(New York Jewish Week) — The founder of a Manhattan synagogue known for its fast growth and mystical vibe has been hired to lead Jewish programming at the venerable 92nd Street Y.
Rabbi David Ingber, the founding rabbi of Romemu on the Upper West Side, will serve in the new role of “Senior Director of Jewish Life.” In an announcement, the Y said his appointment is part of a plan “to revitalize our Jewish Life programming” at one of the city’s best-known cultural venues.
“It’s a great opportunity. I’m super excited about it,” Ingber said in an interview Wednesday, adding that leaders of the Upper East Side institution appear to be “very open and excited to bring innovation and creativity to the 92nd Street Y.”
Both Ingber and those leaders are confident that a self-described “spiritual entrepreneur” will be a good fit for a nearly 150-year-old Jewish institution better known for hosting chamber orchestras and best-selling authors than religious services.
“I’m excited to take the energy of a startup, the energy of innovation — the energy of ‘let’s try this and see what works’ — and bring it to a kind of legacy institution,” Ingber said. He noted that Romemu, founded in 2006, has itself become more institutional, with some 1,000 members, a team of clergy and educators, an egalitarian yeshiva and locations on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn.
“What’s particularly appealing about David is that he has a track record of not only thinking in innovative ways but translating that innovation into reality,” said Seth Pinsky, the Y’s CEO. “He not only imagined building an institution but actually built an institution.”
Ingber’s hire comes soon after a major rebranding in May that saw the “92nd Street Y” become “The 92nd Street Y, New York” — a city-centric makeover reflected in a new logo reading “92NY.” (The “Y” formerly stood for “Young Men’s Hebrew Association.”) 92NY has also raised $11 million toward a $15 million Fund for the Jewish Future meant to expand its Jewish programming and “engage those who are often disengaged from Jewish life.”
The fund, like Ingber’s hire, is a doubling-down on Jewish programming already being run by 92NY’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, headed in recent years by Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, its director emeritus. Ingber will also become the center’s senior director, while Rabbi Joui Hessel, currently the interim director of the Bronfman Center, will be promoted to director.
Although 92NY has always had Jewish programming, Pinsky describes the new push as a matter of messaging and mission.
“Part of this is being more public and out-front about our Jewish identity,” said Pinsky. “And as an organization that straddles the line between religion and culture, with a history of being welcoming and nonjudgmental of people regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs, we are particularly well-placed to build bridges to the cohort that is unaffiliated and disconnected” from Jewish life.
Romemu, a non-denominational, egalitarian synagogue, has attracted such seekers on the basis of Ingber’s charisma and musical services that draw on Judaism’s mystical traditions and Eastern spiritual practices. Ingber was ordained by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the late founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, which owes a debt to the 1960s counterculture as well as the emotional approaches to prayer of Hasidic Jews.
Ingber will continue to lead services, among other duties, at Romemu, even after the new job starts on Jan. 15. (“I love leading prayer, I love leading ritual, I love preaching, and I love teaching the things that I want,” Ingber explained.) He said the board at Romemu “has been incredibly supportive of this move.” The day-to-day operations will be handled by Romemu’s clergy and professional team.
Ingber, who lives on the Upper West Side, is no stranger to the 92NY neighborhood. Growing up in Great Neck, Long Island, he commuted to Ramaz, the Modern Orthodox day school on East 85th St. Many of his classmates belonged to Kehilath Jeshurun, the prominent synagogue closely affiliated with Ramaz. Later he studied both at Yeshiva University and New York University, and was ordained by Schachter-Shalomi in 2004.
Ingber doesn’t see a wide divide between his congregants on the West Side and Brooklyn and 92NY’s clientele, although he acknowledges people have different expectations from a synagogue than they do for a Jewish community center.
“People who walk through a synagogue door are looking, by definition, for the synagogue environment,” he said. “What I’m excited about is that no matter who walks through the doors of the 92nd Street Y, my assumption is that there’s something within the Jewish tradition that will speak to them and make their lives more enriched in some profound way.”
Synagogues and Jewish community centers have sometimes seen each other as competitors, but Ingber said there is no intention to “take anyone away” from any other institution. “My position at the 92nd Street Y is additive and not subtractive. We’re trying to bring more to those who are already coming through the doors and who would otherwise not be going to other synagogues and other places.”
“By and large,” he added, “I think all Jewish institutions are together collectively fighting the fight for the relevancy of Judaism and its endless potential to make life more meaningful, more beautiful and more connected. So we’re all on the same team.”
Ingber is also committed to programming around Israel, which has over the years devolved from a unifying force among American Jews to an often polarizing one. “Israel is absolutely a core piece of Jewish identity,” he said. “We will have to continue to be involved in conversations about the beauty of Israel, the complexity of Israel, the relationship between Israel and the diaspora, and Israel and America. All of those conversations are part of the [Y’s] platform already, and they’ll continue to be.”
Like most Jewish community centers, 92NY has a fitness center, which Ingber says also fits into his vision for Jewish community.
“I had a background teaching pilates and gyrotonics and all these kinds of body things,” he said. “And when we started Romemu, we were originally called ‘Judaism for body, mind and spirit.’ That was the original logo. And the 92nd Street Y is fundamentally a space for culture, for body, for heart and for spirit. It’s very exciting to bring these two communities into conversation that way.”