By Aaron Short, Special to NYJL
A few minutes before sundown on the holiest night of the year in the Jewish calendar, a stream of congregants in dark clothes walked briskly past commuters and happy-hour revelers to a small shul on a quiet block in Greenpoint.
Located on Noble Street since 1886, the aptly named Greenpoint Shul claims to be Brooklyn’s oldest continuously running congregation.
At one point a century ago, five synagogues thrived in the heavily Polish neighborhood, including two in an adjoined complex on Noble Street. Four have closed and the Greenpoint Shul nearly shuttered its doors a decade ago as it struggled to hold a regular minyan.
On Friday it was nearly overflowing with 150 people crammed in first-floor aisles and the balcony. Many of them were young couples with newborns and older children who ran freely through the aisles before scampering downstairs for a youth service held in the basement.
“This is the most crowded I’ve ever seen it here,” one longtime congregant said.
It helped, of course, that Kol Nidre, the service the night before Yom Kippur, fell on Shabbat. And it certainly helps that the synagogue does not charge a fee for the services unlike other shuls, where a High Holiday package can cost several hundred dollars.
But much of the credit for the Greenpoint Shul’s vitality belongs to its energetic rabbi, Maurice Appelbaum, who took over in 2009, and its president, Naomi Wolfensohn, who led a fundraising campaign to renovate the building.
The temple is Orthodox but welcomes Jews of all denominations. Services are largely in Hebrew, save for Appelbaum’s explanatory interjections, and a waist-high barrier runs along the edge of an aisle of the sanctuary separating men and women. Only men read from the Torah and approach the bimah, but women participate in the service by opening the ark, reciting psalms and carrying Torahs through their section.
Keeping everyone comfortable is a delicate balance, but Appelbaum’s charm and his cantor’s brisk readings allow congregants to reflect while keeping the pace moving.
And the two-story sanctuary is a jewel. Worshipers sit in smooth wooden pews that are soft to the touch, and face the bimah, which is surrounded by four brass candelabra on wooden posts. At night, the lights bounce off the cream-colored interior, emblazoning stained glass windows set in geometric patterns of triangles.
Over the summer, the congregation replaced the front doors, restored windows and the back wall facing Noble Street, and fixed the wrought-iron fence at its entrance.
The next step is patching up the roof and overhauling the building next door—itself home to a former shul that closed decades ago—which has since been condemned by the city. The plan is to convert the property to a preschool with apartments, including a residence for the rabbi, on the floors above.
It’s a multimillion-dollar job, and Wolfensohn gently reminded the congregation an hour into the service to chip in by buying a membership.
“To cover our costs it would take 400 individual memberships or 250 family memberships,” she told congregants, while pointing out the large number of children and her hope to expand next door in the coming years.
The service itself started at about 6:40 pm and ran two and a half hours, thanks to a number of lengthy prayers, or amidahs, and special recitations on the eve of atonement.
The typical Orthodox Union prayerbook used on Shabbat was packed away, and scores of light-brown bound “High Holiday” siddurs were piled high next to a basket of kippot on a bookshelf at the entrance.
Appelbaum’s voice boomed throughout the service, projecting for those seated in the back rows and deep in the balcony. But the congregation prayed in near silence during the amidahs. The only sound I could discern came from a small boy, who stood in an aisle next to me softly beating his chest when he reached a passage asking God to forgive the congregation’s transgressions from the past year.
At the end of the service, Appelbaum wished everyone an easy fast and announced that congregants must introduce themselves before leaving, since he worried he didn’t remember everyone’s name. Then he hustled through the sanctuary and planted himself at the entrance as attendees slowly trickled into the warm September night.