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PODCAST: Synagogue Expands Congregation While Redefining Modern Orthodoxy

By Emily Frost | October 5, 2015 3:27pm
 Rabbi Robinson said the new synagogue has attracted people and rejuvenated the community. 
Leading a Modern Orthodox Synagogue
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Two years after the Lincoln Square Synagogue opened a brand-new $50 million house of worship complete with a banquet hall, large sanctuary and plenty of classroom space, the congregation is thriving, its senior rabbi said.

Once housed in a 1971 synagogue that had a "dark and foreboding" look, the congregation now convenes just two doors down in a space that's full of light and reflects the modernity of its worshippers, Rabbi Shaul Robinson explained. 

Robinson has led the congregation since 2005 and believes the new building has definitely created some "buzz." 

But it's not just the exterior that has attracted young people and new families to the space. The openness of the synagogue's approach to new members and all kinds of worship styles is also drawing people in, the rabbi said. 

DNAinfo spoke with Robinson about the way the Jewish population has changed in the neighborhood, the lack of competition among synagogues here and what lies ahead.

Emily: Just to start off, if you could give me the broad strokes of describing Lincoln Square Synagogue to our listeners, people who've never been by it, never been inside. What is it all about?

Rabbi Robinson: Okay, Lincoln Square Synagogue is a community. It's a welcoming community. It's a very diverse community. We are an Orthodox synagogue, Modern Orthodox synagogue. Arguably, our history ... We're the very first ever legitimately truly Modern Orthodox synagogue, and that is to say that our members strive to, in their own life, live very rich, observant Jewish lives, and at the same time remain very engaged in the wider world and the wider community around them. We stand for really trying to be as welcoming as possible and really trying to encourage as many different models within Judaism of observance and expression.

Emily: The modern part, how is that different?

Rabbi Robinson: Many people think of Orthodox Jews as the Hasidim you see on the subway or at work, people that really live in enclaves and have chosen in order to preserve their identities and their heritage really withdraw into sort of self-imposed worlds and to limit their interaction and exposure. Modern Orthodox Judaism takes a different approach. It really says that Judaism is strong enough to encounter the outside world and indeed can enrich the outside world. In fact, that's the model throughout Jewish history. Whenever Jewish people lived in a free society that didn't oppress them, then they interacted and learned from and contributed to the wider culture beautifully, and that's really what Modern Orthodoxy is about. We like to think of ourselves as no less passionate and no less observant, but you'll find Modern Orthodox Jews at the best universities as doctors and nurses in the best hospitals and really engaging with and contributing as much as they possibly can to the wider world.

Emily: The history of the synagogue ... When was it first started? I understand it started in an apartment building.

Rabbi Robinson: Correct, it was started in an apartment building, and it actually ... even before the apartment building. It's actually a founding myth, which I say the word "myth." It's a true myth, but sort of the founding myth. It's in the DNA of our synagogue, and that is sometime in the very early 1960s the Upper West Side was beginning to change from the "West Side Story," really post-war, deprived neighborhood, and was being sort of gentrified, even back in those days. A gentleman living on West End Avenue one Yom Kippur morning, who had not made any arrangements to go to synagogue or pray, was suddenly possessed with a desire to go to a local synagogue and take a seat in order to say the yizkor prayer, the memorial prayer for his parents, which is very important to loving Jews. He attempted to get entry to one of the local synagogues and was turned away for lack of a ticket. He swore there and then to found a synagogue where everybody would be welcome and nobody would be turned away. That synagogue, which initially in the first couple of years only operated on the High Holy Days, eventually attracted its first rabbi, Rabbi Steven Riskin, now Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who turned Lincoln Square Synagogue, first of all, into an every-Saturday service and then ultimately into this incredibly vibrant synagogue that lasts and prospers to this day.

Initially they had an apartment, I think a two-bedroom apartment, in one of the Lincoln Towers. Then the old building in 1970 was completed, and the synagogue went through a tremendous boom for many years, inevitably followed by inevitable ups and downs as the neighborhood became more expensive, and we moved into this new building in 2013, and have been on a incredible and beautiful growth trajectory and really renewal and regeneration trajectory since then.

