New York’s hip SoHo Synagogue sets sights on West Coast
With his shoes off and yarmulke on, Rabbi Dovi Scheiner set aside his plastic glass of white wine, climbed on top of a white leather chair and began addressing the young, well-heeled guests who had assembled at a luxurious Malibu home one recent Sunday.
His speech was part business pitch and part sermon, as he made jokes about Burning Man and dropping out of Hebrew school, while encouraging the well-groomed group of 20- and 30-somethings to help him build a Jewish community for those who have “self-excluded” themselves from the religion.
“The overwhelming majority of Jewish organizations are plugged into the same audience, and to our estimation it represents about 20 percent of the Jewish population,” Scheiner, 38, told the Journal at the event, which drew about 100 guests. “We’re really making a concerted effort to reach beyond the predictable network.”
This L.A.-based community Scheiner is looking to create, SoHo Synagogue Los Angeles, would be similar to the one he and his wife, Esty, formed in New York. Founded 10 years ago, New York’s SoHo Synagogue focuses on attracting a young Jewish contingent that is “more in the secular space,” Scheiner said.
He said he and his wife tried to appeal to this demographic by designing a synagogue that defies the aesthetics of traditional shuls. Their synagogue is located in a retail space in uber-hip SoHo and looks more like a loft or club than a place of worship. The interior walls are exposed brick, with raw Edison light bulbs framing the space, as well as movable seats and a modern, artistic Torah ark that was handpicked by a fashion designer. The Scheiners also attracted members by hosting events that rival nonreligious New York nightlife, from comedy shows to movie screenings, black-tie galas and loft parties.
“The issue is not the Judaism; it’s the way Judaism is being presented,” Scheiner said.
One of SoHo Synagogue’s longstanding members, David Goldberg (along with his brother Ari), happened to be in Los Angeles for the Oct. 25 barbecue and talked about when Scheiner first founded the synagogue by “basically hawking Judaism on the corner” in SoHo.
David Goldberg himself had moved to New York from Cleveland, and didn’t have much family in his new home. He turned to Scheiner and his growing Jewish community for connection. The Scheiners are relentless in their pursuit of bringing young Jews back to Judaism, Goldberg said.
Now the Scheiners have their sights set on the West Coast, with a focus on sustainability. That means creating a continual source of funding that can help finance long-term goals. Even nonprofits need money to stay afloat, Scheiner said, and gaining revenue is an increasingly challenging feat even for the most established of synagogues.
That’s why the Scheiners, along with some Chasidic coders, developed a “mobile synagogue” website dubbed Synago (synago.xyz) — part Facebook and part dating app, part news stream and personal calendar.
“The synagogue is with you everywhere, in your pocket,” Scheiner said.
This is a pay-to-play system, where users contribute a monthly fee to access a network of other members, a Hebrew “word-of-the-day,” meditation videos and invitations to religious or social events. There’s a tiered system of cost with the base subscription set at $30 per month, which gives users access to the website and a discount on SoHo Synagogue events. If you opt to pay $60 per month, those events are free.
Synago launched 3 1/2 months ago in New York and has about 400 members, Scheiner said. The website will debut in L.A. next year, but with the slew of social media sites already out there, some prospective users are unsure about the cost.
“Thirty dollars is high,” said 26-year-old Ryan Neman, another guest at the barbecue.
He admitted he didn’t know much about Synago, though, and would want to measure the “real impact” it could have on his life before signing up.
The Scheiners are hoping Synago will become an integral part of many young Jews’ lives and that, with the help of revenue from the site, they’ll be able to establish “SynaPods” in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2017. In lieu of traditional brick-and-mortar shuls, these mini synagogues will be cozy, “SoHo House-esque” places for young Jews to watch movies, eat dinner, socialize and go to religious services, Scheiner said.
The integration of Judaism into everyday life is appealing to Aton Ben-Horin, a 35-year-old global director of artists and repertoire at Warner Music Group, who said he’s always “trying to find a balance” between work life and religion. Between bites of food, Ben-Horin explained that one of his favorite things about L.A. is its vibrant Jewish community. A group like SoHo Synagogue would help to connect young, like-minded people who may not otherwise be in touch with their religion, he said.
“At the end of the day, it helps [get] close to Judaism … in a unique way,” he said.
Looking toward SoHo Synagogue’s future in Los Angeles, Scheiner said the “geographic breadth” of the city represents a challenge but also an opportunity. By bringing together Jews from across this large, diverse city, SoHo Synagogue can increase member numbers and build a self-sustaining, organic community with longevity.
“L.A. is a very important Jewish city. We are very inspired by what we’re seeing on an individual and communal level,” Scheiner said. “We’re pumped. We’re going all in.”