Basketball dads help Manhattan Jewish congregation score historic church space
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'I saw the Hebrew on the ceiling, I saw the Ten Commandments, something clicked'

Basketball dads help Manhattan Jewish congregation score historic church space

A chance courtside meeting is a slam dunk for interfaith cooperation as Trinity Church shares its 250-year-old chapel with Tamid Downtown Synagogue

Rabbi Darren Levine leading a youth service at Tamid Downtown Synagogue in New York. (Courtesy)
Rabbi Darren Levine leading a youth service at Tamid Downtown Synagogue in New York. (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — If Rabbi Darren Levine hadn’t taken his son to shoot hoops nearly before sunrise one day, it’s fair to say that Tamid: The Downtown Synagogue most likely wouldn’t occupy the historic space it does today.

Seven years ago, Levine thought it would be good for his athlete son to burn off energy before the school day began, so he took him to the neighborhood basketball court. It just so happened there was another father there who had the same plan in mind for his son.

And so the two men sat next to St. Paul’s Chapel at Trinity Church, sipping their morning coffee and talking about everything except for their professional lives. They never exchanged names, they were simply the basketball dads.

But off the court, Levine was a rabbi in want of a place to worship.

“I had walked by this place thousands of times. I walked inside. I saw the Hebrew on the ceiling, I saw the Ten Commandments. Something clicked,” Levine said, sitting inside the 251-year-old chapel on a spring afternoon. “I went home and looked it up on the internet. And there was that basketball dad’s face! I called him and I said, ‘Mark, you’re not going to believe this, I’m a rabbi.’”

As it turned out, his basketball friend — whose name he didn’t even know — was none other than the Reverend Mark Francisco Bozzuti-Jones, pastor for St. Paul’s Chapel at Trinity Church, the oldest surviving church building in Manhattan.

Bozzuti-Jones told Levine he wanted to help. After several meetings with the church rectory, Tamid was invited to use the space. (Tamid is not affiliated with a specific branch of Judaism, though Levine was ordained by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College.)

Rabbi Darren Levine leads the Tamid Downtown Synagogue in Shabbat services at St. Paul's Chapel. (Courtesy)
Rabbi Darren Levine leads the Tamid Downtown Synagogue in Shabbat services at St. Paul’s Chapel. (Courtesy)

In 2012 Tamid held its first Shabbat service inside the chapel. It was the same chapel where President George Washington prayed after his inauguration, and where, on July 4, 1789, Alexander Hamilton delivered a eulogy for General Nathanael Greene.

Five years later the story of how Tamid came to occupy such a storied space continues to show what it means to come together in a polarized country. The story of Tamid and St. Paul is a quiet show of interfaith community past and present.

‘When religious leaders form authentic bonds their congregations know it and feel it’

“It’s normalized interfaith relations for Tamid and Trinity Church. To our families, on a local level, there is something about being a resident synagogue in this historical venue. It connects us to the fabric of Lower Manhattan in a significant way,” Levine said. “On a personal level, the best thing that has come out of it are the friendships I’ve formed with my colleagues. Because when religious leaders form authentic bonds their congregations know it and feel it.”

Indeed St. Paul’s Chapel has a long tradition of celebrating interfaith relations.

Back in 1711, the chapel lacked the funds to finish its steeple. According to church records six members of Shearith Israel Synagogue — the city’s and the nation’s oldest congregation — donated 5 pounds, 12 shillings and 2 pence toward the project, which totaled 312 pounds.

Tamid Downtown Synagogue hosting Israeli dance at St. Paul's Chapel on Shabbat. (Courtesy)
Tamid Downtown Synagogue hosting Israeli dance at St. Paul’s Chapel on Shabbat. (Courtesy)

Flash forward to the 1970s. As the twin towers soared upward, Muslim construction workers needed a place to pray. They found sanctuary on the church’s second floor.

Each Shabbat the Georgian style chapel, which primarily serves as an active house of Episcopal worship and neighborhood cultural space, transforms. The baptismal font and cross are carefully stored. The Ark of the Covenant, which normally occupies a space to the right of the altar, is rolled into place.