Emily: Back in the 1960s were there not that many synagogues in the neighborhood?

Rabbi Robinson: There weren't that many Orthodox synagogues, and I think the Orthodox world at that point really had become ... Let's say it was pre-Modern Orthodoxy, so it was really your grandfather's type of Judaism. There wasn't a lot of room for expression for young people. It was still very much a post-war generation, and in the 1960s as the world and the culture began to change and people who were young then — baby boomers, I suppose — began to question their parents' values, Orthodoxy wasn't yet equipped to deal with that. Rabbis weren't yet really able to deal with questions of modernity as it was understood then, and many of the rabbis and many of the community were immigrants for whom merely putting down roots in America and establishing families was the top priority. The second generation needed more. This synagogue, Lincoln Square Synagogue, under my predecessors, influenced a generation of rabbis and a generation of synagogues all over the world, so it's had an incredible contribution.

Emily: Now there are more modern synagogues on the Upper West Side that are ...

Rabbi Robinson: Correct, and they say that a rising tide lifts all boats, and with the real heyday of the Lincoln Square Synagogue and the really sort of burst into intention in the '70s and early '80s, and that caused a vibrancy of this incredibly strong and rich Modern Orthodox community on the Upper West Side, and all over the Jewish world, the Upper West Side of Manhattan is famous as being a place for Modern Orthodox singles and for couples. That affected and benefited almost all the synagogues in the neighborhood and really was due to the fact that Rabbi Riskin and Lincoln Square Synagogue burst onto the scene and came to everybody's national attention during the '70s because of the innovation that they were doing, the types of services.

I remember meeting one lady who prayed here back in those days, and she told me ... It was a moving comment, and I understand it completely, and she didn't mean to be critical, but she said until she met Rabbi Riskin she'd never seen a Rabbi smile. It was post-Holocaust. Judaism was serious. Jews were serious. The business of establishing themselves was overwhelming, and people had forgotten that Judaism could be rich and joyful.

Emily: Absolutely, and then how has the Jewish population changed on the Upper West Side over the years, meaning from this 1970s heyday to now?

Rabbi Robinson: Well, look, location, location, location is what everybody in Manhattan is concerned about, of course. There's no question about it that being ... The particulars of Orthodoxy mean that a community can only thrive if it's in walking distance of where people live. Because Orthodox Jews do not use public transport or cars on Saturday Shabbat or holidays, you have to be within walking distance of membership. Becoming a much safer Manhattan meant that prices, of course, began to rise and rise and rise. For awhile, the [West] '70s ... around the neighborhood of the Synagogue, the '60s and '70s were much more expensive than the high 80s, the 90s, the low 100s, and as the neighborhood began to get safer, inevitably, particularly younger crowd of people, migrated north, and that caused a tremendous regeneration of the synagogues further up the West Side.

Emily: Do you see a lot of new members possibly coming from Riverside Center and even the makeup of the synagogue changing?

Rabbi Robinson: Some synagogues really advertise themselves as a family synagogue or a young person's synagogue, or a young couple's synagogue. That's not my vision of what Jewish community is at all. Having a person who's just had a baby next to a person who's just got engaged sitting next to somebody who's just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary to me makes the most rich, diverse community possible, and it's true on the other side. When people are going through difficulties, having people of all different ages and life experience interact and support each other is really beautiful.

Having said that, we have had a tremendous increase particularly of young couples, and I really contribute it to two factors, both the new synagogue and a lot of the new apartments. The apartments have been built not just over the last few years. The building boom in this neighborhood has been going on for the last 10 years or so. Since the new synagogue has opened and word has spread that Lincoln Square Synagogue is being regenerated, we actually find many couples who would not necessarily have moved down this far down into the 60s, but because the synagogue is back and booming and their friends are praying here and they see a Jewish infrastructure, then they are moving down here really in droves. As the metric is, it's a poor metric, but it's just one most obvious metric. We have now ... On a Saturday morning in the Synagogue you can come into the lobby at 11:00, the grand entrance lobby, and see 30, sometimes 40, strollers or baby carriages in the Synagogue. That's a sense of what we've been working towards. Again, not that we're only trying to attract young families, but there's a strong sense that the community is vibrant and it's growing and is really dynamic.

