(New York Jewish Week) — It was a mild Friday afternoon in mid-December and Avital Katz and Ilana Sandberg didn’t know what to expect once Shabbat began.
The pair had texted, emailed and posted on Instagram to invite as many people as possible to an egalitarian Shabbat service that they were hosting in the living room of a friend’s townhouse apartment on West 75th Street. Katz and Sandberg were craving a younger, fresher Friday night experience on the Upper West Side, but while they knew others felt the same, they weren’t sure how many people would show up.
In the end, Katz said, the final tally was “shocking”: 55 people crowded into the room for that first service, bringing their own prayer books and traveling significant distances to join a Shabbat community they’d only just heard about.
“We knew people wanted it,” said Katz, 29, who teaches at a Jewish day school in the neighborhood. “But we were just so excited and so grateful that this was something that actually excited people and we weren’t just making it up in our heads.”
Over the next four months, Katz and Sandberg, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, held four additional Kabbalat Shabbat services, with a tentative schedule stretching out into the summer. Their informal prayer community, known as a minyan, has no name — yet — but it does have a third organizer, growing buzz among young adults on the Upper West Side and the support of a slew of synagogues in the neighborhood and beyond.
This Kabbalat Shabbat minyan’s arrival marks something of a return-to-nature on the Upper West Side, a pulsing heart of Jewish life in New York City. Over the years, other minyans had sprouted up in the neighborhood, which is popular among young Jewish professionals because of its density of synagogues and kosher restaurants, the vibrancy of its dating scene and the networks of camp and college friends who are committed to maintaining Jewish community in their lives.
Some of these minyans faded away as members moved away, while others evolved into more established communities with dues, leases and programs for families. But the informal, lay-led minyans that were drawing young adults just before the pandemic — such as the Wandering Minyan, Shira B’Dira (Hebrew for “Songs in an Apartment”) and one sponsored by Camp Ramah, the Conservative movement’s summer camp network — have been slow to reemerge.
Katz and Sandberg are members of a congregation, Kehilat Hadar, that itself grew out of an informal minyan launched back in 2001. But Kehilat Hadar doesn’t regularly hold Friday-night services, which tend to be challenging for people with young children to attend. Plus, Katz and Sandberg thought that an independent minyan with less established roots might be more appealing for many people who hadn’t yet found a Jewish community of their own.
Of course, there are numerous synagogues in the neighborhood, but none seemed quite right: Congregations such as B’nai Jeshurun and Romemu use musical instruments — something considered taboo on Shabbat by many observant Jews — and Orthodox congregations tend not to appeal to people who are committed to egalitarianism. Plus, Katz, Sandberg and the third organizer, Bradley Goldman, were looking for a service led by people who aren’t rabbis, so the participants could feel more ownership over the experience.
“Obviously, there are some choices,” Katz said. “But there wasn’t anything that kind of fit with a more traditional Friday night davening [praying] that really focuses on young people who might end up moving away from the Upper West Side after a few years.”
She had heard others expressing the same longing as the world reemerged from Covid limitations. “All of these Shabbat meals that we were going to, everyone — whether or not they go to shul constantly or have rarely gone when they’ve moved to the Upper West Side — was talking about how there’s really not a lot of options for Friday night davening that are appealing to the 20s and 30s crowd, either religiously or age-wise,” she said.
The crowd at their services are all young people, many of whom know each other already, most who live on the Upper West Side — but anyone is welcome. In fact, Katz stays at the door to welcome anyone and everyone who walks by, which she said has been her favorite part of the experience.
A large contingent of attendees also have a background either attending or working for one of the camps in the Ramah network, and many prayers use Ramah tunes, creating a sense of nostalgia for those who attended the camps.
“We create such a powerful Shabbat experience at camp and I wanted to be able to capture that here with the same people,” said Adina Scheinberg, a Ramah alum who led a recent service that took place at Schechter Manhattan, the Conservative day school located on West 100th Street, that drew around 60 people.
After the service, which includes traditional Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy and maariv, or the evening service, attendees have the opportunity to schmooze with each other, snack and have a drink. “We want to be as inclusive as possible,” Katz said. “If you just want to come for the snacks, we love that too.”
The setting at Schechter was familiar to anyone who has attended Kehilat Hadar services in recent years: Kehilat Hadar has partnered with Congregation Shaare Zedek since 2019 and they meet together every Saturday morning at Schechter while Shaare Zedek’s permanent space is undergoing a major redevelopment. For Kehilat Hadar, the new minyan is not competition but an exciting addition to the fabric of Jewish life in the neighborhood.
“Friday night davening has always gotten a different crowd from Shabbat morning davening,” said Emily Scharfman, president of Kehilat Hadar’s board. She said Kehilat Hadar has held monthly Friday night services but lacked the volunteer capacity to hold weekly ones, particularly as community members have grown their families over the past 20 years.
“We are happy to be supportive of something that was mission-aligned, from a traditional, egalitarian perspective, especially coming from two people within our community,” Scharfman said, adding that Kehilat Hadar and Shaare Zedek would likely not have sponsored a minyan with a mechitzah separating men and women, or one that brought in music.
Kehilat Hadar has sponsored at least one of the Shabbat services, paying to rent the space at Schechter Manhattan for the evening and providing the snacks. And they’re not the only ones: The Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale helped rent space at SAJ, a Reconstructionist synagogue, for a future Shabbat, while Ramah plans to sponsor a service on May 5.
Though the presence of JTS, the flagship Conservative seminary, has always meant that there are ample young adults on the Upper West Side committed to innovative prayer experiences, Sandberg said she’s especially pleased that her growing new minyan draws from beyond that community.
“It’s logical that I as a rabbinical student was looking for something like this and that I felt like there was a gap in the community that I was hoping to find on the Upper West Side,” Sandberg said. “But it is really gratifying that this sentiment is shared by so many people and that this minyan can be something that young Jews on varying levels of being involved and engaged and observant are looking for.”
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