Shuls, glorious shuls
Michael J. Weinstein photographs the Orthodox synagogues of New York City
New York City’s five boroughs are studded with synagogues.
Some are famous, some are massive, some are tiny; some are beloved and some are neglected. Some are bursting with people and some are tottering, barely able to scrape up a Shabbat minyan.
It would be a monumental job to count them all. First you’d have to find some kind of working definition — does a living room that sometimes hosts a minyan count? How about a borrowed room in a hospital? In a church? What if the space only comes to life on the holidays, Brigadoon-style, but with striped tallises instead of plaid kilts?
And how would those synagogues be documented? How would the rest of us know about them?
Michael J. Weinstein doesn’t know the answers to most of these questions, but he’s got the knows-how-to-document-them part — at least the knows-how-to-document-some-of-them part — covered.
Over the last few years, Mr. Weinstein, who is a financial planner the rest of the time, has devoted parts of his Thursdays and most of his Sundays to researching, visiting, and photographing synagogues. That’s resulted in the lavishly illustrated “Ten Times Chai: 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City.”
Mr. Weinstein came to the idea of this book gradually, he said.
He lives on Long Island, but not in the Five Towns, the mainly modern Orthodox enclave on the island’s south shore. He’s in Syosset, in the middle of Nassau County, and he works one town over, in Jericho. He does not like labels, he said, but he is not Orthodox, and when he first started thinking about Judaism, he didn’t know much. The book, in fact, he said, is the result of “trying to reconnect to Judaism. He went to Israel in 2011 for his daughter’s bat mitzvah, “and when I came back, I started learning a little bit on my own.
“I just wasn’t sure what to do. I was too old to go to yeshiva and I couldn’t just write checks. So I started doing Jewish genealogy, searching for my roots.” He found family going back to Russia, but the road between Eastern Europe and suburban Long Island ran through Brooklyn, and before that through the Lower East Side.
So now what? He wanted to do something, to make his mark, to make a difference, and Brooklyn was on his mind. “So I googled two words and to this day I can’t explain why I did it,” he said. “Why those two words? One was ‘mitzvah,’ because I wanted to do something positive. And then I hit the space bar and then I put in ‘Brooklyn.’”
When he did, improbably enough he came up with a link to the Mitzvah Man — it’s still there, at themitzvahman.org. “It’s a guy, Michael Cohen — not that Michael Cohen! — who made a video saying he wanted to do something and didn’t know what to do. He knew that he could study or give money but he wanted to do something with his hands. It turns out that he owns a gym. So he decided to put up signs in the neighborhood, asking if anyone needs a ride to Sloan Kettering for cancer treatment, or food for Shabbes, or a visit in the hospital. Things like that. So he put up those signs, and he got overwhelmed, and after a year or so he made a network, and now he sends out texts connecting people.
“So I called him, and asked him what I could do to get involved, and he said that I should go visit a Holocaust survivor.
“So I did.
“I had never met a Holocaust survivor before,” Mr. Weinstein said. “I’d heard them speak, and I’d watched movies, but I’d never met one, and here I was, face to face with one. I thought I’d be there twenty minutes, and I was there for two hours. I was blown away.
“So I started going to one person, and then to another person, and I met 23 survivors over the course of that year.
“I was a wandering Jew. I wandered around Brooklyn, meeting survivors. And as I wandered, I would wander out of the house and down to the street and around the corner to the synagogue, and I started taking pictures.
“I found myself in Coney Island, and in Brighton Beach, and in Midwood, and I would wander into synagogues and start taking snapshots on my phone.
“After a couple of months, I noticed that I had gone to over 50 places, and I said to myself, ‘I wonder if anyone ever did a book about the synagogues of New York?’”
As it turned out, someone had. Oscar Israelowitz’s “Synagogues of New York City” is a pictorial history that covers all sorts of synagogues in all five boroughs. Mr. Weinstein didn’t want to try to compete with it. He decided to go beyond Brooklyn, because, he said, “until I was 3 I lived in Briarwood, in Queens. After college I lived on the Upper West Side, in Manhattan. My parents lived in Brooklyn. My grandfather lost his mother when he was 7 and he was sent to live in the Bronx. And my grandparents from Russia didn’t have enough money for a grave or cemetery plot, so they are buried in the United Hebrew Cemetery on Staten Island. So I have roots in all five boroughs.”
