Can minyan of palm trees — a makeshift Mechitza save a synagogue? Rabbi Manny Vinas think so. The rabbi, a Miami-born social worker and Torah scribe, became the spiritual leader of the Lincoln Park Jewish Center in Yonkers in April, following the retirement of Rabbi Solomon Sternstein, who had served the conservative congregation for nearly five decades. Because Rabbi Vinas is Orthodox, he made one binding “recommendation” to the mostly middle aged membership, which had recruited him to attract younger members — the synagogue, which had separate seating for men and women most of the year, with the exception of the High Holy Days, had to make it an official year-round policy.
For now a row of 10 potted pygmy palms serves as a mechitza
And Rabbi Vinas, 34, shared with his future congregants his vision for the synagogue as an ethnically pluralistic venue, and while orthodox, open to Jews of all levels of observance. The rabbi, whose parents come from Cuba, came to the synagogue with a known reputation — he founded a successful educational organization geared to Spanish-speaking Jews and made headlines four years ago for repairing Torah scroll damaged in hurricane in Honduras.
Lincoln Park Jewish Center , which recently marked its 65th anniversary, is typical of Jewish institutions in south Westchester County. Its membership, at one time about 700 families, started to decline two decades ago when court-imposed desegregation of the city’s public schools led Jews and other white residents to leave. There were 125 member families at the synagogue when Rabbi Vinas came.
The congregation’s future, he had advised synagogue leaders was either as Modern Orthodox, with him at the helm, or egalitarian Conservative, with someone else.
The synagogue took the first choice, and hired Rabbi Vinas. Members praise the rabbi who is soft-spoken with only the hint of an accent, as charismatic, dynamic and innovative. They say congregations elsewhere in the metropolitan New York area has reversed losses in membership after changing their affiliation to Orthodox.
If our synagogue is going to survive, we have to find sources of new members,” says Elliot Palais, President of the synagogue and a member for 35 years. “Modern Orthodox is the answer.”
“They didn’t want the synagogue to become a Korean church,” to completely surrender its Jewish identity, says a frequent worshipper at Lincoln Park whose in-laws have been lifelong members.
So far, the synagogue’s Jewish future seems safe.
Attendance at Shabbat Services is on the rise. A handful of young, Orthodox families who live in Lincoln park have officially become members of the synagogue since Rabbi Vinas took over, before the start of a marketing campaign. “We’ve added five families, and we have children running around,” including his three young daughters, Rabbi Vinas says. “The word is getting out already.” Cecelia Offner, whose parents were married in Lincoln Park. Joined the congregation with her husband and four children after Rabbi Vinas came. “He’s bringing in a younder crows,” she says. “There are so many children. Now my kids want to come every week. The kids love to run up on the bima and sing.”
Felix and Michelle Fonseca, who live a few miles away from Lincoln park, say they will move to the neighborhood and join the congregation soon — once their orthodox conversion to Judaism is complete. The couple, who have twin boys who are also converting, were raised as Catholics. They attended a lecture by the rabbi two years ago, were intrigued by Jewish religion, and kept in touch with the rabbi. After they have converted, they want to find a house within walking distance of the synagogue, Felix Conseca says.
The type of Jews who come now to Lincoln park, particularly to the lectures under the auspices of the rabbi’s El centro de Estudios Judios- Torat Emet educational program, are “vastly different from the community that was there” previously says the son-in-law of synagogue members. He sees a mixture of black and Hispanics faces in the pews.” I was amazed to seethese people of color sitting in the synagogue.”
Rabbi Vinas’ plan to transform and revitalize the congregation “is feasible,” syas Murray Gunner, executive director of the Jewish Council of Yonkers, who calls the shul “an unorthodox Orthodox congregation.”
“It was a dying congregation — literally dying,” with older members passing away or moving to Florida in recent years,” the son-in-law says. “Nobody was joining. Every year I noticed few and fewer kids. Every year it got smaller and smaller.”