Emily: Now let's talk about the new building.

Rabbi Robinson: Yeah.

Emily: It was about seven years of in the works, of fundraising, and then construction.

Rabbi Robinson: Correct.

Emily: It cost $50 million.

Rabbi Robinson: Correct.

Emily: It's quite beautiful, and it looks quite different from the other synagogue which you can see. It's two doors down.

Rabbi Robinson: That right, still.

Emily: Yeah, can you describe the synagogue and the design choices for the new space?

Rabbi Robinson: The synagogue is, indeed, very beautiful, and it's spacious, and it's airy, and it reflects and radiates light inside and outside. The first thing that somebody walking into the synagogue for the first time would see both a sense of curves, undulation. The architects, who fascinatingly were not Jewish, one of the principal architects on the project ... Some were Jewish, but one of the principal architects was a wonderful Catholic lady called Theresa M. Genovese, at CetraRuddy, and she was really struck by the sense of motion — that when Jews pray, they don't stand still. We sway and pray, and Torah scrolls and the prayer shawls have a sort of an undulation or motion to them, and she wanted to capture that in the curves of the building, the sense of a Jewish people that don't stand still, truly still, even while praying, and that leads to a sense of a flow. When you walk into the building you're welcomed and drawn in by these curves and light that sort of draw you into the sanctuary. The sanctuary is round and in our old building was round. Again, that was considered revolutionary, the notion that ...

Emily: What is it typically?

Rabbi Robinson: Typically it's square or rectangular. Typically, an Orthodox synagogue, men and women sit behind each other, and in old fashioned synagogues, women would sit upstairs in the gallery. It would afford them great views but would not let them feel that they were in any sense participants or even noticeable in the synagogue. The old synagogue had this round sanctuary which was revolutionary, the notion that really giving a sense that on a point of a circle there's no up and down, back and forward. Everybody is sort of equal, and that was critically important to the Synagogue to maintain that in the new synagogue.

Whilst the old synagogue, I guess, reflecting the design values of the 1960s and the early '70s was very concrete and chunky and rather closed actually admitted very little outside light into the sanctuary. Inadvertently they'd created a building that was rather dark and almost foreboding from the outside. Even though it's probably the most successful synagogue at welcoming a generation into its doors, it didn't look that attractive from the outside. I have to say the very first time I walked into the old synagogue as a rabbinic student many years ago, my heart kind of sank a little bit. I couldn't believe this was the Lincoln Square Synagogue that I'd heard all about.

The new synagogue, really, is all about the light. The ceiling has a tremendous, a beautiful feature of 613 individual points of light. We have a tradition that there are 613 commandments in the Torah, and it's those 613 lights that light up our prayer experience, but the curtain wall of glass that undulates along the front of the building and both admits a tremendous amount of light during the day and also radiates out this beautiful golden light onto Amsterdam Avenue is really beautiful and really special. As I said before, we Jews of the Modern Orthodox, we really are all about both admitting in the light from the outside world. Jewish law has it that a person should always pray in a synagogue that has windows, so we don't feel that our prayer experience cuts us off from the outside world, and that's tremendously important. At the same time, we also know that our values are special, and we would like them to help contribute to wider society, and that golden light in a beautiful way on a dark evening walking up Amsterdam Avenue and seeing this very special light that emanates from the synagogue really beautifies the neighborhood.

Emily: The price tag did raise some eyebrows, but about two years later what are you hearing from people, both in the congregation and outside? You talked about people walking by and really appreciating it.

Rabbi Robinson: Yeah, we have people walking in the entire time ... One of the most beautiful parts of the synagogue life is the High Holy Days. Whereas this synagogue, as any other, does indeed sell tickets for the High Holy Days. People want to be assured that they have seat and that their family can pray around them, but we always, without question, admit people without tickets. Indeed, to this day we actually have a completely free Yom Kippur service in tribute to Mr. Mars, now sadly the late Mr. Mars, who founded the synagogue, but we have people walking in off the streets every day of the week who are just attracted by the unique design, and it's really created a tremendous buzz.

