Youth Is Served for an Aging Congregation

The fate of the Lincoln Park Jewish Center might have been easily predicted. Members of the congregation were aging and membership was steadily declining. There was no sign of a revival. Rabbi Rigoberto Emanuel Viñas might have seemed an unlikely savior. The differences between the rabbi and the synagogue’s members were plenty. He was Orthodox, they were not. At 34, he was young enough to be their son. His Cuban family traced their roots to Spain, while the American-born congregants were almost all descendants of Eastern Europeans. But in the two years since Rabbi Viñas began leading the Lincoln Park synagogue, more than 30 families have joined. People who have been members for decades use words like inspired and invigorated when they talk about the changes. The newcomers also speak of the dynamic atmosphere, then go on to cite the ways the congregation has made them feel welcome.

Sometimes, Rabbi Viñas hears hints of the excitement. He does not hide his pleasure. “This is exactly what I want,” he said one evening last week, as members chatted after a Torah study class. “I see it as an experimental laboratory for everybody.” Rabbi Viñas makes it clear that he does not want to simply increase the numbers at Lincoln Park. That surely is every clergy member’s goal. His intention is more ambitious and fraught with some risk. What he is trying to do, he said, is widen his congregation’s spiritual tent to include a broader spectrum of Jews. “It is still difficult for many people to recognize how diverse the Jewish community actually is,” he said. “Now it’s time to come to grips with that and show how it can work.”

And at Lincoln Park it is working. About half the congregation’s newest families are Latino, and the synagogue’s roster is now sprinkled with surnames like Arriaga, Fonseca, Marcano and Rodriguez. Rabbi Viñas is motivated in his task by his experiences as a Latino Jew and the many occasions in which, he said, people have been shocked to meet a Cuban rabbi. As one response to the inevitable “how can that be?” questions, Rabbi Viñas patiently explains that over the years he has met hundreds of Latino Jews in the New York area. The Lincoln Park shul now runs advertisements in Spanish-language newspapers, including one of the largest in the region, El Diario. On Sunday evenings, Rabbi Viñas teaches a class in Spanish on the weekly Torah reading. This weekend, he will conduct one Passover Seder in English and another in Spanish.

Carmen-Maria Rodriguez, who is called Esther by her Jewish friends, lives on Staten Island, but is considering renting an apartment in Yonkers to be closer to Rabbi Viñas. Since she does not drive on the Sabbath, she will often stay with friends from the congregation who live close to the center. “When we sit around the table eating, it’s like this representation of families from all over the world,” she said. Like Rabbi Viñas, Ms. Rodriguez, 50, is the child of Cuban exiles who immigrated to the United States in the 1960’s. “It’s like any observant Jewish community,” she said, “but with a little flair.”

The personal histories of the new Latino members are varied. Some are the children of Holocaust survivors who settled in Buenos Aires. Some are New York City-bred Puerto Ricans who married Jewish sweethearts. Others, like Ms. Rodriguez, believe their ancestors were among the Jews who were forced centuries ago to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. They are known as anusim, a Hebrew term that refers to Jews who forcibly converted. Rabbi Viñas welcomes them, too. Over the last decade, Rabbi Viñas has performed dozens of “ceremonies of return” for people who grew up in Roman Catholic homes watching their grandmothers perform rituals they believed were strange family customs, such as lighting candles on Friday nights. Rabbi Viñas’s efforts to reach out to anusim makes him somewhat of a maverick. “It’s certainly not something that people would say is a priority,” said Steven Bayne, the national director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee in New York. “We are focusing on retaining the people we already have, not churching the unchurched.”

Historically, Jewish religious authorities considered converts to Judaism to be on a “higher spiritual level” than those who were born Jewish. In practice today, however, converts are often met with skepticism, if not hostility, said Marc D. Angel, the senior rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel on the Upper West Side, who has written a book on the history of conversion that is to be published later this year. “There is a whole long history of persecution, so there are questions as to why someone would choose to be part of the community,” Rabbi Angel said. “Since the rules of Judaism are so complicated, people really have to want to go that distance.” For the graying veterans at Lincoln Park, which has about 120 families, the new blood is welcome. Many of them know that Rabbi Viñas has helped many people convert, but no one bothers to make the distinction about individual worshipers.

Mollie Katz, 82, started worshiping at Lincoln Park when she moved to Yonkers with her young children more than 40 years ago. She attends Rabbi Viñas’s English-language Torah class, and she is fiercely proud of the synagogue’s history. “Everyone here has blended in perfectly with each other,” Mrs. Katz said. “I imagine that if we were overwhelmed, you’d have people commenting, ‘All he is bringing in are Spanish people.’ But we have children again. We have energy again.” Initially, Mrs. Katz said, there were rumors that Rabbi Viñas would change the congregation’s longstanding customs to reflect his own practices rooted in the Sephardic traditions of North Africa and Spain. But Rabbi Viñas made it a point to stipulate in his contract that he had no plans to alter the way the synagogue sees itself – as an Eastern European Ashkenazic shul. “I am very happy honoring what they built,” he said. The congregation, which had been Conservative, had no problem accepting an Orthodox rabbi.

Rabbi Viñas is also happy to challenge the perception some Jews might have of an Orthodox rabbi. It is not unusual for him to warmly embrace a congregant he is close to or to pepper his comments with “oye,” rather than “oy vey.” Rabbi Viñas continues his outreach work because he believes there are many people, including Latinos, who are looking for new religious homes. “If they come here, I want to be able to say, ‘This is a house of God and you are welcome to explore it,’ ” he said. “I want to show that the people who haven’t been included are people who can build and maintain an Orthodox community.”


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