The Cause: The SoHo Synagogue, inaugurated in 2005 by Rabbi Dovi Scheiner and his wife, Esty, gives to a number of different charities, including Tikva Odessa and Jewish Heart for Africa. "Basically what we've realized over the three or four years we've been in existence is that we can channel our momentum towards making the world a better place," says Scheiner.
The Scene: Recent benefits have boasted nearly 2,000 Prada-clutch-toting and tux-wearing attendees (think less Jew-fro, more Japanese-straightened). While Rabbi Scheiner stresses that the synagogue's events are not singles mixers, gala host David Goldberg says, "The people that attend these events . . . yes, they're young, yes, they're successful, yes, they're hot." A red carpet and the sheer size of the event can make it somewhat daunting for those looking to snag a nice Jewish boy or girl to bring home to Mom, but the constant flow of bellinis and open kosher bar help to keep the edge off.
Schmoozing at the SoHo Synagogue Gala
June 23, 2008
By Nola Weinstein
Though Christian Louboutins, Prada clutches and countless DvF frocks abounded, one of this season’s hottest parties had little to do with fashion and more to do with…religion.
The SoHo Synagogue’s annual black-tie gala, held on June 12 at Cipriani Wall Street, had the exclusive feeling of a member’s-only club and the warmth of a family gathering.
The institution, which was founded by Rabbi Dovi and Esty Scheiner, has become known for its refreshingly hip mentality, bringing thousands of Manhattanites back into the religious fold.
With gowns and bouffants for the women and dapper tuxedos on the men, almost 2,000 people descended upon the packed party to mix and mingle.
With a kosher open bar, desserts, lounges and gazebos from ScoopParty.com and lush multicolored floral centerpieces by Monica Hirsch, the stage was set for chic giving.
The evening also served as a meet market of sorts for the beautiful crowd. We caught many a lady mingling near one of New York’s most eligible Jewish bachelors–Jared Kushner. Can you blame them, really?
Hip With A Mechitza
June 23, 2005
By Liel Leibovitz
On a recent Monday afternoon, an elevator in a sleek Soho apartment building opens into an airy loft. It’s the kind of space one often sees on television when a location is called upon to convey a dab of downtown splendor: minimalist design, Chuck Close and Warhol on the walls, a gaggle of beautiful people clinking glasses. And eating cheesecake — after all, this is a Shavuot party, organized by the Soho Synagogue, the first such institution in the neighborhood’s history.
As the pretty young things, clad in designer clothes, orbit around the room, nibbling on one of 18 exotic homemade cheesecakes, one man stands out in the crowd. He’s rail thin, with soulful brown eyes and a white shirt with tzitzit peeking from underneath. He wears a velvet yarmulke with his name embroidered on top: Rabbi Dovi.
His name is Dovi Scheiner, 28, the lively spirit behind the synagogue. Although the synagogue is still raising funds to afford a permanent sanctuary, hopefully by the High Holy Days, Rabbi Scheiner has succeeded nonetheless in gathering a committed group of several hundred young Jews to attend and organize events, help network and fundraise, and establish a lively Jewish community in a neighborhood where such a creation seemed unlikely.
A peek at Rabbi Scheiner’s biography reveals an eerie bond with downtown Manhattan: On Sept. 11, 2001, just hours after the World Trade Center crumbled into a smoldering heap, the rabbi and his wife, Esty, were married in Brooklyn.
“We tried to figure that one out,” he said, “and we got guidance to continue with the wedding and see it in the context of good. Not to feel guilty about being happy when everybody’s so sad, but to feel good for doing something righteous on a day that epitomized evil.”
From that day on it seemed Lower Manhattan was seared into the Scheiners’ consciousness. Several months after the tragedy, with downtown’s residents filing out of the neighborhood, Dovi and Esty (she’s famous for baking challahs for Mayor Bloomberg) moved in.
“What we found was that there was very little going on Jewishly downtown,” Rabbi Scheiner said, “very little Jewish infrastructure. We started creating a community, one person at a time — a Shabbat dinner, a meeting — very slowly.”
According to the real estate brokerage house Douglas Elliman, the neighborhood has undergone a tremendous demographic change in the past decade, with more than 30 percent of buildings converted into high-end residential units attracting the young and affluent.
