Where Hasidim Mingle with Punk-Hair Types

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Orthodox synagogue also attracts Jews unaffiliated with a sect

By Ellen Keohane

When describing Kol HaNeshamah, a Jewish Orthodox congregation on the West Side, Adena Berkowitz uses words like “inclusive,” “welcoming” and “comfortable.”

“In one room, we can have Jews who are Hasidic and Jews with green hair. From families to singles to older people, we want to be a model for the community and to create a connection across generations,” Berkowitz said.

Adena Berkowitz, the co-founder of Kol HaNeshamah, is also the author of a book on Judaism.

In 2008, Berkowitz co-founded Kol HaNeshamah (meaning “the voice of the soul”) with Cantor Ari Klein and Lauren Klein. While working within the Jewish tradition, Berkowitz said they wanted to create an environment where everyone can feel at home.

Berkowitz, who has a J.D. degree from Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law and a doctorate in Jewish studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary, describes herself as the “scholar in residence” at Kol HaNeshamah. In addition to her work at the congregation, she is also a visiting lecturer at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.

A life-long resident of the Upper West Side, Berkowitz, 51, lives there with her husband Rabbi Zev Brenner and their five children ranging in age from 7 to 17: Menachem Leib, Lizzy, Pammy, Aderet and Jessica.

She is a co-author with Rivka Haut of Shaarei Simcha: Gates of Joy, a book of traditional Jewish prayers, songs and rituals. The book, which was published in 2007, is about inclusiveness, a goal she said she hopes is achieved at Kol HaNeshamah.

At first, Kol HaNeshamah offered free High Holiday services. They now also provide Friday night services. Recently, the congregation moved to 805 Columbus Ave. “As we are an Orthodox organization/congregation, we adhere to Jewish law. Therefore, we have a separation between the sexes at prayer services and we don’t use musical instruments during the service,” she explained. Yet, the service is not without music—an a cappella group led by musician Mo Kiss performs.

Kol HaNeshamah also provides classes for children and adults in groups or individually. “If people want to learn, then they can have one-on-one classes in their office,” she said. And the center hosts lifecycle events like a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or a baby-naming ceremony.

The West Side has “so many incredible institutions and many synagogues that do so much for the neighbors,” Berkowitz said. Yet, there are many Jews in the neighborhood who are unaffiliated with any religious institution. “There are many Jews who were once involved in the Jewish community but for some reason or another they dropped out,” she said. Berkowitz said she hopes the open atmosphere at Kol HaNeshamah encourages the unaffiliated to reconnect with their heritage.

After Friday night services, the congregation hosts a hot Kiddush. “People who might not have a Sabbath meal in their own home, have the opportunity to have one with us,” she said. Both the service and the meal are free. “We do this to be as welcoming as possible—that’s really, overall,what our mission is,” Berkowitz said. “We try to create a sense of community.”

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