How to photograph shuls across the entire city but differentiate his work from the earlier book? Easy. Focus on Orthodox shuls.
“I am not Orthodox — I’m almost a ba’al teshuva,” a returnee to traditional Jewish life — “but I do not like labels, and we are all one people,” Mr. Weinstein said. “I have seen Jews who eat pork and others who burn the Israeli flag. I think that’s horrible, but I try not to judge them.”
Next, he had to decide how many shuls to shoot. That was easier; 180, of course, is a multiple of 18. Chai! That worked for him.
And how many photographs to use? He picked another iconic Jewish number. There are 613 pictures in the books, just as, we are told, there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah.
He went to synagogues “in places where there used to be many of them but now there aren’t, like in the Bronx, or in Harlem, or even in some parts of Brooklyn. I tried to show what it looks like to be inside them. Sometimes I went to the women’s section, to show a woman’s perspective. Sometimes I didn’t like what I saw there — sometimes it was a very small area, or with an obstructed view, like the cheap seats in a theater, but I didn’t want to pass judgment. I just wanted to show what it is like in different synagogues.”
The synagogues are not divided evenly among the boroughs. Mr. Weinstein’s book does not have an exhaustive list of New York’s Orthodox synagogues open in 2016, but his list certainly is representative. It shows Brooklyn, with 100, by far the most. He has photographs of 35 synagogues in Manhattan and 35 in Queens, and then five in the Bronx and another five on Staten Island.
He photographs only the insides of synagogues, he said, because he’d heard that the police tend to look with suspicion — often well-warranted suspicion — on strangers who show up and take pictures of synagogues. He could explain himself, but who wants to? So the photos are all interior.
Mr. Weinstein found shuls in a number of ways. Some have websites; others don’t. “I used a website called go daven,” he said. “And then once I found places, I would try to send an email — if they had email addresses, a lot didn’t — or I would even write a letter, asking if they’d please be part of the project.” Most synagogues didn’t respond to his written overtures, although he almost always was welcomed once he showed up. He was told no only once. That was “a synagogue in the Bronx, and they said no because they’d had bomb threats.”
He had many adventures.
“I had a looseleaf notebook with photos I’d taken to show people what I was trying to do,” he said. “I walked into a shul in Brooklyn, and the man there was shaking his head, saying ‘No, no, no.’ I asked him what he was saying no to, and he pointed to the Jewish star in one of the photos, and in a combination of Yiddish and English, he said, as far as I could make it out, that we don’t like the Jewish star, the mogen dovid, because we don’t like what it represents. It represents the state of Israel, and we don’t recognize it.’
“I looked at him, and at first I was going to fight with him, but instead I said, ‘the mogen dovid” — the magen David, the star of David, the six-pointed star — “was created thousands of years ago, not hundreds. Thousands. And it is well documented in history. And some synagogues want to put it in their sanctuary. I’m not going to take it out of my book because you don’t like it.”
He learned a lot, Mr. Weinstein said. “In around the 1880s, the 1890s, people like my great grandparents came from Poland, Russia, Galicia, to escape the pogroms, the beatings, the killings. And 100 years later, people came from Lebanon, Syrian, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and they formed the Sephardic synagogues of Brooklyn.
“I went to the Ahaba Ve Ahva of Ocean Parkway in Midwood. It was founded in Cairo in 1928, and moved to Brooklyn in 1979. I am thinking to myself, ‘This is weird.’ I was brought up going to seders for 50 years learning that the Jews left Egypt. So I walked inside and asked, ‘How can you guys be from Egypt?’ and he gave me an interesting little history lesson. He said that a lot of people think that all the Jews left Egypt, and other people think that only about 20 percent did. And on top of that, a lot of Jews, Askhenazi men, went to places like Cairo and Alexandria to do business, and then later they brought over their women and children.
“They left in the 1920s, and then in the 1950s, and then the 1970s. Some went to Magen David Synagogue, the mother synagogue,” founded in 1919. They later spread throughout Brooklyn.
“I went to Kneses Israel in Seagate, past Coney Island,” Mr. Weinstein continued. That’s right by the ocean, and the synagogue was badly hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “I went there in 2016, and I saw the rabbi,” he said. “He told me that it took four years to recover from Sandy, and he showed me where the water line was. It was seven or eight feet high. They had just finished rebuilding, and I said, wow, and he just said, ‘Baruch Hashem.’” Thank you, God. “My book came out last year, during Passover, and during Passover the synagogue had a fire. It burned down a week after the book came out.
