Maurice Appelbaum is tall, thin and lanky, and stands in the entrance to Greenpoint’s only synagogue, Ahavas Israel, at the end of Noble Street. It’s a frigid afternoon—maybe twenty degrees, not including wind chill—but Appelbaum insists on leaving the door open.
“We want to be welcoming,” Appelbaum says with a smile. “We can’t just close the door.”
This is indicative of Appelbaum’s overall cultural and religious philosophy, and his approach to his brand new position as resident rabbi at Ahavas Israel. He joined the congregation in September of 2009, just three months after graduating from the Modern Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Manhattan. And just four months into his new job, 27-year-old Appelbaum is already beginning to feel at home in Greenpoint, and at Ahavas Israel. A Jewish Orthodox synogague since 1903, Ahavas Israel caters to Jews leaning more towards religiously conservative practices—for example, men and women are seated separately for services—however, one of Appelbaum’s goals is to create a comfortable and welcoming environment for all Jews, including those who consider themselves to be non-religious, or Reform.
“There is an interesting balance here,” Appelbaum said. “We are the only shul [synagogue] in Greenpoint, and we are Orthodox. But our congregants have a broad religious spectrum, and we’re here to create a space that is comfortable for all Jews to come and actualize their individual Jewish journey. We are here to empower them along the way. You shouldn’t have to be boxed in to come here and enjoy services.”
Apart from nurturing a diverse and supportive environment for Jews of all religious backgrounds, Appelbaum is dedicated to cultivating Ahavas Israel as a community space—“it’s not just services here!” he insists—by fostering a variety of educational classes, environmental initiatives and support groups. The Greenpoint Shul offers beginner’s Hebrew classes, Talmud classes and monthly learner’s services, designed to aid Reform congregants in understanding the format of Orthodox services. In addition, Ahavas Israel hosts weekly Cocaine Anonymous meetings; it is the only synagogue in New York City that does so. Appelbaum has expressed his dedication to making sure that Ahavas Israel serves as a safe space for Jews, and their loved ones, who are battling addiction or are in need of support. In the future he hopes to host a variety of support groups, possibly including those for domestic violence and infertility.
“It’s like the story of Noah in Genesis. He was drunk and naked. One son did nothing, but two of his sons covered him over with their own cloaks,” Appelbaum said, referring to a passage in the Torah. “They restored his dignity. That’s what we are doing here—providing dignity. There are many 12-step programs that meet in churches, but Jews have problems too and we should open our doors to those with addiction.”
The 12-step programs are just the beginning for Appelbaum. He has also overseen the planting of the Ahavas Israel garden, spearheaded by two dedicated congregants. The food grown in the garden will be contributed to the Greenpoint Reform Church soup kitchen, via the Greenpoint Interfaith Food Team, of which Ahavas Israel is a member. Appelbaum also hopes to kick off a food lecture series that will include demonstrations and cooking classes—perhaps with an emphasis on kosher food—as well as an arts-and-crafts workshop for kids.
“We’ve got this beautiful space, so let’s use it.” Appelbaum said. “And I’m totally open to other ideas!”
Appelbaum’s involvement in the community certainly isn’t confined to the walls of the synagogue. After Shabbat services he often invites congregants over to his home to share a meal with him, his wife and young daughter.
“Greenpoint has such a small-town community feel to it, right in the middle of New York City,” Appelbaum said. “Sometimes people don’t know what to do with me, because I’m so young. They don’t know what to call me—Maurice? Rabbi Maurice? Rabbi Appelbaum?—But everyone who comes through this door, I can have a relationship with. It’s about openness.”
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