Has Makor Found Its Groove?


Leaving a board of directors dinner last Thursday night, Michael Steinhardt strolled from the cafe to see what the kids were up to in the chic jazz club in his brainchild Makor. Rob Tannenbaum and Sean Altman’s Jewish singer-songwriter showcase "What I Like About Jew" was in full swing, the clever a cappella group Minimum Wage trying its best to amuse.

"Are you Jewish?" Steinhardt asked The Jewish Week, scanning the crowd, a product of his $11 million gift. "Do you want to meet a girl and get married tonight?"

"I can do the wedding right here," Rabbi David Gedzelman chipped in. Not waiting for a reply, Steinhardt joked again, "Do you want to do a serious interview or do you want to have fun?"

Steinhardt and Rabbi Gedzelman may have been joking, but a year into the experiment are young Jews at Makor having fun yet?

The Makor leadership is not ready to celebrate the anniversary of the vibrant new community and cultural center on West 67th Street. "We’re too busy," Rabbi Gedzelman, creative and rabbinic director, said a few days later in a more formal interview. "We’re still in the beginning phase."

There are many positive signs. Makor’s mailing list quadrupled from 4,000 to 16,000 since the building opened to much publicity last October, though only 120 people have paid the $136 for membership. And while roughly 1,000 to 1,500 people are estimated to pass through each week, Makor has hired two rabbinic interns to find ways to make the building not just another cultural venue but a true community center for the estimated 100,000 Jews in their 20s and 30s in Manhattan.

The goal is to get young Jews though the door, excite them with myriad programs and social opportunities, and eventually lead them toward Jewish learning with the classes upstairs in the five-story town house. Anecdotal evidence seems to support Rabbi Gedzelman’s conservative estimate that roughly 30 percent of attendees are either not Jewishly involved or very Jewishly involved, while 40 percent fall in the middle.

To try to quantify those numbers, noted sociologist Steven Cohen has been enlisted to conduct a study of who comes to Makor and the effect it has on their lives.

But Makor officials are only beginning to figure out how successful the center is in inspiring unaffiliated Jews to tune in, turn on, and get Jewish.

"People walk in so ambivalently," Rabbi Gedzelman said. Makor makes sure there’s no hard sell, no one "in their face" about participating in Makor’s activities. After passing beefy security guards and purchasing tickets, visitors march upstairs for films or classes, file downstairs for the cafe and club, or mill about on the ground floor, maybe wandering through the glass partition into a reading room stocked with the sort of magazines and books one would expect to encounter in the waiting room of a young, artsy Jewish psychiatrist. The visitor is never more than 10 paces from a pile of Makor’s monthly schedule of events. "Makor is an experiment to expose young Jews to what’s out there, not to try to create a new Judaism," the rabbi said.

Kim Maybar, 27, is well-informed about the organized Jewish singles scene and has attended other venues such as Utopia at Le Bar Bat and Esther Jungreis’ popular lectures, but traveled from Astoria for "What I Like About Jew" to find a more "liberal" crowd at Makor. At a fund-raiser for a Quaker school, Maybar said "people were talking about Makor." She feels the space attracts more adventurous people, calling it an "unknown territory."

Everything about Makor, from its cafe menu to the drop-in Kabbalah classes, is conditioned according to the market forces of New York life. "We’re competing with for-profit leisure-time culture," Rabbi Gedzelman said.

"I wouldn’t have known it was a Jewish space; it didn’t strike me as a religious place," said Krista Cardellichio, 25, who is not Jewish but went to Makor earlier this year on her birthday to see a jazz band.

A year after its opening, Makor’s original buzz as an uptown Knitting Factory and singles scene, hip at the expense of haimishe, has slowly ebbed as people have learned of its educational, professional, and community networks and programs. Makor has smoothed relations with outraged neighbors over late-night noise and crowds, shrugged off critics of its brand of outreach, and sought to wean off the largess of Michael Steinhardt "as quickly as possible," executive director Gary Ross said.

Less than a third of $3.4 million annual budget is covered by revenue from food and programs, the remainder covered by Steinhardt and to a lesser extent other philanthropies. Ross didn’t divulge the exact levels of Steinhardt’s annual contribution, only that the philanthropist envisioned Makor to become a "community institution." To that end, Makor is expanding its donor base by doubling the current size of its board of 13 and increasing foundation and philanthropic support.

"For this to be a healthy organization, one person can’t be the main donor," Rabbi Gedzelman said. But finding new veins of support has been "difficult." "People have the perception that it’s Michael’s thing."

Despite his enthusiasm to play cupid, Steinhardt did not return calls from The Jewish Week.

Makor’s reach has apparently crossed the Atlantic. One British man in his 30s visited Makor three nights while in town last week on business. He came for music, Israeli films and an Internet networking event that attracted 220 people.

But Brooklyn-based freelance writer Paul Zakrzewski, 32, finds "their philosophy vague, murky and utopian." They’re "very slick, very brand-conscious, and I find that vaguely off-putting." Yet Zakrzewski enjoyed a Yiddish class and says that Makor hosted "one of the best readings I’ve ever been too" with U.S. Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz and the poet Marie Howe.

The primary goal for the near future, say Makor officials, is to build on existing smaller professional affinity groups, such as those for lawyers and filmmakers, to create a "host community" of volunteers to help make Makor a friendlier, more hospitable place. One such community is called "MAJIC," an acronym for Music and Jewish in Common. Rabbinic interns Danielle Upbin and David Glickman, fourth- and fifth-year students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, are responsible for assembling a network of hundreds of volunteers to be Makor’s "glue," greeting visitors at the front lobby, answering questions about Jewish arts programs, and helping shape community service initiatives. The first meeting is set for November, but some volunteers will be in place as early as next week.

Elliott Rabin, director of education, estimates that 100-200 people attend classes each week, learning Hebrew, Jewish spirituality, Making Marriage Meaningful and others. More than 500 people have participated in community service programs such as mentoring Russian Jewish teens and literacy programs at homeless shelters. Said East Sider Jennifer Yellin, 29, "I feel lucky to have a place to go to get involved."

The kosher cafe is expected to make Makor a destination and hangout. Makor is also reaching out to other institutions such as Lincoln Center and Congregation Beth Simchat Torah to attract people to its building.

Debby Hirshman, executive director of the JCC of the Upper West Side, which is a constructing a building of its own on nearby Amsterdam Avenue, praised Makor’s "varied and innovative" music and film programming. She credits Makor’s efforts to "penetrate the market" of young Jews professionals as helping all Jewish organizations better reach this vital demographic.

Yet venues such as Makor and the JCC seem in opposition to the conclusion drawn by Samuel Freedman in his new book "Jew vs. Jew" that now "religion defines Jewish identity."

Makor and other new Jewish cultural venues such as the Knitting Factory are grassroots expressions that "speak of longing to connect with Jews but not in a religious way," Freedman said in an interview. These strategies are "absolutely necessary," said Freedman, but he’s "dubious if they can be enough." Constrained by child-rearing duties, Freedman has never been to Makor, so his chief concern is "how much of Makor’s audience is really unaffiliated" or is it mostly "involved" Jews?

Robert Levine, 29, a New York magazine music editor, visited Makor for the first time last week to see his friend Rob Tannenbaum sing "A Jew in the White House," an ode to Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

"I would come here more often if I lived on the Upper West Side," says the East Village resident, who estimates he attends three concerts a week. Levine was a bit skeptical that another Jewish venue was needed since New York is such a Jewish city already. "If I lived in Houston, I probably would go all the time," he remarked before departing for the Lenny Kravitz rock show at the Limelight.