Chanukah came early to Lower Manhattan this year.
On the first Friday evening of December, three weeks before the start of the Festival of Lights, some 250 members of Tamid: The Downtown Synagogue gathered in St. Paul’s Chapel (aka “The 9/11 Chapel”), 100 yards from the site where the twin towers used to stand. The building, now primarily a museum and cultural center, has been the home of Tamid since the congregation was formed five years ago.
For a few hours that Friday evening, the Tamid members, from kids to seniors, joined in a worship service and singalong. The evening also included a catered buffet dinner, a celebration of members’ December birthdays, and a congregation-wide dreidel-spinning contest whose winner earned the chance to be “rabbi for a day.”
The holiday celebration’s timing, making use of what you might call “Downtown Jewish Time,” was a concession to the realities of life of the busy, young families who comprise most of the congregation’s membership — while they pencil-in attendance at Tamid’s monthly worship services, they might not necessarily come again during Chanukah itself, which starts on Dec. 21.
But it’s not just young families. Darren Levine, Tamid’s founding rabbi, said he has noticed an increase in the number of Jewish senior citizens, empty nesters, who have moved into the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood since he established Tamid in 2011.
For the young families: such standard fare as a Hebrew school and youth group. For the older demographic: a book club and museum visits.
All these activities are aimed at “creating a positive Jewish memory” and are a fulfillment of the vision of Rabbi Levine, and a further sign of Jewish growth below 14th Street in Tribeca, Battery Park City, the Financial District and the West Village, neighborhoods Tamid serves.
“I wanted to try something new,” geared to the area’s largely non-Orthodox Jewish population, Rabbi Levine said. While he and Darcie Crystal, whose title is family rabbi, were ordained by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, Tamid is not affiliated with any branch of Judaism.
“Denominations mean less to our people,” said Rabbi Levine, who called Tamid a “progressive Chabad,” a nod to the Lubavitch chasidic movement’s outside-the-box approach to Jewish outreach.
Though Tamid’s gender-inclusive liturgy follows Reform guidelines, prayer books aren’t used during services. Instead, words are projected on a screen overhead. “Our congregants’ heads are up,” Rabbi Levine said, “not buried in a book, asking their neighbor what page we’re on.”
Tamid, which the rabbi calls the borough’s newest synagogue, has grown from 36 member households to 125, and its Downtown Hebrew School has experienced a similar increase.
In addition, the rabbi said, Tamid includes in its ranks another 1,000 “participants in the congregation,” some connected via the Internet, who have taken part in some Tamid event during the past year.
“The surprise has been the growth of the demographic of empty-nesters, families without children and three-generation families” — necessitating a greater variety of programs, the rabbi said, adding that he estimates downtown Manhattan’s Jewish community to have between 5,000 and 6,000 households.
Tamid’s success parallels the founding in the last decade of such nearby institutions as the SoHo Synagogue, a “hipster” congregation established by a young Chabad couple, and the Jewish Community Project (JCP) in Tribeca, an educational initiative where Rabbi Levine previously served as executive director. But there have been setbacks in the area where Jewish life is concerned: the shuttering of the high-profile 92YTribeca, an attempt by the venerable Upper East Side cultural institution to create a downtown beachhead and appeal to a younger demographic, and the closing of Tribeca Hebrew School, which is now part of JCP.
Tamid’s openness to spiritual places it in the league of such entrepreneurial models of Jewish prayer-and-education-centered communities as Ikar in Los Angeles, The Kitchen in San Francisco, Mechon Hadar, Romemu and the Lab/Shul here, and independent minyans and “partnership” minyans in many cities.
Tamid, like many start-up non-Orthodox congregations that cannot afford their own building, holds Hebrew school classes in its modest “learning center,” an office suite on lower Broadway, and at members’ homes.
The office features a small ping-pong table, where Rabbi Levine challenges all visitors; soda shop booths where students socialize during Hebrew school sessions; and a pair of side-by-side clocks on the wall, one set to local time, the other to Jerusalem time.
Tamid, the rabbi said, has no interest in assuming the financial or logistical responsibilities of a classic brick-and-mortar synagogue. “We are a shul without walls,” he said.
Some events, like circumcision ceremonies, take place at members’ homes. “Tamid is [not] just a place you go to,” Rabbi Levine said. “Tamid is coming to you.”
Rabbi Levine’s vision includes a heavy dose of social action—people who attend Friday evening services prepare sandwiches to be delivered to a nearby homeless shelter, and participants in Tamid’s monthly Saturday night Downtown Teen Hunger Action Project make sandwiches that they take to the homeless in shelters and the subway system.
With a lower profile than older, wealthier Manhattan congregations, Tamid relies heavily on word-of-mouth and social media to spread the word about its innovative activities—such as commissioning a female scribe to write a Torah scroll for the congregation (see story on following page), holding an Interfaith Yom Kippur service, working with Christian and Muslim partners to co-sponsor a free public Thanksgiving meal for hungry people, co-sponsoring a Jewish Book Group with the Educational Alliance, developing a “Tamid Online” e-learning Judaica curriculum, and acquiring the Torah ark from the Lower East Side’s Meseritz Synagogue, which was being converted into luxury condos.
Tamid holds a family-oriented, kid-friendly Friday evening service once a month.
The timing is a recognition that Tamid’s primary demographic, young couples and young families with small children, will come to services, but they won’t come every week. Some 150-250 people come monthly.
If a holiday (besides Passover, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur) does not coincide with that Friday evening, the holiday is celebrated in advance.
The Tamid model is best suited to an urban setting, Rabbi Levine said. “Tamid … starts easiest with a high density of Jews in a geographic area. But … Tamid is not bound by an urban setting; any already existing Jewish organization can apply the method.”
Rabbi Levine said the monthly services are “probably the largest Reform gathering in Manhattan on a Friday night.”
Jill Kaufman, an educational consultant who moved to the neighborhood 14 years ago and hoped for a congregation to open there, called Tamid “a very important part of my life. It’s something I always wanted.” Naomi Daniels, a liaison for start-up websites, called Tamid “a perfect fit” for her family. “My kids come happily” to services. “They don’t complain about Hebrew school.”
Tamid, said Rabbi Steven Fox, CEO of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, “is opening doors to people who might not otherwise have found a pathway to Judaism.”
Rabbi Michael Friedman, spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Westport, Conn., who has followed Rabbi Levine’s work at Tamid, said he is “very excited about the model that he’s envisioned. He has engaged [unaffiliated Jews] in a way that many synagogues have not.
Rabbi Friedman said he has incorporated the Tamid style of Friday evening services, followed by a communal meal, into his own congregation.
Tamid, which combines a traditional dues structure (“generally competitive” with other congregations in Manhattan, Rabbi Levine said) with one-time-event user fees for people who can’t afford to join, has remained financially stable by keeping its expenses down (the rabbi and education director Christina Broussard are the only full-time employees), Rabbi Levine said.
On the first Sunday of Chanukah this month, Tamid volunteers will deliver a Chanukah gift package — it includes a box of candles and a dreidel — to the home of every Tamid member. A holiday card designed by the winner in the congregation’s annual Chanukah card competition is going out electronically this year, to save paper.
The rabbi said he came up with the card competition and rabbi-for-a-day ideas.
More innovations at Tamid are likely to follow, he said. “We’re a work in progress.”