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