Manhattan's most fashionable club

Only the hippest, richest, slickest New Yorkers need apply for membership of Manhattan's most fashionable club. Oh, and they have to be Jewish, too. David Usborne meets the SoHo synagogue set

"Dovi has the vibe," says Eran Lot, leaning against a granite counter-top in the kitchen of a fabulously trendy second-floor loft at 420 West Broadway in Manhattan's SoHo district. It's an address that is also home to the DKNY store and, until recently, a two-level apartment owned the actor Meg Ryan. "He is really a great person, and the right person to be doing this."

What Lot is talking about is printed across the front of his T-shirt, proudly worn under a natty leather jacket and teamed with designer sunglasses. The slogan reads simply "The SoHo Synagogue". This is also the main reason why he and some 200 sleekly dressed guests have come here for the evening - to eat kosher food, drink Grey Goose cocktails and schmooze, but mostly to support Dovi and the synagogue plan.

The dream of Rabbi Dovi Scheiner, a skinny 28-year-old, is straightforward enough. Growing numbers of young, successful Jews have been moving recently to downtown Manhattan - to Tribeca, for instance, where he and his wife, Esty, 23, now live, and to SoHo. But opportunities for worship here are very limited. Indeed, SoHo does not have a single synagogue. It never has. So he plans to establish one.

But the project is attracting attention for another reason. Scheiner, who married Esty on 11 September 2001, just after the twin towers of the World Trade Centre had crumbled, wants the synagogue to occupy a space like this one - a loft in SoHo, among its parades of boutiques and bistros. And because most of the Jews migrating to the area are like the guests at this party - young, club-going, fashionable - he want his to be a hip synagogue. More complicated still, he wants it to be hip, but Orthodox in its worship.

"We call it a boutique synagogue," says Scheiner, whose attire is a casual Polo shirt, but worn with the Tallith strings of a Hasidic Jew. "You might have to RSVP. There might be a roped line. It will totally be a scene. But it's all kosher."

If things work out the way he imagines, SoHo's new synagogue will be as hard to get into as some of its more successful nightclubs. If he has bouncers, it may not be religious zeal they'll be checking out, but the label on your jeans.

Dovi and Esty's unlikely venture began on the day they were married. Of course, they hesitated to go forward with the ceremony on the day of the carnage at the World Trade Centre. But, for all devout Jews, scrapping a wedding ceremony is about as serious a decision as they can take. On the advice of a senior rabbi that they really had no choice, and that they would be bringing a speck of joy to a city on the worst of its days, they went ahead. Soon afterwards, they decided to leave Brooklyn where they had both grown up and move to Chambers Street in Tribeca, just yards from ground zero.

They quickly set about creating the "scene" he now alludes to. They began by opening their apartment to Shabbat dinners every Friday night to any Jews - Orthodox, conservative, Reform, observant or entirely lapsed - who felt like coming. Soon, the dinners were not enough. They held cocktail parties and buffet dinners, especially on Jewish holidays, and the numbers attending quickly swelled as news of their social shindigs spread through the young Jewish set of lower Manhattan.

Then into their lives came Tony and Katrin Sosnick, who had just moved downtown, although a few blocks to the north in SoHo. They loved what Dovi was doing, but suggested that if Jews were to keep gathering in this way, then they might as well do it in a place where they really belonged - a synagogue. And, as it did not have one, why not do it right here in SoHo?

Planning is now well advanced. Several months ago, work started on the handwritten Torah - a scroll of Hebrew teachings - that must be at the heart of every Jewish synagogue. It has already been dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks. Briefly revealing the stature of his contacts in this city, Scheiner reveals that the task of writing the first letter on the scroll was given to the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg.

They apparently also have a considerable chest of money, thanks in a large part to 10 "founding members" who have already donated $100,000 (£55,000) each to the enterprise. All that really remains to be done is to find the appropriate space.

The hunt is on. Scheiner envisages a large open loft, probably above a retail outlet - indeed, much like the venue of this party, except that this apartment is already occupied by Ohad Maiman, a young painter, photographer and entertainment impresario, who has loaned it to Scheiner for this one evening. With luck, they hope to find somewhere and get it ready, Torah and all, in time for the Jewish high holidays in October this year.

Many of those attending this party seem exactly to fit the profile of the future synagogue celebrants Scheiner has in mind. They consider themselves Jewish and are more or less serious about their faith, but most haven't been to synagogue in years.

Lot, who is originally from Israel and who works investing in properties in Brooklyn and selling them again on the rising house market, never thought about returning to regular worship until he heard about the SoHo Synagogue - to which, he says, he will be going.

So will Netta Korin, a slender woman with black hair over her shoulders, whose professional hours are filled running a Wall Street hedge fund. She met the Scheiners only a year ago, but was so moved by their mission that she agreed to become a founder member of the synagogue and wrote the $100,000 cheque. She had tried uptown synagogues when she lived on the Upper East Side, but never felt welcome. "If you walk in off the street, they are more likely to ask what you are doing there," she says. Besides, these days she is a downtown person. "I don't go above 14th Street on a daily basis, and I am certainly not going to go above 14th Street for religion," she says.

The loft feel won't be the only different thing about the synagogue, Scheiner explains. Services will be short: "What we won't have is two hours of muttering in Hebrew." And you can forget about traditional wooden pews. "Most synagogues are filled with benches. Have you ever had a good bench experience? Why can't you create a lounge synagogue, maybe with love-seats and couches and comfortable chairs and make it comfortable for everybody?"

Scheiner imagines coffee tables, too, with reading material for anyone who feels bored, although the literature will be of religious content. The services themselves will last 30 to 40 minutes maximum, with time for socialising afterwards.

"The root of this is that synagogues have lost their attraction, by and large," Scheiner says. "More and more Jews are frightened of what they see as institutionalised Judaism and they won't set foot in a traditional synagogue, and that is something we have known for a while." That is especially true among the brick façades and iron fire-escapes of SoHo. "Our assumption is that there are not many people waking up in SoHo saying, 'When am I going to the synagogue today?' But we want to change that."

You'd be forgiven for thinking that Scheiner's scheme is as much about arranging dating nights among Jews as offering them a chance to rekindle their faith. Indeed, he admits that the greatest challenge will be in mixing the freewheeling atmosphere he means to create with the Orthodox Judaism that he, as the future rabbi, means to instil in the synagogue. Can his Hasidic background mix with his hipster sensibility? "There lies the question, and it is a huge one."

But he thinks he can make it happen. "If we hadn't had the advance work of the past two years, then we wouldn't have had a prayer. But now we have a strong base of people who trust us. The challenge is exhilarating, but if we say to them that we are going in a traditional direction, they will go along with it."

Nothing will illustrate the seeming contradiction at the heart of SoHo Synagogue than the probable furniture arrangements. Those love-seats and couches will be arranged in two separate areas, because for Scheiner, it goes without question that while worship is being conducted the women shall be segregated from the men, as the teachings demand.

For one person here this evening, the resident of the apartment, Ohad Maiman, that may be too much. His girlfriend is Dutch, and not Jewish. "There is no way I can take her to a synagogue and tell her she has to sit separately from me."

Tony Sosnick, who first raised the idea of a synagogue with Scheiner, is himself a Reform Jew but has embraced the Orthodox direction the venture is taking. He alludes to the many clubs that open in this neighbourhood amid a cacophony of media-generated buzz, only to fade months later and vanish. "We want to be hip, to be progressive, but we also want it to be timeless. We don't want a synagogue that's the in-place for a year and then afterwards it loses its momentum."

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