By Davidson Goldin
December 4, 1994
The New York Times
On a recent Saturday morning at Congregation Or Zarua's new synagogue on East 82d Street in Manhattan, about 90 people paused between portions of the Torah reading to discuss the implications of the passages on their daily lives. Unusual in most synagogues, this scene repeats itself several times each Saturday when members gather to pray on the Sabbath.
Even more unusual, though, was the location where this scene unfolded. Until six months ago, the synagogue's sanctuary had been a church. During renovation last summer, Or Zarua's members found an old memorial plaque with Hebrew inscriptions that led to a stunning discovery: The church they had just purchased from the Protestant First Waldensians had been built in the late 19th century as a synagogue.
"It was a great surprise when we learned it had been a synagogue," said Francine Klagsbrun, a Manhattan author who helped found Or Zarua in 1988. "It felt like it was meant to be that we complete the circle."
Without an actual synagogue to pray in, Or Zarua was founded when several members of Park Avenue Synagogue on East 87th Street, the region's most prominent Conservative synagogue, decided to start a congregation emphasizing group study and active participation by its members and religious services. Until September, when the congregation moved to its current home, religious services were held at both the 92d Street Y and a local religious school's auditorium.
Or Zarua's new building was the first home of the Orthodox Kehilath Jeshurun now on East 85th Street, beginning in 1883. After the congregation moved to its current home in 1904, the synagogue was used successively by a number of Jewish congregations until the First Waldensians converted the building to a church in 1951. The First Waldensians, descendants of a 12th-century denomination formed in France, sold the church to Or Zarua last spring.
The congregation's mission is to insure that religious services are both educational and participatory. Since its rabbi is the synagogue's only salaried professional, congregants volunteer for roles ordinarily reserved for a paid staff.
This Hanukkah, Or Zarua is one of about a dozen Conservative congregations in Manhattan. Its services are conducted in the Orthodox tradition, with a complete reading of the Torah, a traditional order of prayer, and without organ playing or choir singing. Yet they look like services would in any Reform or Conservative synagogue, with mixed seating and women leading prayers.
Perhaps the most striking objective of Or Zarua's founders was to limit the congregation's size. Most contemporary American religious institutions generally see success in numbers, while Or Zarua, with its 240 families, is considering limiting membership to 300 families.
"We all knew we needed a synagogue which was not just an affiliation, but a place we could go to pray and study and to have a certain amount of fellowship," said Harlan J. Wechsler, Or Zarua's rabbi. "We had the feeling that the synagogues that existed were too big, too uninterested in serious praying." Park Avenue Synagogue, where Rabbi Wechsler served before helping to start Or Zarua, has a membership of 1,500 families.
Rather than risk its character by growing too large, Rabbi Wechsler said the congregation would prefer to help found sister synagogues.
Some of those who left Park Avenue Synagogue to join Or Zarua said they were looking for a more participatory and intellectual spiritual setting. But they also said Or Zarua would never have happened if Park Avenue Synagogue had appointed Rabbi Wechsler as its senior rabbi.
"We were following him, and if he hadn't left we never would have thought about starting a synagogue," said Mimi Alperin, Or Zarua's first president and a major benefactor. "Many of us were not happy with synagogue life. We wanted a setting that was more intimate."
After a recent Torah portion about Abraham's and Isaac's relationships with their wives, Sarah and Rebecca, when they were unable to bear children, the congregation had a brief discussion about how those biblical interactions are relevant to the ways husbands and wives deal with problems in the modern world.
Some have called Or Zarua an intellectual shul, with members such as Norman Podhoretz and Neal Kozody, the top editors of Commentary; Steven Solender, the executive vice president of the U.J.A. Federation; and Robert Lifton, a former president of the American Jewish Congress.
"We want the extremely dynamic intellectual experiences of the Reform movement, and at the same time we also want the more traditional sense of religious practice that is more familiar to the Orthodox," said Henry Wollman, a Manhattan architect who is president of Or Zarua. "We're trying to understand what the Bible has to say, trying to understand what the Torah has to say, and trying to derive meaning in terms of our own lives."
The sanctuary in the new synagogue seats fewer than 150 people, enough for weekly Sabbath services but not nearly enough to accommodate the 500 people who gather for the High Holy Days in the fall. Although the congregation plans to add five floors to its two-story building, Rabbi Wechsler said that the sanctuary itself would not be enlarged substantially and that outside space would be rented on major holidays.