A Synagogue Shidduch On The Upper West Side


Two small Upper West Side congregations/prayer groups that are operating — temporarily — without their own buildings will soon start working and praying together.

And if the forthcoming “joint operations” that are to begin with a combined worship service on the last Shabbat of October are a success, the memberships of Congregation Shaare Zedek, one of the borough’s oldest synagogues, and of Kehilat Hadar, an 18-year-old independent minyan, will vote in two years on whether to make the relationship official.

A permanent merger appears likely, said leaders of the nondenominational institutions, which both define themselves as “egalitarian,” “multigenerational, lay-led, volunteer-driven organizations.” Members of both institutions approved the two-year trial run last week.

“Our core values are so similar that there were very few sticking points,” said Emily Scharfman, Kehilat Hadar board of trustees president. “It’s a good fit for both,” said Michael Firestone, Shaare Zedek president. “We’re doing pretty much the same type of davening.”

The future joint activities will “benefit the members of both communities and enhance the Jewish experience on the Upper West Side,” Firestone wrote in a message to Shaare Zedek members last week. The congregations have not decided on  a new name.

The move is the latest sign of two trends in the Jewish community: small, like-minded institutions joining forces to save money and increase their combined membership; and institutions, particularly synagogues, negotiating to sell the air rights at their old sites to raise funds and keep their doors open.

Shaare Zedek is a 182-year-old congregation, with roots on the Lower East Side, whose 96-year-old Neoclassical building on West 93rd Street was demolished last year and is being rebuilt as a 14-story mixed-use condominium tower in the same space; the synagogue will own and occupy the cellar, first and second floors of the new building, and have access to a third-story terrace. The new building is set to open in late 2020.

The 70-member-unit synagogue now holds services at a nearby community center. It has no full-time rabbi; the contract of the last one, Jonah Geffen, expired in June, and the congregation will not hire a new pulpit rabbi during the period of joint activities.

Kehilat Hadar, which refers to itself as “a community,” has 130 members. It holds its activities at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan on Columbus Avenue. Its offshoot is the Hadar Institute, which offers adult Jewish learning programs through multiple forms including online and in person immersive programs.

True to its founding ethos to be led by its membership, it has no rabbi; it refers pertinent questions to Rabbi Ethan Tucker, a co-founder of the Hadar movement.

During the first stage of their joint operations, Shaare Zedek and Kehilat Hadar will host joint Shabbat and holiday services at the Schechter School and co-host additional activities, such as children’s programming and lunch and learn sessions. Both institutions will hold separate High Holiday services this year and in 2020, and initially maintain separate boards and budgets.

In the second stage, the two institutions will continue to hold joint activities in the new building and consider “further integration.”

“This move is good for both communities,” she said. “There’s a vision here that’s bigger than both of us.”