One of the things the synagogue has always been famous for is its outreach to people who do not have a background in traditional Orthodox Judaism. A lot of people are intimidated by walking into a synagogue, certainly an Orthodox synagogue. They think they'll be asked if they can read the prayers or read Hebrew, and almost the entire membership of the synagogue really values the opportunity to embrace, to welcome, and to share what it is we have, even for just a couple of minutes when people walk in off the streets and want to sit in on services.

Emily: Yeah, it's not just the building. You've done certain types of outreach and services to bring people in. Can you describe those?

Rabbi Robinson: Correct, the synagogue has always been about ... From the very earliest days, it's always been about outreach. To this day we still have beginners' services, and we have classes from the very rudimentary, teaching people to identify and read Hebrew, all the way to the most advanced.

Emily: One part of the building that, when I toured it for the first time, I saw was the huge banquet hall downstairs.

Rabbi Robinson: Correct.

Emily: Is that helping the synagogue financially?

Rabbi Robinson: Correct.

Emily: How is it working?

Rabbi Robinson: It works very well. We have this beautiful ballroom that can seat hundreds of people, and it's the largest synagogue ballroom in Manhattan. For the people who want to make a wedding or a bar mitzvah or any other ceremony not necessarily connected to religious service, just a party or a charity dinner, have this beautiful facility to be able to do that. We have a catering arrangement with Prime Catering, and we've been getting some tremendous events. The other part of the ballroom, as well as helping the synagogue's bottom line, is that this is a huge assembly hall to run events that we would otherwise be unable to run. Increasingly when the Upper West Side Jewish community wants to run a big, important event that will accommodate hundreds and hundreds of people, it takes place here at Lincoln Square Synagogue, most often it takes place in the ballroom.

Emily: Is the Jewish population growing on the Upper West Side, and related to that, are you competing with other synagogues? Is this a helpful draw?

Rabbi Robinson: I'll answer the second question first. Synagogues, to my mind, should not compete, and it's certainly tempting, but it is not only unethical but really incredibly short-sighted. Synagogues should not compete with each other. The very first sermon that I gave as a rabbi or even actually as a potential rabbi to the congregation was to say that the synagogue's competition is the gym on Saturday morning or the shopping mall on Saturday morning or lethargy and people who want to stay home on a Saturday morning. If a Jew is happy and engaged in another synagogue, then I'm happy for them. We're interested in growing our synagogue by people and only through people who do not yet have a synagogue or who are looking for a synagogue. By the way, that atmosphere pervades across the Upper West Side. There's a tremendous spirit of cooperation amongst the synagogues, unlike in some neighborhoods unfortunately where one does find a certain tension, a sense of competition, of politics, rivalry, between some rabbis and some synagogues. I would say this Upper West Side community is truly remarkable in that respect, that it's just not a feature of our lives here.

It's hard for me to answer the question about whether or not the population on the Upper West Side is growing or not, the Jewish population is growing. It's certainly becoming very expensive, and what that means is that our membership at any one time will be comprised of people who are very new to the synagogue and people who are on the verge of moving out to the suburbs. Therefore, our membership ... We have to work very hard even to stay still, and we've actually been growing tremendously because people will join the synagogue for two or three years. Maybe after a few years, please, God, they'll be blessed with a child or two, and then they'll suddenly realize that they just do not have the space or they're unwilling to pay that amount of income compared to what they could have in the suburbs.

Although a feature on the other end of the scale is empty-nesters, people who sell out after their children have grown up, who either, if they're able to buy a second home or not infrequently sell out in the suburbs and move back into the city. Then, as it happens, this neighborhood, also, around Lincoln Square, is most attractive to them because they're often drawn by the culture of the neighborhood. Increasingly, they're people who belonged to the synagogue back in the '70s, moved to the suburbs, promised to come back, and are making good on those promises.

Emily: So they have a long perspective.

Rabbi Robinson: Yeah, they have a long perspective.

Emily: Let's talk about your background.

Rabbi Robinson: Sure.

Emily: You're from Scotland.

Rabbi Robinson: Correct.

Emily: You initially were studying politics and economics.

Rabbi Robinson: Correct.

Emily: You have an MBA.

Rabbi Robinson: That's right.

Emily: How did you make the decision to become a rabbi?

