Most synagogues can be categorized by the makeup of their congregation. But with a constituency as diverse as that at Ohab Zedek, Rabbi Allen Schwartz must fill many different roles. In his 20 years leading the Upper West Side congregation, Schwartz has proven an effective teacher, administrator, social activist, community organizer and sanitation officer, and each day seems to add to his eclectic resume.
“The congregation is 130 years old, so we have a very rich and broad history, and a very broad constituency,” said Schwartz, who has led the congregation since 1988.
“A broad array of constituencies affords people to interact with other people as much as possible.”
In his 20 years at the helm, the neighborhood around Ohab Zedek has changed immensely.
“The block happens to be a very low-travel block because of the traffic pattern, so when we first came here, it was actually a block with a very vigorous drug business,” Schwartz said.
Instituting regular community meetings, Schwartz worked with police to implement a 24-hour police presence on either side of West 95th Street, flanking the synagogue and cleaning up the block.
“Slowly we cleared out what was a terrible block and we got people to trust the community and move in,” Schwartz said.
The rabbi’s latest project, in conjunction with Borough President Scott Stringer, is to create a competition among block captains for the cleanest block between West 86th and 96th streets, from Amsterdam Avenue to Central Park West.
“The residents themselves will be responsible for making sure that the streets are clean,” he said.
“He has a terrific group of congregants who really respect him,” said Council Member Gale Brewer. “When there’s a problem in the neighborhood, he addresses it. He comes forth and works with people and reaches out to the block.”
The rabbi’s outreach exceeds far beyond his own block. Under his leadership, congregation volunteers deliver food to the elderly, help bring constituents to doctor’s appointments and create their own miniature City Harvest, delivering leftover food from the synagogue to neighborhood shelters.
In addition to his work inside the congregation, Schwartz teaches Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University and 7th and 8th grade at Manhattan Day School. He also lends his talents to the political realm, serving as president of the Council of Orthodox Jewish Organizations (COJO) of the West Side of Manhattan. The umbrella organization represents nearly 30 synagogues, adult outreach centers, day schools and institutes of higher learning on the Upper West Side, promoting unity within the community and serving as the link between the Jewish community and local elected officials.
“He is a very super human being in terms of heart and temperament,” said Brewer, who has worked with Schwartz through COJO. “He does a lot for that community, but he also reaches out beyond that community.”
Happily married with six children and four—going on five—grandchildren, Schwartz has been a proud Upper West Side resident since 1985, and he intends to stay one.
“I like to find something good and stay with it, cultivate it, build it, perfect it,” Schwartz said. “There is always more to do.”
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