And Jewish: According to the 2002 Jewish Community Study of New York released by the UJA Federation of New York, 17 percent of residents in Lower Manhattan — an area that spreads from the Lower East Side to Tribeca — are Jewish. That’s a total of 26,700 households.
These households, the Scheiners soon realized, had little foundation for Jewish life: Although there are a handful of synagogues in the area, none are located in Soho, and despite the neighborhood’s solid Jewish presence, there are a virtually no other Jewish communal institutions to be found. Spotting an opportunity, the Scheiners began to network.
They first met producer Scott Kluge at Tribeca’s star-studded film festival, and began to host Shabbat dinners at his home, offering gourmet kosher food and a causal sense of Yiddishkeit.
“The numbers started increasing quickly,” Rabbi Scheiner said. “We were providing a very good atmosphere: non-judgmental, joyous, great food. It was a bit unconventional, a downtown Jewish scene.”
Still, something was missing for Rabbi Scheiner, an Orthodox rabbi trained at the Maayanot Institute in Jerusalem, a renowned yeshiva known for its broad and inclusive approach to Jewish studies.
“I saw the need for a synagogue,” he said, “but I felt that the synagogue was very stigmatized, that it represents organized religion, that it’s very intimidating for the young generation who had had a bad experience. Going into a synagogue is not something people are looking to do.”
Rabbi Scheiner’s quest, he soon realized, was to change that, to create a synagogue that would attract those otherwise reluctant to attend, that in a neighborhood so keenly aware of the whims of trends and fashions would succeed in combining the unchanging foundations of Judaism with an exterior inviting enough to lure people away from flashy Friday night cocktails or idle Saturday morning brunches.
Through his self-funded foundation, the World Tikkun Center, Rabbi Scheiner began organizing a series of events, diligently expanding his network. As he had no space for a synagogue, he utilized any location available — a rented art gallery, a friend’s loft — that would make anyone, regardless of religious background, feel welcome. He gave talks and parties and soirees, making sure there was an added Jewish value to even the most carefree of events.
At a recent party celebrating Lag b’Omer, for example, as revelers downed their third cocktail or second piece of cake, Rabbi Scheiner nonchalantly cruised to the center of the room and offered a few words about the holiday’s historical origins. The party’s guests, a couple hundred young Jewish professionals, gathered around him, listening attentively.
It’s that kind of gestalt, Rabbi Scheiner said, combining a relaxed, friendly atmosphere with meaningful Jewish learning, that he planned for the upcoming synagogue. After all, one can’t survive in the trendiest neighborhood in the trendiest city in the world without a touch of chic.
“I want to have a lounge-type atmosphere inside the sanctuary,” he said. “I want to undo the whole bench thing; no more hard wooden benches from 200 years ago. Instead, we’ll have comfortable one- or two-seaters, maybe coffee tables with Jewish reading materials on them.”
Design, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Without compromising any of the services’ seriousness — a point Rabbi Scheiner is adamant on — the Soho synagogue will offer a modular approach to worship in an effort to accommodate the neighborhood’s diverse population, only 4 percent of which, according to the UJA survey, is Orthodox.
“I know where people are coming from,” Rabbi Scheiner said. “Even I myself, I’m a bit ADD,” referring to the hyperactivity syndrome. “It’s hard to sit for three hours. If we have a mumbling Brooklyn Orthodox synagogue, we’re not going to have any membership,” he said. “We’re sensitive to how time-sensitive and attention-sensitive people are, and how foreign this is for some of them.
“We’re not going to rewrite the laws, but make people comfortable with the ideas and warm up to them, perhaps breaking the Shabbat morning services into time sections, and invite people who aren’t into sitting for two-and-a-half hours for Torah reading and musaf to come halfway through or leave early and participate in a portion of the services.”
Tony Sosnick, 35, a Soho philanthropist who with his wife, Katrin, and the Scheiners spearheads the efforts to make the synagogue a reality, agreed.
“There are certain things that some people are not ordinarily allowing or willing to live with which we hope they’ll be willing to live with in our case because of all the other things that will be brought to the synagogue,” Sosnick said.
As a classic example he named the mechitza, usually a red flag for non-Orthodox congregants.
The Soho synagogue, he said, will turn the mechitza into an art project, making it less intimidating for those who have come to see it as a symbol of inequality.
Judging by the response, this creative approach to otherwise contentious issues appears to work.
