In a bid to cater to the stroller set in her once old-line German congregation, Rabbi Lisa Gelber took on Tashlich.
For as long as anyone could remember, Congregation Habonim on the Upper West Side, as is the case with most synagogues, arranged a single casting-off-of-your-sins Rosh HaShanah ceremony at the Hudson River. Coming as it did right after morning worship services, it was convenient for the shul’s older congregants, who could return to their homes in the neighborhood or in Queens following the ritual.
That changed a year ago when Rabbi Gelber, 50, took over as the new spiritual leader of the synagogue founded in 1939 by Holocaust refugees. Now there would be two Tashlich ceremonies. The new one, set for late in the afternoon, was a better fit for parents who preferred to go home for a holiday meal before heading to the river with their children in tow.
This Tashlich two-step is all part of the tricky dance Rabbi Gelber, the second female rabbi to lead Habonim, is choreographing to keep two distinct generations happy and keep her synagogue relevant amid rapidly changing demographics.
“These are New Yorkers,” congregant Rachel Berger said about both the synagogue’s older, German-born members, as well as members of her younger generation. She was making the point that within Habonim, they are not defined by their age or where they were born.
Berger, an attorney, joined the congregation six years ago with her husband David — both are in their 40s — and their two young children.
“I get the sense that people [of the refugee generation] don’t forget their history, but it doesn’t exclusively define who we are today,” she told The Jewish Week about the congregation. “It’s a place that’s never been afraid of change.”
That change has accelerated with the hiring of Rabbi Gelber, who earlier served as associate dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school, and in pulpit positions in Seattle and Skokie, Ill.
She’s the latest in a series of rabbis who do not have German roots.
“The process of transition from a predominantly German membership and style of service has been ongoing for many years and is [still] ongoing. This did not factor at all in our decision to hire Rabbi Gelber,” Richard Verner, president of Habonim, said in an email interview. “The last rabbi we had with direct German heritage was Rabbi Bernard Cohn, who retired in 1990. We hired Rabbi Gelber because, among other things, she is able to appeal to the broad demographics of our members — from infants to several who are over 100; families, singles and empty-nesters — who come to us from a wide range of Jewish traditions.”
Verner noted that the congregation had 263 member households when Rabbi Gelber was hired last year and has grown to 275. “This is a healthy and sustainable rate of increase, and we are confident that steady growth will continue,” he said.
Part of the growth is the result of the establishment in 1997 of a thriving nursery school; it feeds the Habonim religious school and supplies about one-fourth of the congregation’s new members.
The congregation (Habonim is Hebrew for “builders”), which was Reform in its early decades, changed its affiliation to Conservative in 1995. Its membership, which was 80 percent German refugees or their children as recently as 1989, on its 50th anniversary, now has 10 to 15 percent with German (aka Yekke) roots, Verner said.
Though most of the congregation’s members are born in this country, Habonim’s German roots are evident in the names on its membership tree in the lobby and on yahrtzeit plaques in the sanctuary: Steins and Edelmans and Boettigheimers, and in the voice on the congregation’s answering machine, a woman’s lilting German accent.
Rabbi Gelber’s mandate was to continue the process of turning the synagogue into “a neighborhood shul.” That transformation could be hastened by another recent change: The congregation sold its West 66th Street property to a development company, which is building a 25-story multiuse tower on the site. The congregation’s newly built digs will occupy the building’s first two floors.
The rabbi’s success so far at Habonim is the latest answer to a question that members began asking a few decades ago, when the founding generation was aging and dying — could the congregation sustain itself after its original mission and original members were gone?
Members of both generations say the rabbi is succeeding.
Rachel Berger said her family joined Habonim after being invited to take part in the congregation’s monthly Tot Shabbat program while they were not members of the synagogue.
Psychoanalyst Ellen Mendel, a native of Essen, Germany, who calls herself “the youngest of the old-timers,” formerly chaired the welcoming committee, which reached out to younger (often prospective) members “as the demographics were changing.” The members of the committee made an effort to approach newcomers in shul, invite them to Shabbat meals, and involve them in synagogue activities.
Berger said Rabbi Gelber has fostered this intergenerational approach. “She is interested in building community, from the oldest to the youngest.”
The motto of Habonim is “Building Jewish Community Together.”
“It’s a warm and welcoming environment … a very heimish, heimish community,” said Danielle Kaufman, 43, a physician’s assistant, who joined the synagogue a decade ago with her husband, Alan, an attorney. The couple has two young children.
Residents of the Upper West Side since the 1990s, they became members of Habonim before enrolling their son in its nursery school, they had attended services on a trial basis, and found it “a good fit.”
Both Kaufman and her husband, who had grown up in the Conservative movement, regularly attend worship services and other synagogue activities. Members of the German-born generation, she said, are often “the first persons to sit with us.”
She said members of both generations participate together in adult education classes, in the Sisterhood, in women’s seders, on synagogue committees, and in the book club; seniors, she said, come to the nursery school to read books to the kids. “It doesn’t matter what your age is.”
“The younger generation is extremely respectful of the older generation; the ones who came from Germany,” said Inge Ballin, 91, a native of Essen, who came here as a child. Like many aging members of Habonim, she lives in Queens, in Fresh Meadows.
The congregation sponsors a monthly Friday evening worship service and regular adult education classes for the Queens-based members in a rented space at Temple Beth Sholom in Flushing. Every year, Ballin said, some of the older members fear that the younger ones will decide to stop paying for the rent expenses; every year, the activities in Queens continue. “Every year, I’m still surprised,” she said.
Norbert Fruehauf, a native of Germany who came to the U.S. with his family in 1941 and settled in Wisconsin before moving to New York City 23 years ago, said that “over the years the German influences have diminished” at Habonim. “In the beginning, German was used in the services, business practices and communications. Not until the late-’60s, early-’70s was the transfer made to English.”
The families of the founding members “are supportive of the changes seen as instrumental to assure its vitality and survival,” Fruehauf said.
The “traditional German” services in Queens feature an organ, to which the senior members were accustomed in their homeland. That style of prayer ended at Habonim’s Manhattan building about a decade ago.
“Every congregation today faces the challenges of bridging the gaps between legacy and new generations of Jews who identify and participate in different ways,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “That Habonim is a historic German congregation simply adds another layer of this challenge. We are confident that Rabbi Gelber … will be successful, as she is already creating shared experiences for herself and her leadership to create a shared vision and mission.”
Some shuls that were founded by immigrants and primarily served landsleit from their hometowns or home countries have struggled to keep their doors open; on the Lower East Side, for example, many such congregations have closed over the years.
Rabbi Gelber herself illlustrates the changes at Habonim: a single mother, a marathon runner, a co-author of a Haggadah for survivors of domestic violence and a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. She leads women’s Passover seders and counsels colleagues who have been victims of sexual harassment.
The rabbi, who grew up in Scarsdale and the Mosholu Parkway neighborhood of the Bronx in a “vibrant Jewish home,” said she has made no “sweeping changes” at Habonim. Instead she’s made a few, incremental ones to make Habonim members comfortable, such as inviting women to lead the Kiddush at the end of Friday night services.
She reached out to the German-born members of Habonim, learning their life stories, as soon as she joined the congregation. And she has reached out to unaffiliated members of the congregation’s neighborhood.
“I see my job as growing the shul, but not just by numbers,” Rabbi Gelber said. “I grew up loving Judaism. I love teaching people about Judaism.”
Last year Rabbi Gelber participated in a seminar for Conservative congregations “in transition.”
On vacation this week, she soon will start preparing for the High Holy Days at Habonim, which, once again this year, will take her down by the riverside not once, but twice.