Can a Shul Be Cool?

(Photo Credit: Eliot Shepard)

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, religious, 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.”

Can a Shul Be Cool?