Rabbi Robinson: That's a great question. I did not grow ... I often reflect this in my own sermons and teaching. I grew up in a wonderful home with an incredible family, but we weren't a strictly observant family. We were very typical of Anglo Jewry, of British Jewry, that we belonged to an Orthodox synagogue and actually had a Jewish elementary school education, but we were not ... We used to attend synagogues on the High Holy Days only.

During the course of my teenage years as I began to get involved initially very Israel-oriented activities, Zionist youth groups, began visiting friends who'd gone to live in Israel, I became more and more passionate about Israel, which led me to begin exploring my own Jewish roots to the point that I decided before beginning my career ... I was originally going to be an accountant. I joke with people here in the synagogue who work at Price Waterhouse Cooper that I actually worked at Price Waterhouse for three weeks before deciding this is not for me. I'm going to go to Israel and study to become a rabbi.

Emily: How does your being from the UK affect your perspective living in America?

Rabbi Robinson: It's very interesting. These are actually, in many ways, great days for our synagogue, but there is a sober atmosphere amongst Jews all over the world at the moment. We're acutely aware, not just in terms of geo-politics, Israel and Iran, but we're very much aware of terrorism, very much aware of potential for anti-Semitism. We see our children going to university and being subject, often for the first time in their lives, to more than just vigorous political discussion about the Middle East, but hostility.

When I became a rabbi 10 years ago, we moved from the United Kingdom 10 years ago —these trends were already very much part of the scene in the United Kingdom, and I had the impression that when I came here in 2005 and began speaking about the movement to boycott Israel on campuses, I spoke about the hostility to Israel in the media, people were not really ... They assumed that that was something that only happened far away and would never be a feature of Jewish life here in America, and that also Europe would come to its senses and that how could a continent on which the Holocaust happened in the living memory of many people suddenly make life so hostile for many Jewish people? There was a sense when I would speak about these issues that people really thought that they only mattered to people thousands of miles away. Nobody thinks that now. Nobody thinks that now. When I speak about boycotts, when I speak about hostility on campus, when I speak about anti-Semitism, people understand.

In England, for decades now, all synagogues have volunteer security-trained members to be a visible security deterrent for anybody who might want to do harm to the congregation. Ten years ago that was completely unknown in America. We were the very first synagogue ... We were approached by an organization and asked if we would be, not the guinea pig, but we would be the experimental synagogue, and I embraced it because I understood exactly how necessary it was at a time that a lot of people didn't. That's the unhappy side of my spirit.

The other side, which, of course, is tremendously important ... First of all, Jewish people share a perspective. Many people have commented that America and the UK are two countries divided by a common language, and the way that American Jews and British Jews practice their religion is certainly different enough to be enriching for both sides. Critically, many synagogues in England, or the kind that I grew up in in Scotland and I was the rabbi of in London, that were Orthodox synagogues where the membership appreciated and accepted the doctrine of the synagogue but themselves were not necessarily as observant, and the synagogue had to learn, and did learn, how to embrace and how to respect and how to welcome and how to engage with people who were not necessarily observant and were living their own lives and good lives.

That became a model for the way that I've tried to practice the rabbinate in the synagogue here in New York, that the first thing you say to somebody, whoever they are, when they walk into synagogue was not, "Where were you last week? Where have you been? Now you show up. What time do you call this?" Instead, we say, "Hello, shalom." That was one of the sermons that I spoke about over the High Holy Days, that we respect that in this day and age every Jew who comes to synagogue had a choice, could easily not have come, and we are delighted to welcome every single Jew, whoever they are, whatever we might expect of them, we welcome them, and we just reinforce the fact that they made the right choice today by coming.

Emily: Right, you're fighting that inertia to just stay home.

Rabbi Robinson: Correct. As well as volunteer security, we also have volunteer greeters and welcomers. We don't want the first encounter somebody has with the synagogue, while absolutely necessary, unfortunately, in this day and age, somebody who wants to check inside your bag. If that has to be done, and it does have to be done, we want the very next encounter to be with somebody who greets you warmly, shows you where to put your coat, ushers you into the service, and shows you where to sit.

Emily: You talked about families and strollers. You have six kids of your own.

Rabbi Robinson: Correct.

