Big Machers: New York City’s Power Congregations

  • THERE’S NO JEW QUITE LIKE A NEW YORK JEW. That’s neither a matter of ethnocentrism or antisemitism so much as it is fact, and the distinction isn’t merely geographical.

    New York City is unquestionably the metropolitan epicenter of Modern Jewry, a long way from the once humble home of generations-old immigrants who came from the “Old World”—as our grandparents tell us—to the one American city almost explicitly associated with the religion, its people, and its culture.  Its place as such has been documented extensively in literature and all forms of pop culture—Where to start?—and is commonly the center of Jewishness and Jewish figureheads in the news. For many Jews, a trip to Manhattan is just as much a birthright as one to Israel, as this is very likely the place their ancestry passed through in order to continue having one.

    This has also resulted, of course, in an inordinate concentration of Jewish “Big Machers” (Yiddish for ‘a mover/shaker’ or someone who makes things happen). As distinct as New York Jews may be from the rest of the Jewish world, their own pairings are even more so: going to the high holidays at any synagogue is a loaded social affair; at New York City’s Power Synagogues, it’s often as much a spectacle as it is a service, whether said show is on the “bima” or in the pews.

    As such, we’ve mapped out who we think are the Power Congregations of New York City, each with their own distinct history, power, scandal, and congregation. It’s by no means perfect, or comprehensive; surely we’ve missed many a minyan or shul well worth considering (not a single one from the Lower East Side made it; Brooklyn only scored one), so we kindly ask that you pardon our chutzpah. Finally, for those who take offense to that, well: it is, after all, Yom Kippur. And we’ll be sure to keep that in mind this evening. As they say: Good yontif!

    fkamer@observer.com

  • Congregation Emanu-El
    Since:
    1845.
    Sect: Reform.
    Neighborhood: Upper East Side.
    Membership: Two-Parent Family Rate? They list it as $2,800, which is conspicuously cheap, and likely doesn't come close to covering the cost of a front-row Yom Kippur seat. That said, they livestream their services. Baller.
    Famous Congregants: Michael Bloomberg, Alan "Ace" Greenburg, Eliot Spitzer (seen above with the mayor in December 2006), Joan Rivers, Leon Black, and is famously known as the fictional bar-mitzvah site of Benjamin Jacob Grimm, better known as The Thing.
    Trivia: It's basically the Yankee Stadium of Reform Judaism. For one thing, it owns the distinction of being the first Reform Judaism congregation in New York, and is handily the largest in numbers (over 5,000 members, reportedly). Physically, their building on Fifth and 65th Emanu-El has been in since 1927 is massive and also, beautiful. It is, as far as Reform temples go, as big as they get. And just how reform is it? Well, it's the kind of place of worship where Christopher Hitchens, of all people, is invited by its rabbi to debate the existence of higher powers. And how big? Over 2,500 can be seated in the main hall (yes, more than St. Patrick's Cathedral).

  • Fifth Avenue Synagogue
    Since:
    1958.
    Sect: Modern Orthodox.
    Neighborhood: Upper East Side.
    Membership: Figures not readily available. And trust us, they wouldn't be.
    Famous Congregants: Lenny Kravitz (who shows up in jeans? A shonda!), Herman Wouk (who noted Fifth Avenue Synagogue as a "Who's Who of World Jewry," as it says on their website), Ron Perlman (who married Ellen Barkin there), Mort Zuckerman, Ira Rennert, Night author and Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, assassinated Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane, and Clinton presidential pardon Marc Rich, among others. Also, it's Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's service of choice when he's in town. Not a shabby accolade, by any means.
    Claim to Fame: Does the name J. Ezra Merkin ring a bell? Sure, he wrote the introduction to the classic value investor text—Graham and Dodd's Security Analysis—and was the general partner of a $5B hedge fund, but that was before he was better known as history would have him now: Bernie Madoff's entry point into the well-moneyed world of the east coast's powerful Modern Orthodox elite. How'd that happen? When you're president of Fifth Avenue Synagogue—as Merkin was from 2001 until his resignation in 2009—he had more than access to the tightly-knit congregation at Fifth Ave, he had their faith. Literally. Merkin eventually found himself as a middle man between the not-entirely-devout Madoff and his temple's congregants. Among those he counted as investors? Wiesel, Zuckerman, Rich, and others, who all lost their Madoff Money—the New York Times noted the congregation's total losses "by some accounts" as around $1B—in addition to institutional investors like Yeshiva University (who lost $110B on Madoff). If there was one positive yield to be had, however, it was the now-classic New York Post headline: SYNAGOGUE OF $UFFERERS.