The ark, known as the New Mezeritz Ark has its own unique story. It replicates an ark that once stood inside one of the largest and most beautiful synagogues in Mezeritz, Poland. In 1939 the Nazis looted the synagogue and the Russians destroyed the building. Nothing but photographs remain.

In the late 1800s when Jews from Mezeritz settled in the Lower East Side they installed a near replica of the ark. Then in 2013 the Mezeritz Shul closed. Members of the nascent Tamid congregation rescued that ark and key elements of it were incorporated into the present design.

‘I’m pretty convinced it’s the singular most visited Jewish item in the United States’

“I’m pretty convinced it’s the singular most visited Jewish item in the United States; about two million people come here each year,” Levine said.

While it may be impossible to determine the precise number of sightseers who come to St. Paul’s Chapel, there is certainly a steady flow of visitors.

Sometimes called the “9/11 chapel” or the “Little Chapel That Stood,” first responders and others working on ground zero found respite and solace inside in the days, weeks and months after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Today the light and airy space offers respite and solace for Jews, converts, those in the interfaith community and anyone who might simply be curious.

Tamid Downtown Synagogue hosts the Passover seder at St. Paul's Chapel. (Courtesy)
Tamid Downtown Synagogue hosts the Passover seder at St. Paul’s Chapel. (Courtesy)

“We don’t talk about divisions here. There are no senior groups or junior groups. There is no LGBTQ group or singles group. There is no married group,” Levine said. “But our congregation is not homogeneous. It is all ages. It is people of all Jewish backgrounds, all cultural backgrounds. We have white Ashkenazi and Spanish Sephardim. We have African Americans and we have blended families. It’s all here. It’s a slice of America.”

‘We don’t talk about divisions here. There are no senior groups or junior groups’

Maintaining a spirit of openness started on day one.

When Levine heard Tamid could use the space, he had a few conditions. One, the congregation had to focus on Jewish life, not Jewish real estate. It had to focus on education and community gatherings. It could not put its resources into management and institutions and buildings.

“Its my style. I’m a minimalist generally and I think the spirituality gets lost when the senior clergy is busy serving as a CEO,” the California-born rabbi said.

Cheryl Whaley, one of Tamid’s founding members, wholeheartedly agreed.

She happened to be in the chapel and took a moment to talk about how Tamid fits into the larger cultural landscape. For Whaley, worshipping in a chapel makes perfect sense.

The New Mezeritz Ark remains on the chapel floor twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. (Cathryn J. Prince/Times of Israel)
The New Mezeritz Ark remains on the chapel floor twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. (Cathryn J. Prince/Times of Israel)

“It’s part of this pop up, 21st century sharing economy model. It represents New York City and its mélange of people,” she said.

Together with Trinity Church and Park51, a neighborhood Islamic Center, Tamid holds an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner. The trinity also joins together for the National Day of Service commemorating the 9/11 attacks each year.

The synagogue has a book club and organizes museum outings, and 75 children attend Hebrew school a few blocks away at its education center. There is also a youth group. Only don’t call it a “youth group,” Levine said, “that would be too dorky and they would never come.”

‘It’s part of this pop up, 21st century sharing economy model. It represents New York City and its mélange of people’

Instead it is the Downtown Hunger Action, a service-learning project for high school students.

On Saturday nights between 40 and 50 teens gather to prepare food and life packs, boxes containing socks and toiletries. Afterwards they break into smaller groups and, with chaperones, fan out across the area distributing the boxes to the homeless.

“It’s a way to volunteer and it’s also doing something very Jewish,” he said.

Come Shabbat more than 100 congregants will once again gather to read from gender-inclusive liturgy that follows Reform guidelines. But instead of siddurs the words are projected on a screen. Levine prefers eyes up, rather than heads down.

“It’s become a family. It feels like a home here. It’s an important thing in the 21st century for religion to feel welcome,” Levine said.

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