Austrian congregation, said one reason the congregation has dwindled is because it has been forced to hold services in a classroom for about the past seven years.
"Young people don’t want to come to a crowded classroom where you can barely breathe," she said.
Susan Hahn, whose father, Fred, had been president of the congregation until his death two years ago, said the American Congregation of Jews from Austria was started by "prominent Austrians" in 1941 at Broadway and 92nd Street. Sprinzeles said it was located in a second-floor room atop a restaurant.
"It was huge and very traditional and full of Europeans," said Hahn, 53, whose mother was born in Vienna.
Sprinzeles, also a Vienna native, said the congregation moved to Ohab Zedek in the early 1960s because its members "were getting older and couldn’t climb the stairs anymore."
The move was only five blocks, to 95th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam.
Sprinzeles, 76, said she was with her late husband, Paul, when he transferred the Austrian congregation’s six Torahs to the ark in the chapel at Ohab Zedek.
"We had a station wagon and put them in there," she said. "My husband carried each of them in. I waited outside in the car to make sure that nothing would be stolen."
Hahn said Ohab Zedek did not have many members in those days and offered the Austrian congregation full use of the chapel.
"We paid rent and even helped them finance repairs to the boiler," she said. "We had the room in the front of the chapel and the space in the back, and we filled it up in those days. More than 100 would come. My grandparents went there. It attracted everybody who had survived the Holocaust in one way or another.
"It was very much like home. The cantor was from central Europe and the melodies used were old European melodies," Hahn recalled. "It met every Saturday and on all the holidays. Then the older people died and my parents’ generation took over. It was a family synagogue."
Initially the rent was $800 a month, Hahn said, but it was lowered to $500 "with the condition that if we ever closed, they would keep our Torahs."
Over the years members died, moved away or joined other larger synagogues, Hahn said.
Sprinzeles said she regularly attended the Austrian congregation until a year ago, when illness forced her to move to Riverdale to be near her son.
But Hahn insisted that there are "people of my generation who want to keep it alive. Everyone says they have fond memories of growing up in that congregation. It was very heimishe and traditional."
Hahn said that ever since receiving the Taub letter she has been looking for another site to hold Sabbath and holiday services. She said Ohab Zedek officials have insisted that the Yom Kippur services will be its last.
Andreas Launer, Austria’s deputy consul general in New York, said he recently learned of the Austrian congregation’s plight and wants to help.
"It’s a question of getting a nice room for them, their children and their grandchildren," he said. "It could be very attractive [for those of Austrian heritage] to have contact with their roots.
"I don’t want to get involved in any internal conflict, but if for whatever reason they want to take their Torahs and find another home, we will try to help them bring new life into the congregation."
Launer added that he had put Hahn in touch with Selfhelp Community Services, which provides support here for a large Austrian Jewish clientele. And he said the Austrian Consulate would host a reception for members of the Austrian Jewish community here who are interested in revitalizing the Austrian congregation.
Murray Zucker, vice president of Ohab Zedek, said he believes the Austrian congregation is no longer viable.
"Of the 10 [men] they get, three are hired (the rabbi, the cantor and an administrative worker) and they take a few people from us every week," he said.
Taub said he visited the Austrian congregation’s service last week and found 17 men in attendance.
Zucker said his congregants saw the declining numbers of the Austrian congregation’s minyan and "begged them for years to join with us." He noted that Ohab Zedek, which is about 125 years old, also was started by European Jews. Its official name, he said, is the First Hungarian Congregation.
"If we had the space, we wouldnít be having this conversation," he stressed. "But we have to do what is best for the shul."
Ohab Zedek, with about 400 single members, has one of the largest memberships of singles on the Upper West Side.
Hahn said her focus is on finding a new site and fostering the congregation’s new relationship with the Austrian Consulate.
"Hopefully with their support," she said, "we’ll become better known and be able to reaffirm the connection with our roots and provide a living testimony to the endurance of European Jewry."