Lincoln Square Synagogue, the iconic Modern Orthodox Congregation on the upper West Side of Manhattan, founded by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in 1964 ended its 43 year stay in its unique and often times controversial home at 200 Amsterdam Avenue with words of both sadness and hope as it moved to its new home nearby.
The current building, constructed in 1970, became the focal point of the upper West Side in the 1970’s and 80’s as tens of thousands of single men and women flocked to the neighborhood with hopes of meeting a “special person” in their lives. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the founding Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue along with Cantor Sherwood Goffin affectionately also known as the “Chaz”, Rabbi Herschel Cohen and Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, created a brand that appealed to the West Side singles community. In the 70’s it was common for the Shul to have hundreds of single men and women waiting on line to enter the synagogue on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
It was also then, the synagogue received its nickname” Wink and Stare”. This was due to the unique Mechitza separation between the men and women section of the sanctuary.. The multi-leveled “Mechitza”, halachically correct according to Jewish Law, afforded the men and women a birds-eye view of each other. This factor caused much disagreement in the more traditional Jewish community for decades and caused the more “right wing” Orthodox community to stay away from the Shul.
Also in the 1960’s and the 70’s, the Shul became the epicenter of Jewish activism with organizations such as the “Students Struggle for Soviet Jewry.” Demonstrations by thousands were planned at Lincoln Square. All of the above, albeit important, was overshadowed by the most important activity of Lincoln Square Synagogue — that being it’s Jewish Outreach center built by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, affectionately called “The Beginners Minyan.” Thousands of Jewish and not yet Jewish men and women attended and were transformed by Rabbi Buchwald’s Beginners Minyan. The “famous classroom” on the second floor became home to seekers of faith including New York’s actors and actresses, real estate, Wall Street, political and legal decision makers.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s fame also brought the masses to the synagogue with his Wednesday night lecture series that attracted overflow crowds. A series of lectures on Jewish attitudes toward sexuality had the crowds lining up around the corner and into video screened secondary halls. Rabbi Riskin’s departure from Lincoln Square to become the chief rabbi of his newly built community in Efrat left a void. Numerous top Rabbis tried to fill this void including, Rabbi Saul Berman, Rabbi Simcha Weinberg and Rabbi Adam Mintz. It was not however until the current Rabbi Shaul Robinson arrived in 2005 that the synagogue took on a new persona quite different than that of Rabbi Riskin.
A population shift in the late 1990s and early 2000s caused many of the young singles who attended the synagogue to move further uptown to West 80th Street and northwards and reduced the significant singles population of the synagogue. Lincoln Square lost its larger numbers and became more of a “family” synagogue.
In approximately 2006, a real estate developer offered the synagogue a unique deal. The synagogue was built on land that could be zoned for high rise development while the land just a few doors south could not be more than four stories high. The developer would pay Lincoln Square $19 million plus a free plot of land if it would vacate the present establishment and move a bit further south.
The Board accepted this deal and plans commenced for a new building. The building broke ground in 2007 but the ensuing economic downturn nearly destroyed the plans and would have left the synagogue homeless as the cost of rebuilding skyrocketed to over $50 million. In 2011, after numerous work stoppages and as Rabbi Shaul Robinson stated, “moments of utter despair”, an anonymous donor emerged who gave the synagogue over $20 million, thus affording it the ability to complete the construction.
Shabbat, January 12, marked the last full service in the old structure. The sanctuary was filled with friends and congregants of the past years bidding farewell to their old home. The beautiful and well known voice of Cantor Sherwood Goffin resounded throughout the sanctuary with the tunes of Shabbat and the Hallel service for Rosh Chodesh.
On Sunday January 13, a rare and touching ceremony took place as the current building was “deconsecrated” and the Torah Scrolls removed from the Ark and taken to the new structure. Cantor Sherwood Goffin delivered a poetic farewell address and Rabbi Shaul Robinson and others delivered words of Torah as part of the ceremony. The Jewish laws about abandoning a synagogue are quite strict. One may not give away a house of worship until there is another to move to.
All who were present took one last look at the home that had made such a great impact on the Jewish community over the years and the Torah scrolls that moved out the doors of the old building in a procession amidst much dancing and singing, to the new building just a few hundred feet away at 180 Amsterdam Avenue. A Mezuzah was affixed on the doorpost of the new building by community scholar Elana Stein Hain and the procession entered the building for the opening program.
Numerous community leaders, clergy and political leaders were present including Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Congressman Jerrold Nadler.
The Shehecheyanu prayer was recited along with Psalms, followed by remarks by Rabbi Shaul Robinson and community leader Elana Stein Hain. The first service in the synagogue then commenced with Mincha.
The new Lincoln Square Synagogue is the largest synagogue to be built in New York City in 50 years. The sanctuary, quite different from the old, is constructed in a more “establishment” style with the Mechiztah separation more evident. It will hold 429 congregants. The building also has a large catering establishment which will be serviced by Prime Grill Caterers of New York.
The Shul will have many opportunities as well as face many challenges, as the new structure will be able to house expanded activities at the same time that many of the younger families and singles have moved to other venues. Many have asked whether a new synagogue of this size is viable in an already crowded upper West Side Synagogue situation. If history has a say in the matter, Lincoln Square Synagogue will prosper. This was the place where a lot of innovation and precedents started in the Modern Orthodox world including the dancing with a Sefer Torah by women on Simchat Torah. The Beginners Minyan is vibrant and the Rabbi and staff are top notch. The new Lincoln Square may again become “The Place” to be.