“The rabbi said something like this to me — ‘The story of the Jewish people is that you just do it. You build and then you get knocked down and you have to start again. This isn’t the first time that Jewish people have gotten knocked down. It might take us years to rebuild again, but this is part of Jewish life.
“ ‘You just do it.’”
That wasn’t the only odd, unnerving coincidence of timing that he encountered, Mr. Weinstein said. “There was a synagogue on Avenue O in Brooklyn. When I got there, I told the rabbi what I was doing and asked if I could, and he said, ‘Help yourself.’” He showed Mr. Weinstein the shul, and “it looked like they’d had a party the night before,” Mr. Weinstein said. “It looked like it was Purim the night before. Half-empty bottles of whiskey and plastic cups on the table, cups all over the floor. The rabbi said, ‘Go take a picture, and shut the lights off when you leave.’ I literally had to clean up the garbage and I rearranged the furniture to take a nice picture of the ark.
“And then I shut off the lights, and I left.
“The next night, I was watching TV on Channel 5 and I saw that the Avenue O Jewish Center was broken into and the Torah scrolls were stolen.
“I wondered if I should go to the police. I knew that there were surveillance cameras. I knew that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I didn’t know what to do. So I called the rabbi, and I asked if I should go to the police or just hang low. He said something like ‘Whoever stole them is an idiot. They have computer chips. You can’t just go to the back of the 7-Eleven and sell them for cash. The idiot who stole them didn’t realize that. So don’t do anything.
“And then, two or three days later, someone must have put enough pressure on whoever did it to return them. He hired an Uber, wrapped the scrolls in black cloth, and dropped them off in front of the synagogue.
“Little things like that happened to me along the way.”
Some of the shuls that Mr. Weinstein photographed already have closed, although the photos are just two years old. “There are two or three that have been knocked down since then, and some are hanging by threads.” He remembers the Millinery Center Synagogue in Manhattan’s garment district. “It had a unique history,” he said. “There were probably hundreds of people praying there every day.” But the makeup of the workforce in the garment district changed radically since the synagogue’s heyday, and by 2016 the shul had problems attracting a minyan.
There are also huge, thriving, beautiful synagogues, Mr. Weinstein said, pointing to Shearith Israel, the old, lovely, bustling building on Manhattan’s Central Park West. Congregation Oheb Zedek, north and west of Shearith Israel but still on the Upper West Side, where there are “hundreds of people there every Shabbat. Everyone wants to meet each other.” There also are synagogues like Lincoln Square, also on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, whose new building, just a block or two from its old one, is carefully and lovingly and thoughtfully done, the ceiling over its new sanctuary shining with 613 lights.
As he researched this book, Mr. Weinstein said, he realized that the demographic changes that have hit the Conservative and Reform movements have not left the Orthodox world untouched. For one thing, neighborhoods change; streets that once were heavily Jewish now are home to newer immigrant groups, and their shuls are sold to other communities for other purposes. Sometimes congregations merge once many of their members move away and they are left with too-big buildings to maintain, heat, and clean. Even places like Magen David in Bensonhurst, now that “the neighborhood is primarily Asian, are open only on Shabbat. If they can get 20 people, that’s a lot.”
There is another reason why the once-packed huge synagogues now have a few people spread out over their vast empty pew-filled plains, Mr. Weinstein said. It’s the shtiebles, the small, informal, often temporary communities that offer intimacy instead of grandeur. “I didn’t include any of the shtiebles in the book because there are so many of them, and a lot of them aren’t permanent structures that will last,” he said. “I didn’t include them or the yeshivas or the colleges that have minyans.” As much as he can understand the desire for less formality, he finds it sad. “I think it is unfortunate that you have these magnificent buildings that are not used, and some of them have to be knocked down.”
Mr. Weinstein is glad to have undertaken the odyssey that ended in “Ten Times Chai.” “I feel like I accomplished something,” he said. “There is documentation of these places now.”
He looks back at where he started, talking to Holocaust survivors.
“When Holocaust survivors talk about the shuls of their childhoods — they will mention someplace in Budapest, or Prague, or the small towns where they lived when they were kids — and most of those places were burned down, or they’re just not there any more, and there were no photos of them. And that makes sense — who, back then, would have been crazy enough to take pictures of a shul?
“So I feel that I accomplished something. Now at least we have a record of what these places looked like.”