Volume 74, Number 13 | July 28 - August 03 , 2004



From left, Rabbi Niles Goldstein of the New Shul, and the shul’s co-founders, Ellen Gould and Holly Gewandter

‘Downtown Judaism’ finds home in shul in a school

By Erica Stein

The Village Community School has been a popular refuge for many organizations, hosting everything from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to fiction-writing classes. Since last September, V.C.S., at 272 W. 10th St., has also served as the weekly meeting place for a new Downtown synagogue with a uniquely Village character, the New Shul.

“In New York every group and nonprofit’s biggest concern is real estate — you’re just always, always trying to find space,” said Ellen Gould, a writer, singer and actor who with Holly Gewandter, a composer and lyricist, founded New Shul in 1999.

New Shul, while growing from 30 to 120 households, has moved from Hebrew Union College on W. Fourth St. to Judson Church on Washington Sq. S., a Presbyterian church and finally to, as Rabbi Niles Goldstein describes it, “our semi-permanent home.”

In addition to its migratory tendencies — “it’s part of the tradition, I guess,” said Gould, “we’re like a nomadic tribe” — the New Shul is unusual in several other ways.

“We don’t have an elected board, we’re nondenominational, our congregation is mostly artists and writers, our rabbi is a black belt in karate and I’ve never really done anything like this before. We’re not your parents’ synagogue,” said Gewandter.

In 1999, Gewandter, a Greenwich Village resident, and her partner, Nancy, began looking for a Hebrew school for their daughter. “When she got to be about 5, we thought we should join a synagogue. We started looking around and there was really nothing Downtown and what there was we weren’t crazy about,” Gewandter recalled. “We didn’t want to just dump her in Hebrew school; we wanted someplace we could get something out of.”

Gewandter eventually realized that she had the resources to create such a community — even in a modest, limited form — herself. “I thought, how hard would it be to put on a show? Here we are in Greenwich Village. We could do something hip and new.”

Gewandter contacted Gould, “who I’ve known forever. We grew up in the same town in Massachusetts. Ellen had done this show that was autobiographical but had a Jewish component.” The show, “Bubbe Meises, Bubbe Stories,” had a successful off-Broadway run before being filmed and broadcast on PBS. The televised production won two 1995 Emmys, one for Gould and one for Gewandter, who wrote the show’s songs. The show, said Gewandter, “gave Ellen all these contacts in the Jewish community. We found out that Hebrew Union College had this chapel they didn’t use. So we sent out invitations to everyone we could think of, that we were having this service.”

The two women said they were surprised when more than 30 people attended the first service, which was so successful that after four months, when the three planned services had been staged, Gould and Gewandter were asked to have one more. “At this point,” said Gould, “there was a meeting in Holly’s living room.” Gewandter said that, of the 60 people who were then attending the services, 25 came to the meeting. “And we talked about, if we decided to really do this, form as a synagogue and hire a rabbi, how would we do it? What would it be like? We hashed it out. We didn’t want to continue in the mold, we wouldn’t have the typical power structure, there wouldn’t be an elected board. We wanted a Village version.”

About 12 people, including Gould and Gewandter, formed a committee to search for a rabbi. Around the same time the search committee found out about Rabbi Niles Goldstein, he found out about them. “I’d never been interested in the traditional rabbinic path,” said Goldstein. “So I’d spent time in think tanks and J.C.C.s. At the same time, I was writing books and traveling. By the time they contacted me, I myself had tried to create a progressive, intellectual congregation. I had a discussion group that kind of fizzled, so I was very happy to find them.”

Both the founders and Goldstein said that their vision for the New Shul was for a kind of “Downtown Judaism.” Gewandter said the congregation has many members who consider themselves atheist while others come from quite traditional backgrounds. A large majority are artists, which has influenced both the construction of New Shul’s leadership and its services. “One of the things about us is that we welcome questions and creativity,” said Goldtsein, who celebrated the first night of Hanukkah with his congregants in Washington Sq. “We have some very talented visual artists. So we got a permit and built a light sculpture. Everyone brought a light source and we had everyone add to the sculpture.”

Gould, who has no formal cantorial training, said she tries to take the same participatory track in her duties. “I really wanted to explore the theatricality that’s inherent in the liturgy. The congregation isn’t an audience, it’s an actor. So I do a lot of rounds and some wordless Hasidic songs. I also rewrite and re-set some of the traditional songs. It’s a mix of old and new.”

Brian Browdie, who joined the congregation with his wife, Karen Loew, just as New Shul moved to V.C.S., said that Gould’s “mix” is what attracted him to the synagogue. Browdie said that he never became a member of a synagogue as an adult despite attending services as a child, but began looking after he got married. “It’s always been important to us to have a Jewish component to our marriage and our lives,” he said. Browdie said he and Loew attended several New Shul services at Judson Church but did not become members. “Then we moved out of the city for about a year. And we really missed New Shul. So when we came back, the first thing we did was join.”

Browdie, who, unlike many of his fellow congregants, works for a financial services company — “businesspeople can be creative too,” he noted — found the diversity of New Shul appealing. “I like the combination of Niles’s intellectual angle and the music, which is really accessible,” he said. “We have artists and businesspeople. We also have people raised Jewish and people who only became Jewish later. We have single people and couples, we have gay people and straight people. It really is very Downtown; I mean, the people who go here live in my neighborhood. I love that. I walk around the Village on Saturday afternoons and I see everyone from New Shul.”

Marty Umans, a photographer whose office is on 19th St., joined the New Shul when it still consisted of a few people meeting in the H.U.C chapel. Umans, who joined the New Shul’s leadership within a year of becoming a member, said the congregation’s new home “is a really nice fit right now. We moved because it was just hard to schedule things a year in advance at First Presbyterian. V.C.S. is great for us. A lot of the members have kids who go there and we can use the auditorium and the old cafeteria. Eventually there might be some problems with overflow during the holidays when we expand, but that’s in the future.”

Gould, Goldstein and Gewandter are happy with the expansion of the membership of New Shul — which took on 10 new households in the past year with no exposure but word-of-mouth — but plan to stop at 250-300 households to preserve the intimate sense of community they said the synagogue now has. At that point, New Shul would probably be too large for V.C.S., which has 322 students enrolled during the year; New Shul now has 100 children enrolled in its Hebrew school, and since its membership consists mostly of young people and couples (there have been four marriages between members so far) the number is likely to climb. But for now, said Goldstein, they are quite happy to remain at V.C.S. “It feels like home. It’s right in the heart of the Village. And ‘school’ is ‘shul’ in Yiddish.”

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