Should a Jewish research center set aside a prayer room adhering to the standards of one Jewish denomination? The question has generated a debate between secularists and religionists over the multimillion-dollar renovations at Manhattan’s Center for Jewish History.
The secularists, including officials from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Leo Baeck Institute, are up in arms by a reported $1 million donation to the 125,000-square-foot center by controversial businessman Ira Rennert who is specifying the construction of a prayer room complete with mechitza, or divider, to separate men and women, according to Orthodox standards.
Rennert is chairman of The Renco Group Inc., a billion-dollar holding company and one of the nation’s top defense department contractors. Renco supplies the military with the all-terrain vehicle Hummer.
He has also caused alarm recently among his Hamptons neighbors by constructing Fair Field, perhaps the nation’s largest private home, which the neighbors fear will include an Orthodox synagogue or retreat.
But Rennert is also now making waves in the city with his pledge to build an Orthodox shul at the Jewish center off Fifth Avenue — considered the largest archive of Jewish history and culture in the world.
“It’s a research organization, what is the need for this?” asked Carol Strauss, executive director of the Leo Baeck Institute, one of a handful of Jewish organizations involved with the renovation of the West 16th Street center. Also participating are YIVO, the American Jewish Historical Society, the Yeshiva University Museum, American Sephardi Federation and Sephardic House.
Strauss said she was shocked to hear about Rennert’s proposal from sources outside the center. She charged that history center chairman Bruce Slovin, also the chairman of YIVO, and Ismar Schorsch, president of the Baeck Institute and Conservative movement leader, failed to inform her of the proposal, which apparently has been on the boards for months.
“Our intelligence about an Orthodox synagogue on premises came to us from outside third parties,” she told The Jewish Week.She said other officials of the Baeck Institute, preservers of German Jewish archives, are dead-set against the idea.
“My trustees are not in favor of a religious facility,” Strauss said firmly. “My people are quite upset and very distressed that there would be any religious facility in what we all along thought of as a very secular research facility.”
Sources at YIVO also criticized the plan.
“Evidently the trustees at YIVO didn’t know anymore than we did,” Strauss said. “I guess Bruce doesn’t get the word out.”
Schorsch, who has been outspoken on pluralism issues, refused to comment about the prayer room. But Slovin defended Rennert’s room, and the businessman’s apparent insistence that it be run under Orthodox supervision as a condition for the pledge.
“He [Rennert] wants, and we are building, a small synagogue to seat 35 to 40 people,” Slovin confirmed, saying it will be a “room of contemplation or reflection.” Slovin said it is needed for those who study Jewish history, which is “so filled with angst and torment that people often need to reflect.”
He said the proposal was made two years ago. Slovin said Rennert “wanted to make sure the Orthodox could pray in it,” so there will be a mechitza — a divider of a to-be-determined height made of wood, plastic or cloth to separate the sexes.
“If the Orthodox can pray, then certainly the Reform and Conservative could pray,” Slovin said. “Doing it in this way is making it all inclusive for all Jews.”
As to the exact requirements for the mechitza, whose height and construction are varied depending on a rabbi’s individual preference, Slovin said Rennert and a rabbi from Yeshiva University would make the final determination.
“It has to be proper, whatever proper is,” said Slovin, who added that he does not adhere to Orthodox standards. “It has to be approved by somebody at Yeshiva because they are part of the operation. At the end of the day, Ira will determine it.”
The Brooklyn-born Rennert could not be reached for comment.Insisting that the center will be for all Jews, Slovin said it will be closed on Jewish holidays and will be kosher. “It’s a cultural institution but it’s a Jewish institution,” he said. “There will be no divisiveness in this place,” Slovin insisted. “There might be people who want to make this an issue, and it’s my job to put out any element trying to divide the Jewish people.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) announced that $5 million in federal funding has been approved to assist the center to develop a state-of-the-art educational outreach program on the Internet. The money was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee.