High, Holy & Hip

High, Holy & Hip

Harry met Sally there. Avant-garde artists exhibit their paintings on its walls. Haute couture models sashay on its fashion show runways.

And next week, for the first time, the shofar will sound in the Puck Building, a Manhattan landmark in SoHo.

Aish New York, the local branch of the Jerusalem-based Aish HaTorah yeshiva, will host High Holy Days beginner’s services in one of the building’s ballrooms.

The idea to hold Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services, the year’s most solemn, in the Puck Building, one of New York City’s trendiest, came from Steve Eisenberg, a 30ish money manager and consultant to several outreach organizations. For four years he has played shadchan, or matchmaker, between the kiruv groups and local venues, setting up (and sponsoring) beginner’s services around Manhattan in an effort to make the High Holy Days "user-friendly holidays."

The beginner’s services, an outgrowth of the introductory Shabbat services begun 25 years ago at Lincoln Square Synagogue by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald of the National Jewish Outreach Program, are the ultimate draw for the unaffiliated, twice-a-year Jew: and the Puck Building, Eisenberg says, is the place for the tony Jewish crowd. "The Puck Building is to downtown" (south of 34th Street) "what the Empire State Building is to midtown. It’s probably the party building of the city."

Eisenberg hasn’t brought davening to the Empire State Building. Yet. But since renting a room in the Barbizon Hotel, through Chabad of the Upper West Side, for a few hundred worshipers in 1996, he has added one or two locations in neighborhoods with sizable Jewish communities each year. This year he and his brother Jeff, and friend George Rohr, are sponsoring beginner’s High Holy Days at seven places, including hotels and the New-York Historical Society. Eisenberg expects a total of more than 3,000 men and women.

The pre-Tishrei buzz is about the Puck Building, a 114-year-old Romanesque Revival structure that housed the satirical Puck magazine at the turn of the century and served as the more recent setting for Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in "When Harry met Sally." Advertisements for the services have been placed in Timeout, the Village Voice, and other hip publications.

"It breaks the myth that Judaism is [only] Lower East Side Judaism," old-fashioned rituals and Yiddish accents, Eisenberg says. "We have made Judaism accessible."

"It says that American Jewish outreach is successful: it’s modern," says Melanie Notkin, marketing director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, which sent out a few hundred High Holy Days services kits to participating synagogues across the country in the last few years.

Part of the attraction of the introductory services is their location, in a neutral site. Not a synagogue. "You don’t have to come to our turf, to our territory," Notkin says. The services are usually followed by a festive meal.

NJOP, which started pushing beginner’s High Holy Days services five years ago, offers two options. An abridged service, about half the length of the usual five to six hour service, which omits some prayers, stressing the important ones and the shofar service. And a more-abridged service, which runs about 75 minutes. Both services feature a heavy dose of English, responsive readings, contemporary melodies for traditional prayers, explanations by the service leader and frequent questioning by the worshipers.

"It’s not meant to be Rosh HaShanah lite," Notkin says. "It gives people an opportunity to participate in Rosh HaShanah more fully, more spiritually and maybe more existentially than ever before."

At least 75 congregations of all denominations in the United States, including a few dozen around New York, will hold beginner’s High Holy Days services this month, says Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, NJOP program director. That figure does not include synagogues that have not registered with his organization.

The Yom Tov services often bring new (usually younger) members to participating congregations, Rabbi Rosenbaum says. "They use it as a marketing tool."

Rabbi Shalom Baum began a High Holy Days beginner’s service at Congregation Ahavath Achim in Fairfield, Conn., shortly after he became spiritual leader of the synagogue five years ago. Conducted concurrently with the main service, it was held in a small study hall. "People thought we’d get three, four people." Twenty-five came. "A number of them have remained with the synagogue."

It built up the self-esteem of the shul," Rabbi Baum says. "People felt fulfilled that the shul is involved in this act of kindness."

The synagogue has stopped advertising the services; word of mouth suffices. This year Ahavath Achim expects 80-100 people at its beginner’s service, now held in a larger social hall. "We have to limit the size," the rabbi says. "We’re going to have to turn people away, unfortunately."

The style of beginner’s services varies, depending on the character of the people in the pews. "Designer davening," Eisenberg calls it. "We cater each service according to the neighborhood." The Puck Building will attract people from Tribeca, Greenwich Village, NoHo: an artsy crowd. The services, led by laymen (a computer expert and a money manager) will be "very kabbalistic, very spiritual." The room will be lined with potted ficus trees.

The beginner’s services do not compete with each other to fill seats, says Eisenberg. Most of the worshipers are irregular, at best, attendees of religious services.

"If you add up all the synagogue seats in Manhattan, of all denominations, it’s maybe 10,000," Eisenberg says. "How many Jews are there in Manhattan? There must be a half million. Where are they going? The majority are not going to shul on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur."

Eisenberg will add a few locations to his list of beginner’s services next year. And he is confident that all the seats will be taken. "Every place we open, we fill out," he says. "It’s a bull market for Jews."

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