  • Central Synagogue
    Since:
    1846.
    Sect: Reform.
    Neighborhood: Midtown East.
    Famous Congregants: Despite her family having pews bearing their names on them at Park Avenue Synagogue, David Lauren's marriage to Lauren Bush was officiated by a rabbi from Central. Geraldo Rivera was married there—Ann Coulter and Cheech Marin showed up—and Larry Tisch's funeral was there (and everyone but Cheech Marin and Ann Coulter showed up). Congregant David Rubenstein once paid $32,000 for a sacred Jewish scripture dug up by an "archeologist" only to later find out it was fake, but not before donating it to Central.
    Trivia: Ravaged by a fire a decade ago, the ornate building remains an architectural wonder, right down the street from Bloomingdale's. It gets a lot of credit for its looks, fairly. While not the oldest congregation, it's the oldest synagogue being continually used in New York City, one of the oldest in the country, and was given landmark status by the city in 1975 (you can take a tour of the place on Wednesdays).

  • The Hampton Synagogue
    Since:
    1990.
    Sect: Modern Orthodox.
    Neighborhood: Westhampton Beach.
    Famous Congregants/Visitors:While nobody outshines Hamptons' rabbi, they've certainly had their fair share of both famous folks who subscribe to and/or visit their pews as a tribute to its famous leader, who has acted as their spiritual consultant: billionare Ronald S. Lauder of Estee Lauder fame, Ron Perelman (who pitched in money to bring Hamptons Synagogue to Palm Beach), Def Jam founder Russell Simmons (who co-chairs the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding with its rabbi), and Steven Spielberg, among others. When a scandal broke in July, 2000, over an allegedly antisemitic slur Hillary Clinton made, where did she take refuge to but the hands of the Hampton Synagogue? Also, Glenn Beck. He's been there, too.
    And About That Rabbi: The four-times divorced Rabbi Marc Schneier may be no stranger to headlines because of his devotees, but they're nothing compared to him, really: What other rabbis make Page Six for cheating on their fourth wife, and then hire uber-flack Ken Sunshine to handle to fallout (blamed on bi-polar disorder)? Likely the same kind of rabbi investigated by a rabbinical council later that year after declining their invitation to resign. Also, the kind of rabbi whose said fourth-wife—left for a younger woman—had an endangered Asian lion at the Jerusalem Zoo named after Schneier for his 50th birthday. He's the kind of rabbi for whom missing the yearly Newsweek list of influential rabbis is a straight-up shonda. His politics are also not without scandal: he's famous for bridging relations between high profile Muslim and Jewish communities, and once came under fire for inviting Al Sharpton to apologize over inciting violence during the Crown Heights riots (Sharpton canceled the appearance due to public outrage). He's the kind of rabbi whose cantors end up in Broadway shows (as happened to Dudu Fisher, who played Jean Valjean in Les Misérables on Broadway in 1993). And of course, he's in the family business: Dad is the famously revered Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue. As for what his congregants think of him? Take a gander at the comments on this New York Times post and see for yourself: it's like Gossip Girl meets A Serious Man.

  • Park East Synagogue
    Since:
    1888.
    Sect: Modern Orthodox.
    Neighborhood: Upper East Side.
    Membership: The figures on yearly membership fees aren't clear, but here's a decent barometer of where they are: an additional ticket for high holiday services—that's after your yearly membership fee, usually for anybody joining you over the age of 23—is $500. One ticket. And they sell out fast. You're more likely to catch Jagger & Co. at the Garden, and at a cheaper rate, too.
    Famous Congregants/Visitors: Again, an instance where its Rabbi (the world-famous Arthur Schneier) overshadows nobody; like father, like son (Schneier is Hamptons Synagogue rabbi Marc Schneier's old man). The Pontiff? He's been there. It was kind of a big deal. Makes Bono of U2 dropping in look like an intimate affair. Schneier's birthday parties and their guest lists make Page Six. The guy's Wikipedia page is more impressive than those of most diplomats. Kristen Gillibrand spoke there earlier this summer. Beginning to get the idea?
    Trivia: If there were a United Nations assembly for Jews, it's more likely to be held in Park East than it would be in Israel, given the ringers they pull (example: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dropped by in January). Of course, they aren't without scandal, too: last year, cantor Benny Rogosnitzky had a lawsuit filed against him for allegedly embezzling charity money that was supposed to go towards buying a new ambulance.

