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Greenpoint's Only Synagogue Grows With Demand

By Meredith Hoffman | September 14, 2012 8:35am

GREENPOINT — Long brown hair flowing past her shoulders, Margaret Teich stepped in her sandals and jeans out to the organic garden for a break from happy hour. Back in the Noble Street building a mellow cluster sipped wine and nibbled apple pie among star-shaped lamps, as the Jewish New Year approached.

And Teich, 28, beamed that she'd found her niche.

"It's a rad place," she said of the Greenpoint Shul, a Modern Orthodox congregation she has attended the past three years. "It's like Planet Fitness — no judgment here."

"I think hipsters pray at concerts, they want to feel something bigger than themselves," she continued, lumping herself into the population she described. "But you can get that here, too."

Teich is among a group of Greenpoint residents (many young and single or newly married) who have discovered the synagogue since 2009, when Rabbi Maurice Appelbaum became the 120-year-old shul's first rabbi in more than 50 years. 

"It had been on the decline since the 1950's," Appelbaum said of the neighborhood's only synagogue, whose cantor (singer who leads prayers) had served the rabbi's function until Appelbaum arrived — around the same time as more new young people poured into the neighborhood.

"It started picking up when Greenpoint began to change," Appelbaum said of the temple.

Now, for Teich and other Jews, the the homey house of worship — whose back garden provides produce to the neighboring Greenpoint Reformed Church's food pantry, and which hosts monthly themed dinners and speakers — is a refreshing twist on a Conservative or Orthodox congregation.

It's also the only synagogue in Greenpoint — and one of a few non-Hasidic options in all North Brooklyn, members said.

"There just aren't any others around, it's sad," Teich said, noting that the Orthodox organization Chabad was the closest match but only offered prayer in people's homes.

"I feel like you're either super religious and you live somewhere like the Upper West Side, with congregations on every corner, or you happen to be Jewish and you live in Greenpoint and like riding a bike and drinking beer in back yards," said Teich, an Asheville, N.C. native and current law student at Cardozo Law School.

But Rabbi Appelbaum noted that both Jewish-born Greenpointers and new converts had flocked to the space's free-thinking approach.

"At one point last year I had 20 in my conversion class," Appelbaum said, "and now I have eight to 10. It's definitely one of the fastest growing demographics."

And Marcia Salovitz, 44, a member who treks all the way to services from Cobble Hill (where synagogue options abound), said the shul's open environment brings a sense of warmth absent from other city congregations.

"You can wear jeans...we're unique in that anyone can walk in and enter our doors, it's free," she said of the congregation, which is open to all sects of Jews and non-Jews. "We joke, the young people that come here aren't the Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg — they're the hipsters of Williamsburg."

Before she visited the Greenpoint Shul "on a whim" when her friend brought her to the High Holiday services there three years ago, Salovitz said she had "never found a place" where she enjoyed worshiping.

"It has this grace quality to it, the designs and the windowpanes," she said of the shul. "People come in and they don't feel pressured."

The Greenpoint Shul will hold free services Sunday night and Monday for the High Holidays. The schedule and details can be found on the congregation's website.