A recent rooftop party drew more than 500 people, and the traditional Shabbat dinners have grown from a handful of participants to more than 80 people on any given Friday night. The participants are a diverse bunch. Apart from their young age, they come from varied backgrounds, some somewhat observant and others not, all attracted to the Scheiners’ charisma and vision.
“Dovi is an amazing guy,” said Josh Sternfeld, 33, a film director whose first feature was released last year. “He has an amazing ability to be very inclusive, very warm, to express his Jewish ideas and ideals but to do it in a way that is ultimately universal and open-hearted, and not threatening and divisive in any way.”
Although Sternfeld grew up in what he defined as “a Conservative Jewish household” — his father is pursuing rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary — he does not define himself as religious.
“I go to synagogue on the High Holidays,” he said, “and at other personal times, but I wouldn’t call myself a regular attendee.”
And although Sternfeld can’t say for sure whether he’ll attend the Soho Synagogue on a regular basis, he’s certain he’ll remain involved in other ways.
“I completely believe in the project,” he said, “and in them [the Scheiners] as religious leaders.”
Tal Perry, a 29-year-old entertainment lawyer, is even more certain. Like Sternfeld, he defines himself as not religious — he does not keep kosher or observe Shabbat — but was drawn to the synagogue’s circle after meeting Dovi Scheiner.
“I felt the connection right away,” he said of his meeting with the rabbi. “The things he was doing, opening his doors to people that are not as religious as he is, accepting everybody. I felt comfortable.”
Comfortable enough, Perry said, to attend regularly once the synagogue finds a home.
“Part of the concept of it is that it’s more than just a synagogue for religious observation, it’s a synagogue slash community center,” he said. “It’s a gathering place for a lot of different things, and it opens itself to people who are not necessarily interested in going to shul and praying.”
Still, Perry added, the synagogue isn’t going to be merely a JCC with a light religious emphasis but a bona fide Orthodox shul with added value.
“Most people affiliated with the synagogue are not Orthodox,” he said, “but we also want to make sure it keeps a certain level of religiosity. We don’t want to have it as just a JCC kind of thing. It gives it more credibility. There are other organizations out there trying to do a similar thing, but this one comes from a different angle, not forcing anything on you, but giving you the option, giving you the choice.”
Sosnick, the synagogue’s co-founder, agreed.
“The synagogue will be very arts-driven,” he said. “The whole vibe in general will be very hip, downtown, light atmosphere. But we’re not avant-garde, in one year and out the next. We want to be around 30, 40, 50 years from now.”
"Dovi has the vibe," says Eran Lot, leaning against a granite counter-top in the kitchen of a fabulously trendy second-floor loft at 420 West Broadway in Manhattan's SoHo district. It's an address that is also home to the DKNY store and, until recently, a two-level apartment owned by the actor Meg Ryan. "He is really a great person, and the right person to be doing this."
What Lot is talking about is printed across the front of his T-shirt, proudly worn under a natty leather jacket and teamed with designer sunglasses. The slogan reads simply "The SoHo Synagogue". This is also the main reason why he and some 200 sleekly dressed guests have come here for the evening - to eat kosher food, drink Grey Goose cocktails and schmooze, but mostly to support Dovi and the synagogue plan.
The dream of Rabbi Dovi Scheiner, a skinny 28-year-old, is straightforward enough. Growing numbers of young, successful Jews have been moving recently to downtown Manhattan - to Tribeca, for instance, where he and his wife, Esty, 23, now live, and to SoHo. But opportunities for worship here are very limited. Indeed, SoHo does not have a single synagogue. It never has. So he plans to establish one.
But the project is attracting attention for another reason. Scheiner, who married Esty on 11 September 2001, just after the twin towers of the World Trade Centre had crumbled, wants the synagogue to occupy a space like this one - a loft in SoHo, among its parades of boutiques and bistros. And because most of the Jews migrating to the area are like the guests at this party - young, club-going, fashionable - he wants his to be a hip synagogue. More complicated still, he wants it to be hip, but Orthodox in its worship.
Dovi and Esty's unlikely venture began on the day they were married. Of course, they hesitated to go forward with the ceremony on the day of the carnage at the World Trade Centre. But, for all devout Jews, scrapping a wedding ceremony is about as serious a decision as they can take. On the advice of a senior rabbi that they really had no choice, and that they would be bringing a speck of joy to a city on the worst of its days, they went ahead. Soon afterwards, they decided to leave Brooklyn where they had both grown up and move to Chambers Street in Tribeca, just yards from ground zero.