  • Park Avenue Synagogue
    Since:
    1882.
    Sect: Conservative.
    Neighborhood: Upper East Side.
    Membership: On the high end, upwards of $5,100 for a family, Sanctuary-level membership. On the low end, "Lower Level" seating for families runs around $1,740, without associated fees.
    Famous Congregants: Ralph Lauren and family attend Park Avenue. Former New York Jets owner Leon Hess' famously celebrity-packed funeral was there.
    Claim to Fame: "The unofficial dress code is Chanel and St. John," New York once noted of the place, handily among the most influential Conservative Jewish congregations in the country.

  • SoHo Synagogue
    Since:
    2005, but as reported by the Observer's Dana Rubenstein, they didn't sign the lease on their Crosby Street space until September, 2009.
    Sect: Orthodox. But hilariously, Wikipedia notes it as a "hipster" synagogue.
    Neighborhood: SoHo. It's the only synagogue where your some of your closest fast-breaking options are Balthazar and The Mercer Kitchen.
    Famous Congregants/Associates: Israeli desginer Dror Benshetrit designed the place, and his nephew, fashion designer Yigal Azrouel worked on the drapes in the arc. Edgar Bronfman’s son Matthew goes there. Jewish rapper Matisyahu's given SoHo's crew the co-sign.
    Trivia: Early fundraisers for SoHo Synagogue were thrown at Cipriani’s, 1Oak and on the Intrepid. Funds for SoHo Synagogue were helped by the efforts of Jason Hirsch, whose family founded Fifth Avenue Synagogue. When they were signing the lease, the place was a Prada pop-up store. The rabbi is a looker, so is his wife, just like their congregants: just ask the press they get. The place is decorated in Edison Bulbs, and their arc looks like something out of an Armani store display. Or Zoolander.

  • B’Nai Jeshrun
    Since:
    1825.
    Sect: Conservative-ish. They're not explicitly affiliated with any movement, though.
    Neighborhood: Upper West Side.
    Membership: They go by income: make $101,000-125,000, your family dues are $2,420. The highest rate, for those making over $201K/year, is $4,770.
    Famous Congregants/Associates: Lloyd "We're Doing God's Work" Blankfein, who donated $100K to the temple in June 2008. Tony Kushner, who only wrote one of the best scenes involving a rabbi in the history of theater.
    Trivia: Lloyd Blankfein prays here. If that isn't enough to tell you about B'Nai Jeshrun's pull with the higher power, nothing is, but for the record, they're the second-oldest synagogue in New York and the third-oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in America.

  • Congregation Beth Elohim
    Since:
    1861.
    Sect: Reform.
    Neighborhood: Park Slope.
    Membership: Family Rate? $2,255 , or $575 cheaper than Emanu-El in Manhattan. Brooklyn pricing!
    Famous Congregants: Chuck Schumer. Author and critic of institutional Judaism Douglas Rushkoff. Singer Lisa Loeb was married there.
    Trivia: Has the oldest pulpit in continuous use in any Brooklyn synagogue. When the notorious Westboro Baptist Church came to picket Brooklyn, they showed up to Beth Elohim, whose members responded in kind by throwing a block party. Made the famous Newsweek list in 2009.

  • Lincoln Square Synagogue
    Since:
    1964.
    Sect: Modern Orthodox.
    Neighborhood: Upper West Side.
    Membership: Family rate is $1900.
    Famous Congregants: During Fashion Week, they hold a special shul to facilitate and pray for Jewish designers like Zac Posen and Diane Von Furstenberg. Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagen? Had her bat-mitzvah there. And Howard Dean, pre-scream, has dropped in on the temple.
    Trivia: Cindy Adams reported last December that the temple supposedly shilled some naming rights for $15M.

Comments

  1. Edward Saslaw says:

    Sect?

  2. Confused Non-New Yorker says:

    What should a visiting out-of-town woman wear to a Bat Mitzvah there?