Volume 74, Number 39 | February 2 - 8, 2005

Young Bialystoker rabbi teaches tolerance and passion

Villager photo by Josh Argyle

Rabbi Zvi David Romm, 31, in the gallery of the Lower East Side’s historic Bialystoker Synagogue

By Marvin Greisman

The landmark Bialystoker Synagogue recently celebrated its 125th anniversary at a gala dinner that marked the installation of the young rabbi Zvi David Romm as the leader of the historic congregation. Rabbi Romm is only the fifth rabbinical leader to hold that position in the 125-year-long history of this famed Lower East Side synagogue, at 7-11 Willett St./Bialystoker Pl. The dinner, which attracted an audience of 500 people and was held at the Grand Ballroom of the Sheraton Towers in Midtown, also honored State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the shul’s vice president, for his contributions to the Jewish community and beyond.

The synagogue was established by Lithuanian Jews who came to the Lower East Side from Bialystok, Poland, in 1878. They purchased the building — which they called Chevrah Ansche Chesed of Bialystok — on May 19, 1905, for $105,000 in cash. Previously, the congregation had met in various locations in the area, including on Hester St., Orchard St. and Grand St.

A designated New York City landmark, the building was constructed in 1826 as the Willet Methodist Church. It was the first house of worship in the United States erected out of fieldstone — stone in its natural state — made from Manhattan schist quarried just a few blocks away. Another unique feature of the 1826 structure is the opening in the women’s gallery that leads to a ladder going up to an attic, lit by two windows. The hidden room was a stop on the Underground Railroad where countless runaway slaves found sanctuary.

Romm, 31, who is an Orthodox rabbi, recalled his initial impression from when he first entered the temple. “I was struck by the physical beauty,” he said. “It’s a stunning shul. We really have a treasure, and part of the mandate which I have is to try to make the spiritual beauty of the shul reflect its physical beauty.” Romm succeeded Rabbi Yitzchak Singer, who had led the congregation since 1960 until he died in 2001 at the age of 72.

Romm said that as he travels around the country he is often asked by people who know of the Lower Side’s rich Jewish history if there is still a Jewish Lower East Side today. “The first thing that I tell them,” he explained, “if you come here at a regular weekday morning, we will have four daily services, one after another, starting at 6 and the last at 8:30. One hundred to 150 people pass through those four morning services every weekday morning. Usually when I tell them that, that ends the discussion and they realize the Jewish Lower East Side is still very much here.”

Citing it as a reflection of the vibrancy of the Jewish Lower East Side, the rabbi said Bialystoker on Sabbath morning’s has two services, with an early service attracting 40 people and the main service held in the sanctuary attracting 150 people.

While Romm glorified the Lower East Side as a vibrant Jewish community, he did acknowledge that the neighborhood is in transition and going through, as many communities throughout the city, a gentrification process. Asked if gentrification is helping or hurting, the rabbi maintained, “As the neighborhood continues to gentrify there is a different base of people moving in, but I think that a base of people who have a lot to gain from what we have to offer at the Bialystoker.”

Romm praised the leadership of his historic synagogue and recognized that times are indeed changing on the Lower East Side and that it behooves the synagogue to recognize the importance of change that is happening within the community. The rabbi thanked members of his congregation for adopting “a very youthful agenda with a vast network of programs geared to the youth and the young adults of the community.”

“We are a shul that very, very much has its roots in the past, but is also very conscious and is actively looking towards the future,” Romm stressed. He insisted that the synagogue, while nostalgic about its rich history, recognizes the importance of a vastly changing community and is now creating programs that “are somewhat urbane.”

The Orthodox rabbi suggested that the community has many unaffiliated Jews who never before even opened a prayer book or entered a synagogue. “Outreach to the unaffiliated is an important function of a rabbi and a synagogue, and the Bialystoker Synagogue is committed to meet that important role,” he said. The rabbi stated that along those lines of reaching out to the unaffiliated is “the creation of the Downtown School for Judaism, which is a Sunday school for children who are attending public schools or secular private schools.” It’s essentially an outreach effort to unaffiliated Jewish youngsters. “They come in every Sunday and get exposed to the Hebrew language, to Bible study, to Jewish history, to a little bit of the holidays and ritual,” Romm explained.

Bialystoker’s Sunday school program is geared to children 5 years old, but the school is planning to add a class each year and eventually offer preparation for bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah students.

The synagogue has also started a “five-part series” aimed at unaffiliated adults in the community. This initiative included a crash course in Jewish history. Romm stated that he hoped to “launch other initiatives along those lines to present Judaism to people who don’t have a prior affiliation, but nonetheless will benefit from such programs.”

Still another feature of Bialystoker’s outreach efforts to the unaffiliated has been the beginner’s service for the high holidays. That service was conducted by Acting Supreme Court Justice Martin Shulman — a former president of the congregation, who emceed the shul’s 125th anniversary dinner.

Romm suggested two important concepts govern his tenure at the synagogue — “a sense of tolerance and a sense of passion.” Placing great emphasis on these two concepts, the rabbi maintained, “Tolerance implies that we have a tremendous spectrum of different kinds of people attending the shul. We have the young. We have the old. We have people with greater religiosity, people with lesser religiosity.” With such a mix, the rabbi stated, “It is crucial to create an atmosphere where everybody feels comfortable.”

But, turning to the other concept that continues to guide him — passion — the rabbi readily admits that “tolerance without content doesn’t really have a meaning.” Since arriving, Romm has proven that his striving for the concepts of tolerance and passion has paid off, as seen in the fact that both men and women have been flocking to attend the variety of classes he offers to the community.

In the address to the 125th anniversary dinner, the rabbi admitted he has his work cut out for him. “As much as Torah has spread throughout America, the Lower East Side has yet to make substantial inroads beyond Grand St.,” he noted. “In the Lower East Side we have a unique opportunity to promote the Torah of acceptance. It’s not just about real estate. It’s about an ideal.”

“The Lower East Side of today is beset by a rapidly changing set of social realities,” Romm continued. “The challenge that faces us is to adapt the Torah of acceptance to these new circumstances. We must strive to never allow anyone to feel disenfranchised. Our tent must be wide enough to yeshivaleit [parochial school students] and yuppie, rich and poor, young and old.

Romm also praised Speaker Silver for his efforts on behalf of the community. “The speaker’s achievements in public life are vast and impressive. He has constantly championed the cause of human rights and religious freedom throughout his distinguished tenure,” he said.

Jacob Goldman, Bialystoker Synagogue’s president, also noted that the shul rejects the oft-heard proposition that “children should be seen, but not heard.” At Bialystoker, children are very important, and the rabbi and his wife, Shira, have inaugurated a post-Sabbath program where the children of the congregation are invited to their co-op home. The shul’s president stated that the purpose of bringing the children into the home of the rabbi and rebbitzen — his wife — “is to make children understand that the rabbi is not some figure that sits in the front, with no connection to them.”

An important feature of the gala 125th anniversary dinner was the presentation of a unique ketubah (marriage)-style contract to Rabbi Romm, signed by the rabbinical leaders of the community attesting to Romm’s contribution to Jewish life on the Lower East Side. The presentation of the contract was made by Rabbi Yeshaya Siff, senior rabbi of Young Israel of Manhattan, the first synagogue of the Young Israel movement, located a few blocks away from the landmark Bialystoker Synagogue.

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