They quickly set about creating an inclusive community. They began by opening their apartment to Shabbat dinners every Friday night to any Jews - Orthodox, conservative, Reform, observant or entirely lapsed - who felt like coming. Soon, the dinners were not enough. They held cocktail parties and buffet dinners, especially on Jewish holidays, and the numbers attending quickly swelled as news of their social shindigs spread through the young Jewish set of lower Manhattan.
Then into their lives came Tony and Katrin Sosnick, who had just moved downtown, although a few blocks to the north in SoHo. They loved what Dovi was doing, but suggested that if Jews were to keep gathering in this way, then they might as well do it in a place where they really belonged - a synagogue. And, as it did not have one, why not do it right here in SoHo?
Planning is now well advanced. Several months ago, work started on the handwritten Torah - a scroll of Hebrew teachings - that must be at the heart of every Jewish synagogue. It has already been dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks. Briefly revealing the stature of his contacts in this city, Scheiner reveals that the task of writing the first letter on the scroll was given to the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg.
The focus now is on finding an appropriate space. Scheiner envisages a large open loft, probably above a retail outlet - indeed, much like the venue of this party, except that this apartment is already occupied by Ohad Maiman, a young painter, photographer and entertainment impresario, who has loaned it to Scheiner for this one evening. With luck, they hope to find somewhere and get it ready, Torah and all, in time for the Jewish high holidays in October this year.
Many of those attending this party seem exactly to fit the profile of the future synagogue celebrants Scheiner has in mind. They consider themselves Jewish and are more or less serious about their faith, but most haven't been to synagogue in years.
Lot, who is originally from Israel and who works investing in properties in Brooklyn and selling them again on the rising house market, never thought about returning to regular worship until he heard about the SoHo Synagogue - to which, he says, he will be going.
So will Netta Korin, a slender woman with black hair over her shoulders, whose professional hours are filled running a Wall Street hedge fund. She had tried uptown synagogues when she lived on the Upper East Side, but never felt welcome. "If you walk in off the street, they are more likely to ask what you are doing there," she says. Besides, these days she is a downtown person. "I don't go above 14th Street on a daily basis, and I am certainly not going to go above 14th Street for religion," she says.
The loft feel won't be the only different thing about the synagogue, Scheiner explains. Services will be short: "What we won't have is two hours of muttering in Hebrew." And you can forget about traditional wooden pews. "Most synagogues are filled with benches. Have you ever had a good bench experience? Why can't you create a lounge synagogue, maybe with love-seats and couches and comfortable chairs and make it comfortable for everybody?"
Scheiner imagines coffee tables, too, with reading material for anyone who feels bored, although the literature will be of religious content. The services themselves will last 1 to 2 hours, with time for socialising afterwards.
"The root of this is that synagogues have lost their attraction, by and large," Scheiner says. "More and more Jews are frightened of what they see as institutionalised Judaism and they won't set foot in a traditional synagogue, and that is something we have known for a while." That is especially true among the brick façades and iron fire-escapes of SoHo. "Our assumption is that there are not many people waking up in SoHo saying, 'When am I going to the synagogue today?' But we want to change that."
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Scheiner's scheme is as much about arranging dating nights among Jews as offering them a chance to rekindle their faith. Indeed, he admits that the greatest challenge will be in mixing the freewheeling atmosphere he means to create with the Orthodox Judaism that he, as the future rabbi, means to instil in the synagogue. Can his Hasidic background mix with his hipster sensibility? "There lies the question, and it is a huge one."
But he thinks he can make it happen. "If we hadn't had the advance work of the past two years, then we wouldn't have had a prayer. But now we have a strong base of people who trust us. The challenge is exhilarating, but if we say to them that we are going in a traditional direction, they will go along with it."
Nothing will illustrate the seeming contradiction at the heart of SoHo Synagogue than the probable furniture arrangements. Those love-seats and couches will be arranged in two separate areas, because for Scheiner, it goes without question that while worship is being conducted the women shall be segregated from the men, as the teachings demand.
