When I stopped by the Stanton Street Shul one day last week, I found Rabbi Josh Yuter alone in the beis midrash, a ground floor study room. He was seated at a long table, working on his laptop computer. A prolific tweeter, blogger and a former applications developer for major corporations, there’s not much doubt Rabbi Yuter has embraced the digital revolution. Taking a break from preparations for Rosh Hashonah (which begins at sundown tonight) he spoke with me about his online endeavors, but more importantly, about the Stanton Street Shul’s unique place on the Lower East Side.
Rabbi Yuter was ordained from Yeshiva University in 2003. He also holds a B.A. in Computer Science, as well as degrees in Talmudic Studies and Social Sciences. He writes about Judaism and Jewish culture on his blog, Yutopia, created JewishGuitarChords.com and has 1,127 Twitter followers. Early on, Yuter told me, he viewed his online writings as a way of “keeping (himself) accoutable.” But over time, the internet has been an effective way to take part in a spirited debate with a global community of Jewish opinion makers.
At the Stanton Street Shul, spirited debate is not a new concept. Rabbi Yuter believes the congregation’s great diversity is what makes it a special place. Fairly stunning differences in age, economic status and observance levels have created an “atmosphere of openness.” Yuter told me it’s almost impossible to feel “out of place,” in the synagogue. He noted that among the dozen or so synagogues on the Lower East Side, it’s probably perceived as “left wing.” But there’s “no left wing agenda,” he added, and Stanton Street is still an Orthodox synagogue guided by Jewish law.
Yuter said the Stanton Street Shul has been shaped by “a certain Lower East Side stubbornness.” Several years ago, the congregation rebelled against the former rabbi, Joseph Singer, who wanted to close the synagogue, one of the last remaining tenement shuls in the city. Having prevailed, they set about repairing the endangered building, almost brick by brick.
As we walked through the sanctuary, Yuter showed me the progress that has been made in restoring a series of murals. A few years ago, major repairs were completed on the roof. But there’s obviously a lot more to do. “We are not a wealthy synagogue,” he said. “We do what we can, when we can.”
As we mentioned last week, the Stanton Street Shul is opening its doors once again this year for free High Holiday services. You can see our previous post here.