Shabbos Shorts is an occasional series about Shabbos services at city synagogues, which are a window into contemporary Jewish life in New York.
By Aaron Short, Special to NYJL
A flock of sullen teenagers in dark puffy coats, some with cigarettes and others with something stronger, loitered the entrance to Stuyvesant Square discussing the week’s highlights.
Congregants gave them a wide berth and scampered up the puddle-laden street to enter the East End Temple.
The Gramercy Park shul, a cozy reform synagogue housed in a stately French Renaissance brownstone, was formed by a group of World War II veterans in 1948. The East 17th Street building that houses the congregation is much older. It was built in 1883 and designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, known for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s main building.
It was first home to Sidney Webster, a lawyer and private secretary to President Franklin Pierce, and Sarah Morris Fish, daughter of U.S. Senator Hamilton Fish. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s ex-wife Hazel Scott lived here in the 1960s after her divorce from Powell. In the mid-1990s it served as a nutrition center for the Beth Israel Medical Center, whose health professionals taught participants which foods spurred weight gain, how to read food labels, and how to maintain a healthy diet. These days it’s a much less political space.
The congregation moved into the townhouse in 2004, renovated the interiors, and installed a modern well-lit sanctuary with upholstered rows of blonde wood, beige walls, and hardwood floors.
On a Friday in January, a mix of about five dozen families with children and young childless couples packed into the sanctuary for a breezy service led by Shira Ginsburg, now in her 12th year as cantor of East End.
The synagogue’s rabbi Josh Stanton was off that night so a scruffy rabbinic intern, who would have a hard time getting into a bar down the street, assisted with the evening’s interpretations.
Cantors at many reform shuls often bring an acoustic guitar with them to keep the melody. Instead, a pianist clad in a gray cardigan and matching scarf softly struck the keys of a grand piano accompanying each hymn.
The piano’s major chords elevated Ginsburg’s powerful soprano voice which reverberated throughout the shul, ushering in Shabbat with a warm sonic embrace. The crowd joined in, zipping through Lekha Dodi and other hymns as a steady trickle of elder-aged congregants took seats on benches in the back of the room.
At the service’s midpoint, just after 7 pm, the rabbinic intern spoke of the weekend’s torah portion involving Moses’s fraught negotiations with the Pharaoh of Egypt and explored the concept of humility. He asked the shul’s members to consider how their words and actions influence others, and shared a personal resolution to listen more intently while keeping his thoughts to himself. A number of heads nodded in agreement.
The intern’s shortened sermon segued to a brief, silent Amidah before Ginsburg dove into the second half of the service.
Near the end of the evening, Ginsburg gestured toward the front row of the shul, where half a dozen pre-teens were sitting. She invited a tall, lanky adolescent whose bat mitzvah would happen in the shul the next day to recite a prayer in English from the bimah.
The young woman stood up straight and boomed through the prayer with ease and confidence, earning a mazel from the cantor. Two twenty-something women sitting across the sanctuary sat back and smiled.