For one person here this evening, the resident of the apartment, Ohad Maiman, that may be too much. His girlfriend is Dutch, and not Jewish. "There is no way I can take her to a synagogue and tell her she has to sit separately from me."
Tony Sosnick, who first raised the idea of a synagogue with Scheiner, is himself a Reform Jew but has embraced the Orthodox direction the venture is taking. He alludes to the many clubs that open in this neighbourhood amid a cacophony of media-generated buzz, only to fade months later and vanish. "We want to be hip, to be progressive, but we also want it to be timeless. We don't want a synagogue that's the in-place for a year and then afterwards it loses its momentum."
Can a Shul Be Cool?
April 25, 2005
By Shana Liebman
Last Tuesday evening, bearded men in black robes were davening in the corner of a Tribeca penthouse while young Jews in Prada swarmed the kosher buffet. It was a fund-raiser and launch party for the SoHo Synagogue, which will open in a loft this fall and offer Orthodox services, "Torah cocktails," and organized trips to the Hamptons for Shabbat.
"We call it a boutique synagogue. You might have to RSVP. There might be a roped line. It will totally be a scene. But it's all kosher," explained Dovi Scheiner, a thin, 28-year-old Orthodox rabbi dressed casually in black pants and an untucked white button-down, with tallith strings hanging down from his waist. Scheiner and his demure 24-year-old wife, Esty, co-founded the project with the philanthropic Soho-ites Katrin and Tony Sosnick, whom the Scheiners met on vacation in Puerto Rico.
Over the past few years, the Scheiners have amassed a following of successful, secular, twenty- and thirtysomething Jews interested in being cool and kosher, too. "It's the happening thing," said makeup artist Felicia Kesten, before flagging down a passing plate of coconut chicken fingers. Matisyahu, a Hasidic reggae singer who played for the wildly dancing crowd, said, "Dovi gets it. He's religious, he believes in God, and at the same time, he's very hip to American culture." The Scheiners even have a fan in Mayor Bloomberg, who presided over the copying of the synagogue's new Torah and loves Esty's homemade challah.
The synagogue is part of the Scheiners' mission to energize downtown Jewish life, a goal they've had since getting married the day the World Trade Center was destroyed (their friends say their decision to go ahead with the wedding was a noble stand against terrorism). "It's all one big incredible, miraculous journey," said Rabbi Scheiner. "We're just adding everything that the Jewish community needs: preschool, kosher restaurants. Doors are opening up to us because we're doing it right." According to Tony Sosnick, doing it right means "appealing to Jews who want an alternative but nothing too out-there." For example, while SoHo's services are to be Orthodox, requiring the separation of men and women, that doesn't mean they have to be uncool. "The divider could be an artistic creation," said Scheiner. "It could be so fantastic!"
"That's the times," said Chaim Fogelman, a rabbi with a long gray beard who made the trip in from Crown Heights for the party. "Everything has evolved a bit, and it's not a matter of ending the faith but making it more attractive to people and letting them have a taste of Shabbes."
Scheiner's hipster brand of Orthodoxy might leave more traditional Jews cold, but it does serve a constituency. Says Edgar Bronfman's son Matthew, who recently bought the Israeli Ikea franchise, "Last year, I was telling my business partner that I want to move to Soho, and he said to me, 'But where are you going to pray?' I didn't have an answer for him, but now I do."
Although he’s more accustomed to signing bills than inscribing Torahs, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked to put quill to parchment at City Hall Tuesday to fill in the Hebrew letter beis and begin the inscription of a scroll to be dedicated to victims of 9-11 and used at The SoHo Synagogue in Lower Manhattan.
The synagogue will be led by Rabbi Dovi and Esty Scheiner of the World Tikkun Center, who were married on Sept. 11, 2001, and dedicated themselves to cultivating Jewish life in Lower Manhattan. Esty Scheiner delivers homemade Challah each week to City Hall.
Joining the Mayor were Torah scribe Chilik Weinfeld from Jerusalem, with quill, synagogue Founders Tony Sosnick and Dovi Scheiner, both standing behind Bloomberg.
“I am humbled by this honor bestowed upon me today, and it is heartwarming to see the Scheiners’ efforts take hold,” said the Mayor. “They are an important part of the renewal that is happening every day in Lower Manhattan.”
The Torah is expected to be completed later this year, before the fourth anniversary of the terror attacks.