Secret Shulgoer: Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York

Secret shulgoer finds things familiar and distinct in an American synagogue

February 10, 2020 13:46

Lincoln Square Synagogue
180 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10023

Denomination Modern Orthodox
Rabbi Rabbi Shaul Robinson
Size of Community 500 members

A recent family event took me to New York City for a long weekend. When I arrived at my hotel, I spotted the headline in a local newspaper: “City braced for visit” which I thought boded well for my trip. Actually, I’d chosen the same weekend as Donald Trump to visit the Big Apple. Luckily, other than a few road closures, my visit wasn’t impacted. Manhattan is big enough for the both of us.

I’ll spare you the usual NY reportage. Yes, I shopped and ate way too much. But, also yes, I visited a synagogue with my shul-reviewing hat on. Literally.

Choosing which synagogue to visit wasn’t easy. It’s impossible to pinpoint the number of shuls in Manhattan, but a ballpark figure suggests there are about 50 on the island. To whittle down my choice, I focused on synagogues on the Upper West Side, which left 26. Dizzied by the array of denominations, from Reform to Orthodox, Reconstructionist to Humanist, and including communities such as the “Society for the Advancement of Judaism” and “Manhattan Jewish Experience”, I opted to walk in a straight line until I reached a synagogue.

Which is how I ended up at Lincoln Square Synagogue, just after 10.15 am.

George Bernard Shaw famously noted that the US and UK are divided by a common language, and there’s much that is both familiar and distinct when visiting an American synagogue. The tight security was all too familiar and, sadly, given the recent spate of anti-Jewish hate crimes in New York, clearly necessary.

Once inside, American customer service kicked in. A poster on the wall told me: “Don’t be Shy! Go say Hi!” and I was immediately greeted by a smiling woman who walked with me to the service, all the while asking about my trip, and recommending an exhibition at the Met that I absolutely had to see.

As our conversation turned to all things arty, she told me about the synagogue building, the result of fused Judaic-Architectural detail. Highlights include the extensive use of bronze, blue wool, and acacia wood, all materials used in the ancient Tabernacle.

The prayer hall itself is built in the round. Aesthetically it feels like a scroll. Practically, men and women have an equal, and unobstructed, view of the bimah, and the entire room, including Ark and Bimah, is wheelchair-accessible. The ceiling is studded with 613 lights (the number of commandments) and resembles a starlit sky.

A few things reminded this visiting Brit that I was far from home, not least, the eight-foot American flag on display in the corner, and the distinctly higher than average number of men wearing bow-ties. Also, there were three women behind me who were chatting in such loud New Yoik accents, that I felt transported into an episode of Mrs Maisel.

No word of a lie, at one point one of them said “It’s a shande!” And I honest-to-God snorted with laughter.

Perhaps the biggest difference was a learning event I saw advertised, hosted by the neighbouring Reconstructionist Synagogue, but scheduled to take place in (Orthodox) Lincoln Square’s hall. I can’t remember seeing that kind of cross-communal overlap in the UK. Clearly, I wasn’t in Kansas any more.

For the second time in 24 hours, I discovered that my visit coincided with that of someone far more important, when the rabbi of LSS, Rabbi Shaul Robinson, announced that their founding rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, was visiting from Israel and would be delivering the sermon. “You’re in for a doozy,” whispered the old lady sitting beside me.

Now in his late 70s, Rabbi Riskin is no longer in his prime, but he spoke passionately and provocatively about Middle East politics. I felt privileged to hear him. But, if I’m honest, I’d have preferred to hear Rabbi Robinson. After all, that’s the more usual Lincoln Square experience and, frankly, it’s always good to support a British ex-pat.

Speaking of which, the president of the synagogue delivered the end-of-service announcements in an English accent. I asked the woman next to me, “Is everyone here British?” She replied “Honey, it sure feels that way sometimes”.

After the service, the city that gave the world “brunch” offered us “kidduncheon”, a sit-down affair, with more food than I’ve ever seen in a regular kiddush back home, while a teenage choir from a local Jewish day school provided the entertainment.

As I ate and listened, I reflected that, for the wandering Jew, shul can be a welcome reminder of home, and my visit to LSS was exactly that. There I was, thousands of miles from the UK, and yet I felt completely at home. And in a city vying for my tourist attention, LSS is definitely on my “must-visit” list. Though I might check that the Don isn’t in town next time.

Warmth of Welcome ★★★★★
Decorum ★★★★✩
Service ★★★★✩
Kiddush ★★★★✩

February 10, 2020 13:46

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