On a recent Saturday evening, with the late summer sun setting behind them, about 50 adults and children squeezed around long tables, snacking on challah rolls, tortilla chips, hummus, baby carrots and grapes. After a bit of boisterous socializing, their voices rose with “Mizmor L’David” to the vaulted ceilings of the sanctuary at Minyan Ohr Chadash, Seward Park’s newest spiritual community.
The Shabbat of July 5 marked the birth of Ohr Chadash, which means “new light” in Hebrew. Started by five families who decided to split from Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath, the Modern Orthodox minyan arranged to use a room at the Caroline Kline Galland Home. But when the first Shabbat saw a turnout of nearly 100, the group’s leaders realized they would need to make a new plan.
On August 30, Ohr Chadash celebrated its first Shabbat in its new home, the social hall of the Vietnamese Presbyterian Church on the corner of 51st Avenue and Brighton Street.
“We were worried when we started, would anybody come?” said founding member Piera Willner. “It just shows there was a need.”
The regular crowd has settled to around 50 or 60 participants who appreciate the intimacy and participatory atmosphere. Many families were longtime members of BCMH.
“BCMH is in its 123rd year. It’s the oldest established Orthodox synagogue [in the region], and there are prescribed ways of doing things,” said Willner. “There was a group of us that, within the lines of halachah [Jewish law], wanted changes, and those changes couldn’t happen at BCMH.”
Among those changes are a wood and glass mechitzah, the divider between the men’s and women’s sections, as opposed to the traditional setup of women in the balcony. During the Torah processional, the Torah is marched around to the women’s side. Women and teens can give divrei Torah — short speeches about the weekly Torah portion after Shabbat morning services — a role typically left to the men.
“The Torah coming over to the women’s side is a huge thing,” said Willner. “It makes a big difference. And it’s not possible at BCMH.”
Ohr Chadash counts among its regulars BCMH’s former rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, and his wife, Rivy Poupko Kletenik. Kletenik’s contract with BCMH ended June 30 of this year.
That particular Shabbat afternoon, Kletenik was giving a short talk on the concept of teshuva, or repentance. Rivy Kletenik, who used to lead well-attended classes at BCMH on Shabbat afternoons, conducted a series of High Holiday preparation classes for the new minyan.
Willner is excited to have the rabbi involved.
“We didn’t know until we became public if he would join us,” she said. “He really has brought his knowledge and know-how.”
Minyan Ohr Chadash meets on Shabbat and holidays for all services. Services are lay led. Willner says the minyan’s future is still being written.
“We know we have a lease for a year,” she said. “We just want to keep doing what we’re doing as best as we can and figure it out as we go. It’s working right now. I couldn’t have told you what it would look like nine weeks ago.”
Ohr Chadash leaders managed to put together High Holiday services with lay leaders, guest speakers, and childcare while arranging the new space, which required rabbinic approval because it is attached to a church. Over the weekend of October 11, it will host its first scholar in residence, Rabbi Daniel Landes, director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Landes will give several lectures about the interactions and tensions between rabbinic sages, and how they shaped Jewish history.
The largest constituency of Ohr Chadash is adults with grown children, but younger families and couples such as Willner and her husband are attracted to its vibrancy and sense of partnership.
“I’ve become way more religious!” Willner said. “I go to shul a lot more.”
Adrienne Query-Fiss, another younger member, said her attraction to Ohr Chadash “was about making change in a place that felt so resistant to making change.”
Query-Fiss is happy to have found a place she feels comfortable raising her infant son. “I started to feel like there was a voice — maybe it wasn’t mine — but it was people like me.”
Carlos Alcabes, a member of Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation, attended Ohr Chadash with his wife, Meryl, because when it met at Kline Galland it was close to his house. He now attends every Shabbat and hosted kiddush at their home all summer.
“I really like the singing. I like the fact that women are not so far away that they cannot see the service and participate,” he said. “You feel you count.”
“In the past eight weeks of creating this, we’ve become close with these families,” said Willner. “I step back and think, we really created a community.”