Emily: How do you balance family life ... You live in the neighborhood. What's your family life?

Rabbi Robinson: It's not easy. We're very blessed with a wonderful family. They go to school in the neighborhood, and they obviously attend services here at the Synagogue, and they have been ... Actually, behind your question there's an assumption that it's not easy to have a large family.

Emily: That's true.

Rabbi Robinson: Also that it's a preacher's kid... I must say that I cannot think of a single instance here in the Synagogue where one of our children has been made to feel upset on my behalf, aware somebody has said something inappropriate. "Your father said this to me, or this that, or tell your dad I disagree with him on that." That is something which a lot of rabbi's children, preacher's children, really are made to suffer through and resent tremendously, and that has never been a feature. We try to have ... obviously hosting people at our own home is very important in the rabbinical life style and Shabbat. We carve out time. It can sometimes be difficult and sometimes we feel very uncharitable having to say no to requests to have guests. We have a tremendously hospitable community, but there are weeks where we elect that it's going to be family time, and, thank God, our children really love it here. They love it in America, and we're very blessed.

Emily: When you walk down the street, does it feel like a small neighborhood where you can't not say hi to someone or run into someone?

Rabbi Robinson: Without question, and you know that's great. That's fine. Much of what I learned about the rabbinate, as I said before, comes from my own background, comes from the incredible communities that I served in England. I was a rabbi at Cambridge University, and then I was a rabbi at the Barnet Synagogue in London, but it also came very much from listening very carefully to members of the synagogue in the first few weeks and months as they fed back what it was that they were looking.

I remember a lady who is now a dear friend, and she said, "What do I want from a rabbi? I want a rabbi who will say hello to me Fairway," and she's right, and I try my best to. We have hundreds of people, and I vaguely recognize half of Fairway, so I walk around the store saying hello to people. Sometimes I get funny looks in return, but it's better to be safe than sorry, I think.

Emily: That must be a very long shopping experience.

Rabbi Robinson: It can be, correct.

Emily: What are your hopes for the neighborhood? We talked about changes. It's getting more expensive, but what do you hope for the next five years that will stay the same or change?

Rabbi Robinson: We are part of the neighborhood, and we love this neighborhood. We were talking before about some of the great stores in the neighborhood, the Zabar's and the Barnes & Noble, and it would be a tragedy if the neighborhood continues its current trajectory where everything is becoming another bank or another pharmacy store. The character of the neighborhood, even the 10 years since I've moved here ... A lot of the independent stores have closed and it's a shame, and that reflected the population as well. Somebody, a member of our synagogue, pointed out that 20, 30 years ago, you would come to synagogue on a Saturday, and you would find yourself sitting next to either a college professor or somebody who had a very unique or quirky career, or somebody that was just a musician or an artist. The West Side used to be a very diverse place, and that had a tremendous impact on the Jewish population.

We welcome Jews, whoever they are, but we all agree that a community only made up of people working in the financial sector or working in a narrower range of professions, ultimately we lose something special out of that, so I hope that people who love the Upper West Side are able to afford to stay here. I hope the synagogue, obviously, is able to keep growing, and as I said before, in this neighborhood there is a tremendous amount of tolerance and respect, and that's very special. It's very special in this neighborhood.

One of the changes when we were talking about the way that the world has changed these last 10 years, a tremendous demographic change that has taken place in this neighborhood is a huge increase in the number of Jews moving here from France.

Emily: Interesting.

Rabbi Robinson: Europe in general, but France in particular, and if you walk on Broadway at about 12:00 on a Saturday afternoon, and you listen carefully, you will see and hear young, observant Jews carrying their tallit prayer shawl bags and pushing strollers and wearing yarmulkes talking in French. There are hundreds of French Jews in this neighborhood, and that population is increasing tremendously. They are coming not just because the economy in France is not very robust at the moment, but they're coming for obvious reasons, that they're tremendously concerned about their own security and the security of their families. That's a demographic change that you see right before your very eyes on the Upper West Side.

Emily: Well, thank you so much for talking with me again.

Rabbi Robinson: Not all, and to reiterate, anybody is welcome to come out and check out any of our services, from beginners to classes to our main services on a Saturday morning.

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