After delivering some 1,500 lectures over the last 10 years on five continents, Brooklyn’s wandering Rabbi Simon Jacobson and his staff are finally ready to settle down. Secular-minded scholars, religious skeptics and Jews of every affiliation (and unaffiliation) will now join the chasidic author and lecturer in the Lower East Side at a newly renovated Meaningful Life Center, which has found itself a more permanent, well, center.
The Community Synagogue Center, a neighborhood landmark of Orthodoxy since 1940, has opened its doors to Rabbi Jacobson’s group, housing it within the red brick walls along a tree-lined block of Sixth Street. In exchange for internal building renovations and 30 percent of his proceeds, the synagogue, which has seen its membership fall over the years, will allow Rabbi Jacobson to run all his programming from its ground floor.
One after another, small Orthodox shuls across the city have closed their doors, as their aging populations dwindle and the interest of young people fails to live up to former demand. But the Community Synagogue has no plans to close, according to board chairman Matthew Pace — in fact, it hopes to rejuvenate the congregation with an influx of new programming, with the help of Rabbi Jacobson.
“Our hope is that the synagogue can be a full-service hub of Jewish social life for the neighborhood,” said Rabbi Charlie Buckholtz, the spiritual leader of the shul.
After growing up in a Chabad-Lubavitch Crown Heights household and spending some time as a chasidic scholar, Rabbi Jacobson began working in 1980 as the scribe and publisher of the talks of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher rebbe. Shortly after the rebbe’s death in 1994, Rabbi Jacobson published the book “Toward a Meaningful Life,” which distills the rebbe’s Torah teachings into a medium understandable to Jews of all backgrounds. It has sold more than 300,000 copies, according to Rabbi Jacobson’s Web site. As a result of the book, he founded the Meaningful Life Center, an organization that bridges “the spiritual and the secular,” bringing together skeptics, scholars and those of all faiths, by adapting Torah to modern life through multimedia, classes and social activities.
“He was the person who first got me interested in anything about the religion,” said Aliana Spungen, his student for the past 15 years. “I went to his class on an ultimatum from someone I was dating … what I found was it was a much more spiritual, much more interesting, much more enlightened approach to Judaism. It knocked down a lot of the stereotypes I had in my head.”
About three years ago, Rabbi Jacobson found his constant travel to be difficult, especially given the increasing popularity of his classes and events. “It became almost impossible to continue because we were constantly doing it as a guest,” he said. “We needed a space that we could call home where we could do many programs.” Less than a year later, while delivering a talk at Community Synagogue, he approached the synagogue’s leadership, whose space, location and membership situation created an ideal setting for him.
“They were like an empty building, nothing happening,” Rabbi Jacobson said, explaining that the synagogue was only filling approximately 100 of its 650 seats during a typical Shabbat service. “The would love to be revived as a hub of Jewish life. We began discussing a collaborative effort here.”
The synagogue board was very receptive.
“What we were trying to accomplish with Rabbi Jacobson was to really open our doors and our space to this new school of religious thinking,” said Pace, the board chairman. “In our neighborhood we see a lot of people who are looking for Jewish spiritual connection but maybe not in a traditional synagogue type of way.”
The upstairs portion of the synagogue — the sanctuary — will remain untouched, Pace said; the shul’s current hundred or so members will be able to continue davening as they always have. Aside from the High Holy Days, the Meaningful Life Center will have no impact upon services, which will remain traditional, “Open Orthodox” style, according to Rabbi Buckholtz. The result is, in essence, two separate entities under one roof.
“No pun intended, but it’s sort of separation between church and state,” Pace said, explaining that Rabbi Jacobson’s programming will occur on the ground floor, separated from the sanctuary. On this floor, other programs that are unaffiliated with the congregation also have small spaces — where the New Yiddish Repertory Theater rehearses and where Rabbi Buckholtz sponsors Shabbat dinners for New York University students.
“There may be some more fusion down the line, but right now we’re very careful not to cross the boundaries,” Rabbi Jacobson said. “I’m not looking to take over the synagogue and they’re not looking to take over the Meaningful Life Center.”
Renovations, just about finished, include lighting installations, new carpets, painted ceilings and free wireless Internet. Last Saturday, Rabbi Jacobson and Rabbi Buckholtz jointly opened the Center in its inaugural event, a boogie-woogie Pre-Holiday Music Jam, followed by 1 a.m. Selichot services. Hip-hop star Matisyahu surprised guests with his attendance. In the future, Rabbi Jacobson plans on hosting diverse activities such as classes on arts and spirituality, kabbalistic yoga and soulful cooking. Some will be free of charge, and others will require a ticket purchase.
Rabbi Jacobson will not be leading any of the normal Shabbat and daily morning services, but for the High Holy Days, he will collaborate with Rabbi Buckholtz and Cantor Mendel Kaplan.
“My goal is that anyone who wants to pray the entire traditional prayer can do so, but if you don’t know Hebrew, I will guide it,” Rabbi Jacobson said, explaining that he hopes to attract a younger crowd, perhaps those currently unaffiliated or apathetic, or people who would attend services merely out of guilt. “I’m trying to reach a crowd that has not been reached before in a way,” he added.
Following established synagogue protocol, they will charge $150 for combined tickets to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services, but Rabbi Jacobson says that he won’t turn away anyone who cannot pay. And while services might be more innovative than the shul’s typical Friday night routine, Rabbi Buckholtz reassured congregants that the three-man team will be using traditional prayer books.
Initially, some of the longstanding members were worried about the potential clashes between the synagogue’s predominantly elderly, Orthodox congregation and the new onslaught of young unaffiliated Jews who might be about to enter.
“The membership extends back to the previous era of Jewish life in the neighborhood,” Rabbi Buckholtz said. “It does have that sense of Old World Lower East Side authenticity to it.”
“Most congregants are sort of in a wait-and-see mode; they want to see what’s going to happen,” added David Landis, president of the synagogue board. “There are relatively few people who are against it. This is something very new to our shul — people don’t exactly know what’s going to happen.”
But as Rabbi Jacobson has paid repeated visits to the synagogue and begun his programming this past Saturday, these members may remain cautious but are much more optimistic about his arrival, according to Rabbi Buckholtz.
“If there’s any gap to be bridged, it doesn’t really have anything to do with Jewish denominations. If anything there’s a generation gap, which is very clearly a reflection of the demographics of the neighborhood itself,” Rabbi Buckholtz said. “For me, that’s an exciting challenge. The truth is, those two groups of people do want to get to know each other.”
Ultimately, Rabbi Jacobson hopes that his Center will become a beacon of classes, musical performances, emerging artists and even more informally, an Internet and coffee lounge.
“We look at this almost like a spiritual Starbucks type of place,” he said.
Find out more about celebrating the High Holy Days with the MLC@6th by visiting www.nyhighholidays.com