Chabad Expanding Footprint On Upper West Side
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Chabad Expanding Footprint On Upper West Side

Five-story, $50 million synagogue-center to take up bottom floors of luxury condo on Manhattan’s West 96th Street.

Rabbi Shlomo Kugel in the early ’90s. Courtesy of Chabad of the West Side
Rabbi Shlomo Kugel in the early ’90s. Courtesy of Chabad of the West Side

Five years after Lincoln Square Synagogue opened its new three-story, $44 million building on the Upper West Side, the first major synagogue erected in Manhattan in a half-century, another Orthodox congregation 30 blocks north, is about to become the second.

Chabad of the West Side, a fixture in the neighborhood since 1984, has announced that it will build a new synagogue-center on West 96th Street, a block from its current leased space. It will occupy the first five floors of a 22-story luxury condominium tower 100 yards from Central Park, on a now-vacant lot between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, as part of a complicated real estate deal that will allow the developer to claim a “community facility bonus” and put up a structure taller than city zoning regulations would otherwise allow.

That condo arrangement for the new Chabad, first reported by the sister weeklies Our Town/West Side Spirit, is apparently becoming a trend among synagogues in Manhattan. Congregation Shaare Zedek last year signed a contract with a developer to sell its 212 W. 93rd St. building, which it has inhabited since 1923, and own and occupy three stories of a new condominium building on the site. And the Upper East Side’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, which suffered a major fire in 2011, considered, then scrapped, plans to build a condominium tower over its rebuilt synagogue.

The new site of Chabad of the West Side (CWS) — the first Manhattan branch of the Brooklyn-based Chabad Lubavitch chasidic movement — will house two synagogues, a mikveh, a library, a conference center, a terrace-playground, a teacher’s training academy, meeting rooms and classrooms for CWS’ growing preschool and Hebrew school. At 20,000 square feet, the new center is double the space of its current location.

An artist rendering of the new five-story synagogue center. Courtesy of Chabad of the West Side

Construction on the new building is to begin this spring, and the new Chabad site is set to open in September 2020.

Cramped for space in their current space, which formerly housed a day care center, personnel of Chabad of the West Side move tables and chairs and walls on a daily basis to make room for the next class or seminar or worship service.

“I’m afraid we may have outgrown the [new] space already,” said Rabbi Shlomo Kugel, founder of Chabad of the West Side.

The new handicapped-accessible, “green” Chabad center, across the street from a Presbyterian church and a Buddhist temple, will be down the block from the future Children’s Museum of Manhattan.

That a second synagogue is going up this decade in Manhattan is a sign of a recent Jewish growth on the Upper West Side, and of its Jewish community’s affluence, said Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University.

Property values on the Upper West Side are among the highest in New York City.

The pair of new synagogues in the same neighborhood, if nearly two miles apart, “bespeak the affluence of contemporary Jews who have varying commitments and who want to live and work in the city,” Gurock said. “Suburbia is not for everyone.”

Chabad of the West Side, which has already raised $20 million for the construction deal and has begun a fundraising campaign for an additional $14 million, Rabbi Kugel said. In addition, $10 million will be borrowed for the mortgage.

Under Rabbi Kugel, a native of Kfar Chabad in Israel, Chabad of the West Side has expanded from a handful of Jewish students he first attracted to a kosher hot dog cart outside the gates of Columbia University in 1984, and a few Jewish kids at his original pre-school in rented space the same year, to 50 employees at eight satellite locations between West 59th Street and Inwood in northern Manhattan.

Chabad of the West Side has operated out of rented space on West 110th Street, West 103th Street and West 92nd Street, before moving into its current 166 W. 97th St. site in 2001. “We wanted to expand from the first day,” said Rabbi Meir Ossey, associate director.

Much of the growth of Chabad of the West Side is due to the success of its preschool, in which some 160 youngsters in 11 classes are now enrolled, said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Another 50 children take part in the three-times-a-week Hebrew School offered by Chabad of the West Side.

“The need for a bigger building is driven by a bigger capacity for the preschool,” said Pollock, an Upper West Side resident whose son attended the Chabad preschool two decades ago. In a neighborhood where most parents have careers outside the home, preschool and day care programs fill an ever-present need, he said.

He called that reality “a model” that has fueled the success of Chabad centers in many locations. “They fill this need.”

The area’s Jewish population was estimated at 40,000 in 1900. While the numbers steadily increased in the early decades of the century, the Upper West Side, like many Jewish neighborhoods in New York City, experienced a decrease in the later decades of the 1900s as young people left for the suburbs. The neighborhood’s Jewish population went down from 68,000 in 1991 to 60,400 in 2002, but increased to 70,500 in 2011, said Pearl Beck, who played the lead role in producing UJA-Federation of New York’s 2011 demographic profile of the city’s Jewish neighborhoods.

She declined to estimate the current Jewish population of the Upper West Side but hinted that it is likely higher than the 2011 figure.

While Manhattan’s overall Jewish population decreased by 1 percent between 1991 and 2002, the Jewish population of the Upper West Side increased by 17 percent during the same period, Beck said.

Pollock, who described himself as a “committed Conservative Jew,” is, like many participants in Chabad activities, not a member of the Orthodox community.

“Chabad goes where Jews are not necessarily chasidic Jews — they go where the unaffiliated are … even such an ‘outpost’ as the Upper West Side,” Gurock said. The neighborhood, he said, “is home to vast numbers of Jews who have no connection to Jewish life. Years ago, a Jewish sociologist referred to the community as “the holy congregation of the people of Zabar’s.”

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