July 14, 2024
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Reaching New Heights at Mount Sinai Jewish Center

Walking into the Mount Sinai shul at the corner of Bennett Avenue and 187th Street in Washington Heights, the first thing that strikes you is how the shul is simultaneously historic and vibrant. Those dual vibes may seem paradoxical, but, in fact, they are the very fabric from which this 110-year-old synagogue has been woven.

The name of the shul alone conveys its very rich history: Mount Sinai Jewish Center of Congregation Mr. Sinai Anshe Emeth and Emes Wozedek of Washington Heights, Inc. and Congregation Beth Hillel and Beth Israel.

“It is an amalgam of a number of shuls that have been absorbed over the years,” Mount Sinai president Moshe Berow told The Jewish Link. “Mount Sinai merged with Anshei Emeth in 1917 and over the years it absorbed Emes Wozedek. In the ‘90s we incorporated Beth Hillel and Beth Israel which had joined together several years earlier.”

Mount Sinai, which sprawls from Bennett Avenue all the way until Broadway on 187th Street, has been at its current location since 1959. While so many other synagogues in the area dissolved in the ‘70s and ‘80s as the Jewish community moved out of the Heights in droves, Mount Sinai has managed not just to survive but to flourish as an influx of younger people rediscovered the advantages of living on Manhattan’s northern end.

“Around the year 2001, the rents here were very, very cheap,” explained Berow. “It was much more reasonable than the West Side and a lot of places in Brooklyn, and many people moved here after they finished college. We are right on the 1 and the A train and are a half hour to Midtown and any train in New York City. A lot of students at Columbia moved here also because it is a relatively short walk to the medical center.”

Berow credited long-time Washington Heights residents for attracting their new neighbors to Mount Sinai.

“When some of the older generation saw the younger people moving into one of the buildings across the street, they invited them to come daven at the shul,” said Berow. “They had their own minyan in the building and the group grew from 15 to 20 people to what is now a group of several hundred members.”

Over time, the two minyanim joined together, with many of the younger residents taking on leadership roles in the shul, working hand in hand with the synagogue’s long-term members. As Mount Sinai’s membership has evolved, it has expanded its services and currently offers a wide range of shiurim for both men and women, a scholars-in-residence program, Shabbos hospitality for visitors, meals for new mothers, challah-baking fundraisers and a full range of children’s programming including a kids’ minyan. The shul, which completed a renovation of its lower level in 2014, also runs many community-oriented programs. An annual Light Up the Heights program, held each year around Chanukah, is a joint program with the local JCC that combines volunteerism with food and music, and Mt. Sinai partners with Dorot at least once a year to deliver packages to the elderly. During Hurricane Sandy, the community hosted over 200 college students and dozens of families who were without electricity, and Mt. Sinai opened its doors to host a post-Sandy wedding that was flooded out, stepping in to save the day with less than 36-hours notice.

Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, who took on the position as the shul’s senior rabbi after the retirement of Rabbi Dr. Mordecai Schnaidman in 2009, supervises the Mount Sinai eruv, which is checked weekly by volunteers and adjoins the Yeshiva University eruv. Mount Sinai also has its own yoetzet halacha, Mrs. Dena Block, one of only 17 certified female advisors in America who are available to counsel women on personal issues.

Because Mt. Sinai offers both the young and the young at heart opportunities to take on pivotal roles, Berow views the synagogue as an incubator for tomorrow’s leadership.

“Since before I got here, Mount Sinai has been a place where current young leaders can make their home, hone their skills and learn how to be effective leaders in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community,” said Berow. “My goal is to get this message out so that young people who are finishing college and graduate school will know that Mount Sinai is a place where people like them can come to develop their skills.”

Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and many private clients. She can be contacted at [email protected].

By Sandy Eller

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