Edgy Washington Hts. Startup Shul Suddenly In Limbo After OU Funding Pulled


In a nondescript brick apartment building on 187th Street and Fort Washington Avenue, more than 70 millennials file into a wood-paneled sanctuary for Friday-night services. Artwork, posters and handmade decorations brighten the walls, lending a homespun aura to the Washington Heights space. A white cloth is draped artistically across the ceiling; a similar fabric creates a mechitza between the sexes. A sandwich board outside the entrance, scrawled hastily in chalk as if it were detailing a café’s daily specials, announces programming and words of welcome.

Subtle signs hint that this is not the average Orthodox synagogue. The bathroom doors are marked gender neutral. A young woman recites the Friday-night Kiddush prayer, an honor that traditionally goes to a man. A same-sex couple is sponsoring one of the Shabbat meals. Congregants with funky glasses and multi-colored hair are sprinkled through the crowd. After the services end, newcomers are encouraged to introduce themselves by name.

The small but growing start-up synagogue, known as The Beis Community, began in 2013 and started growing rapidly a year later with financial help from the Orthodox Union, the large Orthodox umbrella group that, among other initiatives, supports and oversees a robust national network of Orthodox synagogues. But shortly after this year’s High Holiday season, the OU quietly pulled its “seed funding” sum of $30,000 a year — leaving the lay-led congregation to fend for itself.

“We’re trying not to give in to panic,” said Sara Rozner, a member of the synagogue’s informal board. Though Shabbat services and weekday programming have continued “as usual,” The Beis’ lay leaders are feeling “significant concern.”

“We have really pressing needs,” said Rozner, noting that the congregation does not own a Torah scroll and the space that it now rents — known as the Shteible — requires significant “cosmetic care and renovations.”

Making matters worse, no money currently exists to pay staff members, including spiritual leader and founder Rabbi Hart Levine. (Rozner, who used to be the program coordinator for The Beis, had previously been paid for her work.)

The Beis and its model of inclusion strikes a unique chord of loyalty among young Orthodox Jews, many of whom feel alienated and disenchanted with more conventional synagogue options.

OU officials say the abrupt decision to stop funding the Washington Heights start-up had nothing to do with its innovative Orthodox orientation. But it seems as if The Beis’ approach — geared for millennials looking for new types of inclusion and a worship service that matches their generational needs — is caught up in the ongoing push and pull in the Orthodox community between its centrist and progressive wings. That tension was evident in the recent move by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Modern Orthodox seminary in Riverdale, to drop the “Open Orthodox” label it had used for years, for fear that it cast the institution too far to the left religiously. And it was evident too in the OU’s decision earlier this year to prohibit women from serving in rabbinic roles. After significant pushback — including a letter signed by some 50 Modern Orthodox rabbis urging the OU not to “expel” its four member synagogues with female clergy — the OU announced last month the creation of the Department of Women’s Initiatives, to advance “spiritual, religious and communal involvement of women.”

As this debate has played out, The Beis has pushed the envelope of traditional Orthodox practice behind the red door of its small sanctuary, though its members are clear that they want to remain within the Orthodox fold. Over the summer, a woman led an introductory class on how to read from the Torah, a role traditionally reserved for men in Orthodox synagogues. A female congregant led a class on Jewish sexual ethics for men and women in August, a subject conventionally restricted to single-gender, married-only audiences (when discussed at all).

Though the start-up has an elective membership model — “members opt to give whatever they can afford,” said Rozner — not enough attendees have opted in to make the operation financially viable without outside funding. Last year, about 25 percent of attendees opted to contribute monthly, according to a synagogue lay leader. “Our decision [not to have mandatory dues] was based on a desire to be inclusive of all people, especially those who are young, in school, and have no money,” Rozner said. Lay leaders fear shifting that model risks abandoning the core value of inclusion on which the congregation was founded.

Despite limitations, the congregation is growing, and quickly.

When the project began in 2013, services were held every other week at the struggling synagogue Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol on 175th Street. Attendance was sparse and unpredictable. (The Beis parted ways with the synagogue after only a few months, sources say, because the elderly members of the congregation were uncomfortable with some of the project’s more unconventional practices, such as increased female involvement and the musical prayers.)

Today, in a new space and with a committed band of lay leaders and followers, the grassroots project has 100 people at services on an average Shabbat and runs well-attended programming during the week. According to Rozner, The Beis has reached nearly 2,000 unique individuals over the past three years.

Indeed, The Beis and its model of inclusion strikes a unique chord of loyalty among young Orthodox Jews, many of whom feel alienated and disenchanted with more conventional synagogue options.

“This was different than any synagogue I’d gone to before.”

“Growing up, I did not feel comfortable in a lot of Orthodox spaces,” said Sarah Allen, a nonprofit professional and Beis regular. “I didn’t want to daven in a room with 400 other people.” Her preconceptions were challenged when she first entered The Beis.

“Something felt so familiar about it,” she said, describing the space as “lovely, warm and intimate.” The “low barrier to entry” made her feel at once accepted and welcomed. “This was different than any synagogue I’d gone to before.”

