Share This Article

Shabbos Shorts is an occasional series about Shabbos services at city synagogues, which are a window into contemporary Jewish life in New York. 

Congregation Mount Sinai has snagged itself a star, but its members may not realize it yet.

Three years ago, The New York Times trekked out to East Hampton to commune with Hanniel Levenson, whose main task as associate rabbi at the Jewish Center for the Hamptons was to hold Shabbat services and teach Hebrew to youngsters cramming for their bar and bat mitzvahs. He drew the Times’ attention because he would take students surfing one day a week as part of their studies.

Earlier this summer, Levenson paddled into Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights, a small synagogue nestled among concrete residential low-rises off Cadman Plaza.

He continues to lead Shabbat services while dreaming of surfing.

“I’m hoping to get a surf in this weekend,” he told me at one Friday night service in September.

The Mount Sinai gig is one of the top rabbinical posts in the city, thanks to the strength and longevity of its congregation, which dates back to 1882.

Levenson replaced Rabbi Seth Wax, who left Mount Sinai after four years to become Williams College’s new Jewish chaplain in Massachusetts. Wax had taken over the shul when its longtime spiritual leader, Joseph Potasnik—currently serving as the city’s fire chaplain and New York Board of Rabbis vice president—retired in 2013. Potasnik keeps an “emeritus” title and comes around once in a while.

Now the shul is in the hands of the 35-year-old former competitive gymnast and personal trainer who also runs a surfing and yoga retreat through his company House of Surf and Prayer.

Programming at the well-known shul will likely get a lot more interesting. High Holiday services probably will too.

On the Friday before Rosh Hashanah, Levenson led an intimate prayer service for half a dozen congregants, who sat around a square table near the back of the sanctuary.

I had asked which denomination the synagogue was, and Levenson said that everyone was welcome. Indeed, the shul is “independent egalitarian,” welcoming “people of all ages, backgrounds, affiliations, family structures, and sexual orientations,” according to its website.

As we flipped through glossy copies placed on a table in front of us of “A Siddur for Erev Shabbat” by Rabbi Marcia Prager, Levenson lit two Shabbos candles with a match and waved his hand over the flame.

Levenson’s 45-minute Shabbat service consisted of a mix of English and Hebrew recitations and psalms, including a lively rendition of “Lecha Dodi” sung to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Whenever he started a psalm he put a small wooden box on his lap and opened it to play a minor chord that kept him in tune.

We finished just before 7:30 p.m., downing plastic thimbles of wine and grape juice and passing around torn handfuls of challah from the center of the table.

At the front of the sanctuary, nearly a hundred fabric-padded chairs were set in five rows behind a small bimah in near-darkness.

Levenson is excited to see many families and newcomers at Mount Sinai for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. His challenge, like many rabbis in the city, will be encouraging congregants to return after the holidays are over.

And if Levenson can foster a thriving spiritual community in Brooklyn Heights—well that would be pretty radical.

Share This Article