Can A Young Rabbi

Can an unas­sum­ing mil­len­nial rabbi bring a his­toric syn­a­gogue into the 21st Cen­tury?

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Britta Lok­t­ing

Rein­vent an Old Shul?

When Rabbi Sam Re­in­stein ar­rived at the coun­try’s first Jewish Comic Con, he didn’t seem to grasp the su­per­hero sym­bol­ism em­bla­zoned on his chest. A 27-year-old who prefers com­edy to comics, he had de­cided to wear a hu­mor T-shirt, which fea­tured the Su­per­man Logo wear­ing a black hat and

peyes. He wan­dered through Con­gre­ga­tion Kol Is­rael, his 90-some­thing-year-old syn­a­gogue lo­cated on St. John’s Place in Brook­lyn’s Crown Heights, say­ing hello and shak­ing hands with comic fa­nat­ics, obliv­i­ous to the fact that he may as well have in­tro­duced him­self by sim­ply point­ing to his chest. By day, Re­in­stein is a fi­nance man who works at Pru­den­tial. At Kol Is­rael, work­ing with pal­try fi­nances and mod­est re­sources, he’s been dealt the su­per­hu­man mis­sion of trans­form­ing his ail­ing Mod­ern Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue into a place young peo­ple con­sider cool.

Kol Is­rael has been on the verge of shut­ter­ing since the 1990s. There’s no heat or air con­di­tion­ing. On hu­mid sum­mer nights, con­gre­gants have to haul in floor fans to cool the place. Van­dals shat­tered the stained-glass win­dow over the front en­trance, and the plas­tic re­place­ment is now peel­ing. Sev­eral win­dow­panes down­stairs are miss­ing. The roof leaks. Tiles are cracked. A note on the hole-punched bath­room door reads, “Par­don our ap­pear­ance, we’re re­mod­el­ing.” I was ad­vised not to linger on the third floor be­cause of the risk of lead poi­son­ing. Al­though the syn­a­gogue can hold 150 peo­ple, usu­ally only about 30 at­tend

Shab­bat ser­vices.

Two years ago, af­ter sev­eral failed at­tempts to bring in new mem­bers, the board hired Re­in­stein, a fi­nance man who had not held a rab­bini­cal po­si­tion pre­vi­ously, to save the space and hope­fully re­turn it to its for­mer glory.

Now, Re­in­stein says, Kol Is­rael’s “big­gest fight” and ob­sta­cle is the “Jewish hip­ster” move­ment. Tra­di­tional syn­a­gogue set­tings have be­come less al­lur­ing for young Jews, who are grav­i­tat­ing to­ward al­ter­na­tive ways of ob­serv­ing Shab­bat. Brook­lyn in par­tic­u­lar has seen a surge in home­grown ef­forts to bring Jewish prayer cer­e­monies out of the syn­a­gogue and into homier set­tings. Crown Heights was dubbed “Jewish hip­ster haven” in a re­cent JTA ar­ti­cle.

“The old-hat Ortho­dox con­gre­ga­tion is very bor­ing and dull to those un­fa­mil­iar with it,” said Os­car Is­raelowitz, a colum­nist for the New York City Jewish Press and the au­thor of Guide to Jewish New York City, speak­ing about the dif­fi­cul­ties of at­tract­ing out­siders.

The Comic Con was part of Kol Is­rael’s plan to en­tice young peo­ple, Re­in­stein told me. Over the course of the day, about 100 peo­ple vis­ited the nar­row sanc­tu­ary to thumb through comic books, turn over mer­chan­dise, talk with ven­dors and lis­ten to pan­elists like Mort Ger­berg, the New Yorker car­toon­ist. It was the most visi­tors the syn­a­gogue has wel­comed in years.

“You want some­thing that feels new,” Re­in­stein said. “Be­cause peo­ple are in­un­dated with the same thing. I don’t think a syn­a­gogue is only about prayer and learn­ing.”

At 4 p.m. it was time to pause for daily prayer. A con­gre­gant jumped on a wooden bench near the bimah and started wav­ing his arms and yelling. It was hard to hear him over the din, but in an in­stant the cream lace scrim used on the Sab­bath was wheeled to the cen­ter of the sanc­tu­ary, right down the mid­dle of the “artist al­ley.” The ven­dors looked around. A dozen con­gre­gants grabbed prayer books and split to the men’s or women’s side of the screen. A Bat­man em­blem poked out from un­der one man’s tal­lit. An­other wor­ship­per wore a tuxedo, pre­sum­ably some sort of cos­tume. A wo­man sit­ting in the foyer was putting on a foxy Black Ca­nary out­fit with knee-high heeled boots.

Re­in­stein be­gan. De­spite his usual laid­back at­ti­tude, when he prays he spits out rapid-fire He­brew and bows in quick, suc­cinct juts. If you don’t know what’s go­ing on, it can be hard to keep up. Kol Is­rael has a some­what de­press­ing, and also vaguely de­fined, his­tory. The story goes that the con­gre­ga­tion formed in 1924 and the build­ing was erected in 1927 on a $10 plot of land, but there’s no way to con­firm this. At one point, so I’ve been told, some­one un­know­ingly tossed out the only box of his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments, which ac­cord­ing to Is­raelowitz is not un­com­mon for syn­a­gogues to do. The Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places claims that this now-land­marked struc­ture dates back to 1928. “I’ve heard 1924 and 1927. Say ‘1925’ and call it good,” Fred Polaniecki, the board pres­i­dent, told me.

Kol Is­rael blos­somed dur­ing the “syn­a­gogue hey­day” of Prospect Heights and Crown Heights in the 1920s and ’30s, when, Is­raelowitz said, “the whole gamut” of Jews — Ortho­dox, Con­ser­va­tive and Re­form — lived side by side. Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, and also to Eliezer Abram­sky, who grew up in Brownsville and has at­tended Kol Is­rael for 33 years, an old ri­valry ex­isted with a neigh­bor­ing syn­a­gogue about where you could bet­ter hear the crack of the home­runs from Eb­bets Field, home of the Brook­lyn Dodgers. You can of­ten find Abram­sky hold­ing court out­side the Kol Is­rael gate and wav­ing to the young, di­verse res­i­dents that now oc­cupy a gen­tri­fy­ing St. John’s Street. (On an un­re­lated note,

MIS­SION POS­SI­BLE: Sam Re­in­stein, 27, is charged with the dif­fi­cult task of re­viv­ing Con­gre­ga­tion Kol Is­rael in Crown Heights. ALL PHO­TOS COUR­TESY OF SAM RE­IN­STEIN AND KOL IS­RAEL

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