Hats Off To The Jewish Center


The way you wear your hat … is not going to change anytime soon at the stylish Jewish Center on the Upper West Side.

As one of Manhattan’s largest and most prestigious Orthodox synagogues celebrates its centennial this year, it’s revisiting its history with an eye to the future through lectures from experts in American Jewish history and a 1917-themed black-tie soiree. But amid discussions over what the next hundred years will bring, there is one tradition that won’t be changing.

“From Sukkot to Shavuot, the rabbis and officers wear top hats and morning suits on Shabbat morning,” said Rabbi Yosie Levine, rabbi of The Jewish Center.

When juxtaposed against the modern dress of the synagogue’s worshippers, the 100-year-old tradition may seem outdated. But Rabbi Levine says there are no plans to do away with the symbolic top hats.

“I think it’s a source of pride and a kind of external symbol of our fealty to the tradition which is meaningful to people,” said Levine. “This is the way that our shul has operated for a long time, and we’re happy to perpetuate it.”

The Jewish Center has long been the spiritual home of some of the New York Jewish community’s biggest movers and shakers, from philanthropists Max Stern and Arthur Lamport to executive vice president of the Orthodox Union Allen Fagin. The newly installed president of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Ari Berman, served as the rabbi of The Jewish Center for several years. He follows in the footsteps of Rabbi Norman Lamm, who served as rabbi of The Jewish Center before assuming the university presidency.

“It’s actually quite amazing, if you look at the rabbis, the lay leaders and the members of this institution in the past hundred years; they have gone on to do everything,” said Rabbi Levine.

“I can’t imagine as a historian it’s a coincidence that the rabbinic and lay leaders of The Jewish Center for the past hundred years have played such a pivotal role in Orthodox life,” said Rabbi Zev Eleff, chief academic officer at the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago and author of “Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History.” “It has to be that they’re part of a much larger project, a century-old project.”

The synagogue, long known as “the shul with a pool,” was one of the first synagogues founded with the stated purpose of hosting religious, cultural and educational services in one building, a novel idea at its founding in 1917, when synagogues served as safeguards of tradition in an atmosphere of rapid assimilation. When synagogues and temples began hosting a social kiddush after Shabbat morning services, The Jewish Center quickly adopted the practice, which it has kept to this day.

“It wasn’t the first one to do this but it did it best, the quickest,” said Rabbi Eleff, who also served as a rabbinic intern at The Jewish Center. “It’s become the model for synagogue education and culture and social interaction.”

Rabbi Eleff is editing a collection of scholarly essays and sermons given at The Jewish Center in honor of the synagogue’s centennial, which will be released by Koren next year. The Black and White Soiree will take place on Saturday at The Jewish Center.

Gents, should it move you, a top hat will be fine.