ABSTRACT

The advertisement above, spotted on a bus shelter last year across the street from the new Jewish Community Centre on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, draws “natural” connections among Jewish religious observance, consumption, finance, and the changing urban landscape. This chapter looks at the relationship between a shift to Jewish spirituality and late capitalism in the Upper West Side conservative-style synagogue of B’nai Jeshurun or “BJ” as it is known. Since the mid1990s, a time when many synagogues in North America, indeed many congregations more generally, were struggling to maintain members, BJ has been a social phenomenon. There are few other synagogues which can boast of drawing over 2,000 people for every Friday Shabbat service, being a de rigueur stop on the global circuit of Jewish tourism, and being frequently written up in The New York Times for its thriving singles scene. While there are a number of complex explanations for BJ’s popularity, here, drawing on ten

months of ethnographic fieldwork from 2000 to 2001, I discuss an historical moment in which a new interest in Jewish spirituality was supported by neo-liberalising processes in unexpected ways. In the mid-1990s, the two head rabbis at BJ, Rolando Matalon and Marcelo Bronstein, began to focus on what they called “turning inward.” This was in contrast to the previous rabbi, Marshall T. Meyer, who emphasised an activist social justice agenda. The spiritual turn at BJ included many features of what Jeffrey Salkin has described as New Age or spiritual Judaism (Salkin 2003). Many congregants, part of the “generation of seekers” (Roof 1993; Wuthnow 1998), claimed that in BJ they were able to engage in a journey of self-discovery and healing, something they had never expected to find in the setting of a synagogue. With new forms of Jewish spirituality, the membership exploded. Simultaneously, the synagogue’s

president, vice-president, some board members and the rabbis heightened efforts to professionalise the running of the synagogue. Their goal was to replace what had been an organisation driven by volunteers with an organisation that adopted a modified corporate management style, which necessitated a changing attitude toward money.