Located between thriving Jewish communities like Riverdale to the south, and Scarsdale and New Rochelle to the north Yonkers had little to offer prospective Jewish. While the overall Jewish population of Westchester County, according to UJA- Federation’s 2002 Jewish community study, has risn by 40 percent during the 11 years, those figure mostly reflect northern Westchester, Gunner says.
Typical of Jewish communities in the southern part of the county, Yonker’s Jewish population fell from 25,00 two generation ago to about 12,000 in the mid-1990s, Gunner says. The figure now s about 9,000- 10,000, he says, adding that the Jewish population of the synagogue’s Lincoln Park neighborhood is some 3,000 half the number a generation ago.
Many Jewish congregation in the area have died in the last decade or at the point of closing their doors, Rabbi Vinas says. His changes at the shul reflect another demographic trend reported in the survey — the percentage of the Orthodox population in greater New York has increased from 13 to 19 in the last decade.
In yonkers, which has a large Irish and Italian population, the rabbi has set his sights on a “centrist, liberal Orthodox crowd.”
Which means making his synagogue officially Orthodox: ilt’s not yet affiliated with any national Orthodox organizations.
Which means a mechitza, which separates the men’s and women’s sections during services. Most Orthodox Jews will not worship in a synagogue; join one, that permits mixed seating. Although men and women in Lincoln Park sat across the center aisle from each other, a formal mechitza was required.
A mechitza is often the litmus test for a traditional congregation that wants to employ an Orthodox rabbi, For the rabbi, it’s halachic requirement; for older members, it’s a big change.
The board and general membership of Lincoln Park voted for the change. “The majority are going along with it,” Palais says. “There are a few people who are concerned.”
Hence the palms.
Rabbi Vinas, who plans to move soon from Riverdale to Yonkers bought 10 potted pygmy palms at K-Mart in Coop City and shipped them to Yonkers in his car the week he first presided at services. “They were $12 a piece.” He says.
Positioned along the center aisle, their small green forming a subtle boundary, they serve as an aesthetically pleasing, non-threatening divider until a stained –glass mechitza, patterned after the sanctuary’s windows goes up.
“They are a symbol,” Rabbi Vinas says “Our mechitza is growing, and so is our shul.”
The rabbi, whose Spanish-speaking organization became a popular meeting place in Riverdale, has started with in reach in Yonkers, first trying to attract disaffected members to lectures and Shabbat services. ‘We have a minyan now on Friday nights,” he says. “They hadn’t had one for a while.” And attendance at Saturday morning service has reached several dozen, he says
Next comes outreach, a marketing campaign in the fall to attract young, Modern Orthodox families from outside Yonkers. He’s working on establishing an eruv in the neighborhood. A mikveh in the planning stages; the nearest one is in Riverdale, some three miles away.
“I want to draw people.” The rabbi says. He points to the synagogue building itself, a one-story brick facility across from the Major Deegan Expressway. “It’s in beautiful shape,” he says. There’s a K-8 Orthodox day school down the block, a kosher bakery a few blocks away, kosher shopping available 10 minutes away by car, a low crime rate, and good housing at low prices.
“I’m fascinated by Rabbi Vinas’ vision for synagogue,” says Sheila Friedland, executive director of the Weschester Jewish Conference. “Most people [in southern Westchester] “feel there hasn’t been a younger community for a long time.”
Can the rabbi’s plan to revitalize a congregation by changing its denomination and religious practice serve as a model for other synagogues?
“Why not?” Friedland answers. “Everyone wants young blood. It’s painful to be part of a dying community.”
Rabbi Vinas preaches a noon-judgmental brand of Orthodox, allowing old-time members to continue to drive to shul on Shabbat, hoping to make the non-observant feel as welcome as the fully Orthodox. “If I succeed,” he says, “there will be people in the shul who are totally non-frum.”
As a compromise with members who have grown accustomed to mixed seating during Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services, the rabbi, with the support of his rabbinical advisor, will allow the palms to be removed during this year’s High Holy Days. After that, separate seating will prevail.
Eventually, the stained-glass mechitza will replace the plants. The palms will stay in Lincoln Park, Rabbi Vinas says. “We will use them around the building.”