Monday, October 7, 2013

My Visit to Washington Heights

On Sunday, I stopped off at Breuer's for schacharis. I have been to the community once or twice before over the years but never with an eye for joining. In the past, it was a curiosity.

Would this yield something good or would it be disappointing? 

Oh my goodness, what a wonderful morning it was. First of all, I was impressed by the neighborhood. Where I live in New Jersey, you have a lot of fiberglass shingled houses that don't age very well. The newer buildings all have fake facades. You can't imagine them standing up to a good wind.

Conversely, upper Manhattan is built like a castle. Hurricane? No problem. Big bricks buildings with pretty designs all around them. It was impressive. The view of the Hudson and cliff rocks are attractive too.

I noted also that the A train takes you right you to Breuers, 2.5 shorts blocks away.

The outside of the shul is nice. It's not ornate like the upper East side synagogues, which are pre-War. Architecture changed vastly after the War, where beuax-arts seemed to go out of favor. But is isn't bland. It has a certain humble grandeur to it. Maybe dignity is the word. I don't own an architect's vocabulary, so I may not use the right words here, but the area around the steps, where the building juts out into an alcove, gives some dimension to it. The brick is classic color rather than the white or colored brick that in my view doesn't age very well. The brick has aged well. There is some nice design in the brick. There are some concrete or perhaps granite ornaments. I can never tell the difference. The iron fence gives you the Buckingham palace feel. In the suburbs it's all plastic. The reliefs of the tablets and menorahs give a nice decorative touch. There's a simplicity to it, a humility even. Yet it's sort of grand, if only by sheer size. I liked it.

Inside is really special. The shul has perfect proportions. I have seen shuls with odd shapes. This one was done really well, from the main area, to the lady's balcony. Really well done. The architect knew his stuff.

The aron kodesh is just beautiful. A dark mahogany wood. Not overly ornate like in so many shuls. It's quite large but not too much. Just right for the building. To either side are strips of blue glass. Again, not too much, but adding color. 

The whole room is grand yet cozy.

Most importantly, the people were the same. On the way up the stairs a gentleman greeted me and chatted a bit. Within 10 minutes, I was greeted by three more that asked if I needed anything. A Hirsch Chumash I said. He went and quickly got one. One sometimes hears that Germans have a reputation for being cold. Actually, I have not found that over the years even by gentile Germans. Rather, I have found them to be fairly friendly. Same here. I think the whole thing is a kenard. But more there was a manner of civility. It was noticeable. I don't know if I ever have had more people come up to me than I did here, certainly not in the span of 10 minutes.

One gentleman talked to me for about twenty minutes about the community once I told him of my interest. He gave me little tips about the minhagim, sensing that they would be knew to me.

We were talking about customs regarding milk and meat, the 3 hours. He said R' Schwab advised 6. I asked why and he called over another gentleman that R' Hirsch suggests the same in Horeb.

I couldn't believe I was having a discussion where the textual reference to a halachkic discussion was Horeb and not Mishneh Berurah. Note, they do have a MB class there.

I had my very worn copy of the Hirsch siddur with me, the one I have been carrying for 25 years, the first siddur I ever bought, the one with black tape on the side. So I didn't need their siddurim. Neverthless, I was over the moon to see a wall of Hirsch siddurim. A man who was grabbing a siddur of his own, an Artscroll, joked to me, 'feels like sacrilege.' I didn't understand. 'Using an Artscroll here,' he explained. I laughed.

The place was in good shape and very organized. The light switches are all numbered and color coded. The books are in order. The front door contains a neat and clean sign with times for davening and classes. 

There was only one yarzheit light on and checking it I noted that it actually had the day's date. Well the next day's date, it was the 3rd of Cheshvon, while the day was the 2nd. But I wouldn't be surprised at all to find out that they turn on the relevant ones for the whole week.

I certainly got the feel of German Orthodoxy during my little visit. There were shirium going on, yet there was a sense of the complete Judaism, including derech eretz and mitzvot. I was so happy. I raced home to tell my wife. Now I'm telling the world.


  1. Great post, makes me want to go there myself. I'm an old Brooklyn boy, but I never did get around to visiting.

  2. I am curious to know how much Torah Im Derech Eretz they've retained there. Might be difficult to get a sense of that just by visiting, though.

  3. I have the same question. Their website says that they follow TIDE. One man I met there said the same. You problem know about the controversy from 2008 on this very topic. To me, it would be nice but it doesn't matter. TIDE is really from the Gemara. R' Hirsch just laid out a plan for Western societies. We need to come up with an American TIDE, which is different than modern orthodoxy.