Her sentiment was mirrored by several other Beis regulars. “Honestly, I wouldn’t go to synagogue if I hadn’t found this place,” said one young man, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Time To Support Itself

Growing numbers in the pews is rare, according to a host of recent studies. The 2016 Pew study of the American religious landscape found that millennials across faiths are increasingly detached from conventional religious beliefs and practices, including attendance at religious services. A recent study by UJA-Federation of New York on voluntary dues corroborated the Pew’s findings, indicating that Jewish young adults are far less interested in affiliating with Jewish institutions than their older cohorts. Even among the Modern Orthodox, a first-of-its-kind study published this fall found that synagogue attendance and the belief that prayer is meaningful is on the decline among millennials.

Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the OU, said the decision to drop The Beis was purely financial and that he was “really not all that familiar with programming that was run.

“We funded the project with the understanding that as the community would grow and develop it would become financially viable on its own,” said Fagin. At this point, with the number of participants booming, the “proof is in the pudding,” said Fagin. “They are now financially viable enough to take control of their own programming.” He said the OU is “proud” of the project’s success, and hopes to replicate the model elsewhere.

Congregants tell a different story. Rachael Fried, who has been an active participant at The Beis, said she was “surprised” by the OU’s decision.

“I find it surprising that finally this seems to be a model that works, and the OU doesn’t fund it further.”

“In the Orthodox community, it is extremely rare to find young people who are excited to go to shul,” said Fried. While other Jewish institutions obsess over how to engage millennials, here was a rare example of success, she said. “I find it surprising that finally this seems to be a model that works, and the OU doesn’t fund it further.”

Another congregant, speaking off the record, said the OU “freaked out” every time The Beis was referred to as an “inclusive” place. OU board members, according to a congregant, were sent screenshots of The Beis’ more controversial events, posted on Facebook. Fagin confirmed that one such posting to The Beis’ Facebook page “was called to our attention as being inappropriate,” and that it was forwarded to Rabbi Levine.

Those events included a “Diversity Dialogue” in honor of LGBTQ Pride Month, with the intention to “challenge our assumptions, and brainstorm ways we can be more open and intentional as a community,” according to the Facebook event description. Many congregants, it said, “openly identify as LGBTQ.” Another event tackled the “Jews of Color conversation.” A Shabbaton was dedicated to mental health awareness and support.

“This schism [between the OU and The Beis] has been a long time coming,” said the congregant. “I think both sides knew The Beis was going to do its own thing eventually.”

“Something [in the Orthodox community] wasn’t quite enough for them. Otherwise, why are they coming?”

At the center of the break is Rabbi Hart Levine, the spiritual leader of the congregation. Rabbi Levine declined to be interviewed for this article because, aside from leading The Beis, he works full time at the OU’s “NextGen” Department, where he directs Heart to Heart, a program aimed at college students.

(Fagin would not refer to Rabbi Levine as the “rabbi” of The Beis, though congregants unambiguously agree that that is his role and title. Instead, Fagin called Levine “a fairly regular attendee who provides ad hoc pastoral counseling.” He also stressed that what Levine is doing at The Beis is “in his own individual capacity, not as an OU employee.”)

Speaking to The Jewish Week for a recent article on start-up synagogues, Rabbi Levine, 30, described his constituency as “Orthodox, but … .”

“Something [in the Orthodox community] wasn’t quite enough for them,” he said. “Otherwise, why are they coming?”

Progressive Values

A push towards a more inclusive Orthodoxy among the younger generation was evident by the results of the survey of Modern Orthodoxy released in September. Among younger respondents (ages 18-34), there was a definitive shift towards acceptance of LGBTQ Jews and deep-rooted support for the engagement of women, even in clergical roles.

“Demands for a more inclusive space started rising from the community itself,” said Rozner, citing the gender-inclusive bathroom signs and women’s Torah-reading workshop. “The people started wanting things a certain way, and that wasn’t within the clear status-quo bounds of the OU’s position.”

“Our community values are progressive, inclusive and strongly left-leaning.”

When a gay couple in the community got engaged, the congregation “unanimously” wanted to wish a mazel tov to the couple in the formal Shabbat announcements. Ties with the OU precluded the congratulations.

“Our community values are progressive, inclusive and strongly left-leaning,” said Rozner. Congregants grew weary of events being “muted” in order to accommodate their OU benefactors. “That was not really an option if we received our funding from the OU.”

Still, congregants are insistent on remaining within the Orthodox tent.

Fried, who works professionally as the assistant director of JQY, an organization that provides resources to Orthodox LGBTQ youth and their families, said that “working within the system” is necessary to make it better. “You can’t just go ahead and uproot the system.”

“It’s not a place that claims to have answers.”

What she appreciates most about The Beis: “It’s not a place that claims to have answers.”

“That’s what brave Orthodoxy is,” she said. “You allow yourself to ask the big, scary questions. And if you don’t have an answer? That’s OK,” she said, pausing for a moment. “It’s braver to ask the bold questions than to have the big answers.”

Editorial intern Shira Hanau contributed to this report.