'This Shows We're Back': Praying Again at Tribeca Synagogue, Al Fresco

Rabbi Jonathan Glass, left, and fellow worhshippers prepare to begin a morning service in the Tribeca Synagogue plaza. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jul. 13, 2020

The chanting voices of prayer rose above the din of White Street traffic last week as 10 men stood in the Tribeca Synagogue plaza, socially distanced, masked, and cheered by the chance to gather again for their ritual morning service that, for months, had been on pause.

Finally, a bit of religious life is returning to this local Jewish institution.

“It means everything to me,” said Ken Paskar, a 15-year synagogue member who stood beside a table with prayer books, hand sanitizer and facemarks. “This is the beginning of a process of healing, and a process of people beginning to connect with each other again.”

While the synagogue, like most houses of worship, is hardly up and running as normal, Rabbi Jonathan Glass and the Orthodox synagogue’s president, Eli Weiss, determined that morning prayers, at least, could be held safely in the plaza, beneath the structure’s pear-shaped facade.

“There’s been a feeling of emptiness, lack of structure, for a long long time, and a lot of trepidation about the future,” Glass said following the morning service. “And the fact that we were able to bring [the service] to fruition today—to see that we could set up and people would accept it—gives us hope that there’s a future for the synagogue.”

Still, it’s going to take work this summer, the rabbi said. Orthodox Judaism requires a minyan, or quorum, of at least 10 adult men for the service, and rounding them up these days is a challenge. Some regulars are older and not ready to return, Glass noted, while others, civil servants who work in the area, have yet to go back to their offices.

“I’m literally rebuilding this minyan from the ground up,” Glass said, “and it’s not easy.”

Though members can now legally meet inside, “leadership felt we needed to go above and beyond the call of duty, especially because we had this outdoor option,” Glass said, “and there are doveners [people who pray] at the service who will not go to an indoor minyan.”

Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, is an important part of the daily service that for Orthodox Jews requires at least a 10-man minyan. So for Neil Wallin, 60, being able to pray with his fellow congregants now has special meaning.

“Not only was I looking forward to [morning prayer] as a social nucleus to our Jewish life in Downtown Manhattan, but I’m also observing a year of mourning for my father,” he said, adding that when the mandated daily ritual is taken away “is when you really appreciate having it.”

Happy events, too, can now be observed. On this day, the rabbi performed the ritual of announcing the Hebrew name of a newborn, who happened to be his own granddaughter (Daniella Libby) and calling his son-in-law, Elchanan Mordechai, to the Torah—the scroll containing the five books of the Bible—which was followed by a modified bit of festivity. 

“Feel free to sing,” the rabbi told the men, “but we will not gather to dance, obviously, under the circumstances.”

“This shows that we’re back, and people can come here and do their life cycle events,” Glass said after the service. “Without that, without the people, this building is just a shell.”