On a chilly Sunday night last week, just across the street from the U.N., New York City moms and dads and their preschoolers, museum patrons and smartly attired professionals–some 150 in all, steaming cups of cocoa in hand, listened intently as Rabbi Shmuel and Raizy Metzger talked with them about Chanukah and its timeless message.
The children made their way on a horse-drawn carriages through Chabad of Upper Midtown’s Chanukah journey. Taxis careened round the horse-drawn buggy as it passed by the U.N. and other neighborhood landmarks, and trotted along with the art deco Chrysler Building gleaming on the skyline.
For two years, Chabad here, an affiliate of Chabad of Midtown and Rabbi Yehoshua Metzger, has been building the one thing that this group of sophisticated, well educated and well off New Yorkers say they lacked: Jewish community.
Joseph King, co-host of WBAI’s Personal Computer Radio Show, has rarely missed a week at Chabad since his first service in 2006. It’s the warmth that brings him back, he said. “We talk like old friends and family. A guy showed up after three, four weeks of being away, it was like hugging an old friend. I am not used to that happening in this neighborhood.”
What the neighborhood, better known by its main drags Sutton Place and Beekman Place, is accustomed to are: UN motorcades, nannies, and jogging along the East River. But if all goes well, their will be a new feature in the neighborhood–a building for the Chabad center. The Metzgers, whose Chabad Center was launched by a grant from the Rohr Family Foundation, recently received a substantial funding commitment from an anonymous donor, enough to kick off a capital campaign.
The center will serve the estimated 15,000 Jewish people in the area who work long hours at demanding jobs and return home to apartments shielded by doormen. Getting to know the neighbors is a challenge that the Metzgers are meeting in ways not readily associated with choosy New Yorkers.
Dr. Ariane Sylva, PhD, LCSW, still chuckles when she recalls how she met the Metzgers. Searching the shelves of Food Emporium for her preferred brand of gefilte fish, Dr. Sylva, a psychotherapist in private practice, noticed Rabbi Metzger sitting at Chabad's Kosher Awareness table in the kosher section. She stopped to chat, and promised to call if she knew of any open apartments in the area. That meeting in the supermarket formed the basis for friendship.
“I sincerely like them as human beings,” said Dr. Sylva. “I help people as part of my profession. I have tremendous respect for people who are doing something that is serving humanity, something that shines and moves their lives forward in a very positive way.”
Other community members have discovered the Metzgers at the Chabad table at the local farmers’ market. Raizy has met moms at the playground at the park. From these friendships, the Metzgers discovered where their programs were needed most. Empty nesters needed a place to gather and feel part of a community, and parents of young children were looking for fun, high quality Jewish experiences for their children.
Two of Chabad’s most popular programs cater to the sippy cup and diaper set. At Jewish Toddlers’ Book Club, kids ages two to four settle in for a reading of a Jewish children’s book, dance and create crafts related to the tale. Bagel Babies offers Jewish stories and songs for one to two year olds, with guided infant massage sessions to soothe the little critters and their caregivers. Chabad's Beekman Hebrew School offers a weekly Jewish experience for children.
The Metzger's holiday events for families have been especially successful. Most magical of all, say community members, is when the various demographics of Sutton Place overcome their niches at Chabad events. It’s then the fault lines between the lives of these New Yorkers fade, said King, “and it feels like family very quickly.”