By Aaron Short, Exclusive to NYJL
The Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue looks a little like that house from the movie Up.
Nudged between a stately row of condominium towers on East 11th Street sits a two-story former carriage house that is home to one of the only conservative denominations in Downtown Manhattan.
A door in the wrought-iron fence edging the property line swings toward a charming brick-and-stone courtyard that congregants walk along to get to the tiny shul. A sharp left through the entrance and you’re inside the cozy, well-lit sanctuary.
The room is a little cramped, but soon that will change.
In 2015, board members appealed to a higher power—the city Landmarks Preservation Commission—to expand the sanctuary by removing the façade and extending the front of the building by 12 feet. The building is a city landmark that dates back to 1852, when it was built as a stable, so the LPC must approve any renovation plans. It was an artistic residence before it became a synagogue in 1961.
Despite opposition from Manhattan Community Board 2, the city approved the board members’ proposal in January 2016, although work hasn’t started yet.
The congregation is preparing for the new year in the meantime, but the synagogue’s energetic Rabbi Joe Schwartz skipped a recent Friday-night service in late August because he was home sick.
“He was coughing the whole time he was talking to me on the phone,” said one board member. “I said, ‘Don’t come in and hack over everyone. Get better.’”
Instead, Rabbi Emeritus David Gaffney filled in, and another board member, Sam Swartz, pitched in as cantor.
About two dozen congregants attended Shabbos, though the synagogue can fit 80 before it becomes a fire hazard. But the board members won’t risk overcrowding for the High Holiday services—which will be at the Center for Jewish History five blocks away. (Tickets are $275 and available via PayPal on the shul’s website: http://www.csfanyc.org/.)
The shul’s membership largely tilts above the age of 55. Most regulars are in their 60s and 70s and have lived in Greenwich Village for decades, and some are even in their 90s. There are, however, a fair number of postdoctoral and graduate students engaged in their studies at New York University.
Former Mayor Ed Koch, who lived three blocks away, occasionally stopped by. A man in his 70s warmly remembered the three-term mayor as “affable and very smart.”
The sanctuary itself is largely spare, with white walls and a low ceiling save for two electric memorial plaques that contain the names of several hundred deceased members.
The ark is away from the street at the northern end of the room, which is awkward since it’s a custom to pray facing east toward Jerusalem—another reason why the renovation is occurring.
Rabbi Gaffney led a swift hour-long service from the Siddur Sim Shalom prayer book; the service started promptly at 6 p.m. He interrupted his cantor only twice, to mention a new class on psalms that will be offered in the coming year, and to recount a story of watching an Itzhak Perlman concert at Tanglewood during a thunderstorm, which he described as a spiritual experience.
“There are a lot of storms in your life. Always listen for the music above the storm,” he said.
Near the end of the service, a woman wearing a black knit sweater dotted with white hearts carried a silver tray with plastic shot glasses of wine and grape juice for kiddish.
The wine was sweet and medicinal, just as it should be.
By Aaron Short, Exclusive to NYJL