Synagogue, and ‘Spiritual Starbucks’

Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times
The prayer room in the basement of the Community Synagogue on East Sixth Street fills up when Rabbi Simon Jacobson gives his weekly class.

Correction Appended

To find the 10th man for a minyan, the quorum required in Orthodox Jewish services, some rabbis on the Lower East Side of Manhattan have been known in recent years to step into the street and stop passers-by. Are you Jewish? they ask.

It is a troubling notion for the remaining Jewish population of a neighborhood that in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the American portal for Jewish immigrants — hundreds of synagogues once thrived there — and where now a few dozen synagogues struggle in a place jammed with Indian and Thai restaurants and secular-minded young people.

So if there is trepidation among the older members of the weather-worn Community Synagogue on East Sixth Street about the changes coming with the start of the High Holy Days this week, it is leavened with a sense of forbearance in the absence of alternatives.

Starting this evening with Rosh Hashana services, Rabbi Simon Jacobson, a Lubavitcher rabbi from Crown Heights and founder of the Meaningful Life Center — a project known for blending religious teaching with tai chi, introductory kabbalah and Hasidic rap — will become a kind of Jewish mystic-in-residence at the traditional, Orthodox Community Synagogue.

Inspired by the movement known as Chabad, a Hasidic sect with a missionary tradition around the world, Rabbi Jacobson said he would offer his programs — which until now he has operated on an itinerant basis around the city — at the Sixth Street synagogue in hopes of creating “a spiritual Starbucks.”

The plan is to attract people, regardless of their faith, from all over the city, he said. But the goal is to restore Jewish identity to those estranged from Judaism and, if possible, to add them to the membership rolls of Community Synagogue.

Like many Lubavitchers, Rabbi Jacobson embodies a paradoxical mix of strictly conservative theology and a freewheeling, nonjudgmental hipster style. He is partial to drum circles. He is friendly with the Hasidic reggae-rap-klezmer artist known as Matisyahu.

Of course, this is not everyone’s cup of tea.

“Is there tension because we love things the way they are and he wants to make everything completely different?” asked Ruth Greenberg, 90, a member of the congregation, which had about 250 members when she joined in 1950 and now counts not quite 100. “Not at all, not at all. We may not like each other, but that doesn’t mean there’s tension.”

The realities are unmistakable. The building needs work. The pews and the pipes date from the mid-19th century, when the place was built as St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (which effectively died on June 15, 1904, along with about 1,000 of its parishioners, in a fire aboard the steamship General Slocum, en route to a church picnic). The roof leaks.

Aside from the higher religious imperative of sustaining the faith, the collaboration with the Meaningful Life Center represents a new source of income for the synagogue. In lieu of rent, receipts from all the classes and events that Rabbi Jacobson arranges — including workshops on relationships, mysticism, reincarnation and one he calls “the kabbalah of cooking” — will be split between the center and the temple.

“We want to keep this congregation alive,” said Brenda Pace, a former president of the synagogue, who is in her late 60s. “If we need the help of outsiders to do that, so be it.”

Community’s full-time rabbi, Charlie Buckholtz, will continue to lead the congregation. He has never had to struggle to make a minyan. Most Saturdays in the sanctuary, which holds up to 700 people, there are at least 20 or 30 men and about the same number of women, divided by a decorative partition.

But he describes the charismatic Rabbi Jacobson as a perfect fit for a neighborhood that has evolved from Jewish to Beat to Flower Child to Loisaida Squatter to a mix of all of the above, plus an influx of young professionals, including many who are secular Jews.

“This area used to be a place with a deli or a shul on every corner,” he said. “There are lots of young, unaffiliated Jews living here. They just do not go to synagogue.” In terms of Jewish practice, he added, “It is a kind of tundra, and we are trying to figure out how to resettle it.”

The partnership of the Lubavitchers’ outreach tradition with more conventional synagogues like Community has invigorated several declining congregations around the country, said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

Gary A. Tobin, director of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, said such partnerships marked “the convergence of the two major trends in Jewish life: the expansion of the most successful movement in world Jewry, which is Chabad, and the undeniable fact that Jews are becoming birds of passage like everyone else, less likely to belong to a synagogue but still searching for the authentic religious fundamentals.”

But Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College and the Harold M. Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, said there was a theological catch that people attracted to programs like Meaningful Life should be aware of. “While the outreach tends to be very open and ‘feng shui,’ ” he said, “the more they absorb you, the more Orthodox everything gets. It is nice they are going to the Lower East Side. But people should know that in Chabad there is no tolerance for gay marriage, or even people living together before marriage.”

When asked about that, Rabbi Jacobson said it was basically true, but somewhat irrelevant to his mission. “We are not here to change anybody,” he said. “Some of my students will become radically religious, some will continue to lead secular lives. All we want is to help people live more deeply and spiritually.”

He described one former student, who announced after many years of attending his classes, “Rabbi, you have given me the courage to discover my true identity, and after 27 years of marriage I have decided to leave my wife and move in with my boyfriend.” (The former student, Robert Golden, 62, who confirmed the story, said he had since drifted away from Meaningful Life programs, but remained a fan of its founder.)

At Community Synagogue, the pending arrival of Rabbi Jacobson has prompted a subtle shift of focus in that one preoccupation of all religious traditions, worrying.

For years, a major structural concern has been the steep front steps, and how to make sure elderly members have help in climbing them. A lookout is stationed at the top of the steps during services to summon assistance, as needed.

But last week, people were talking about a different sort of structural problem: whether there would there be room enough inside if both Matisyahu, the reggae rapper, and Sway Machinery, a cantorial blues band, performed before a midnight prayer service that marks the beginning of a week of penitence leading up to the High Holy Days.

Rabbi Jacobson, who would be helping Rabbi Buckholtz lead the service, had invited both.

In the end, about 250 showed up. Everyone got in. “It was fantastic,” Rabbi Jacobson said afterward. “Spiritually elevating. A transportation for the soul.”

The question of the minyan never came up.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 1, 2008
An article on Monday about a collaboration between the Community Synagogue, an Orthodox temple in Manhattan, and the Meaningful Life Center, a nontraditional Jewish outreach project, misstated the academic title of Samuel Heilman, who said such outreach programs tend to be conservative at heart despite their embrace of outside cultural elements like rap and tai chi. He is a professor of sociology at Queens College and holds the Harold M. Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center; he is not “chairman of the Jewish studies department” at Queens College. (There is no such department, but there is a Center for Jewish Studies.)