Local Orthodox Leader Preaching Moderation and Cooperation
The new rabbi of the Lower East Side’s largest congregation may be the perfect choice for our diverse neighborhood
by Yori Yanover
Rabbi Zvi Romm’s invitation some two years ago, to lead the Bialystoker congregation at 7-11 Bialystoker Place, was tantamount to being pulled away from the sun stricken sandlots of junior league baseball to pitch at Yankee Stadium. A graduate and faculty member of Yeshiva University, Romm’s relevant prior experience had been in leading a summer home community in Tannersville, NY. Now this young man (31) was expected to fill the shoes of his great predecessor, the late Rabbi Yitzchok Singer.
“It was certainly a daunting prospect,” he admits. “Rabbi Singer was a giant of a man. My challenge was to take on his legacy and foster it. One aspect of this legacy is to maintain the standards of the shul as an Orthodox institution. At the same time his skill was at maintaining an openness to people who were not necessarily Orthodox at all. He made them feel comfortable here.”
Indeed, Rabbi Romm’s easy demeanor has already earned him a reputation as a man of impeccable religious standards who is also a man of peace.
When the Bialystoker synagogue was planning to offer a new Sunday school to children from unaffiliated Jewish families, Romm was sure to contact the Educational Alliance, whose Co-Op Nursery offers a special Torah Tots program to Jewish families.
“I worked from the start with (Executive Director) Ms. Robin Bernstein, and she was gracious enough to allow me to pitch the school at the end of the year party of the Co-Op Nursery,” he says. Indeed, the two institutions are cooperating now in offering Jewish education to local children.
“One of the charming aspects of our neighborhood is the fact that down here we don’t label people,” says Romm. “There isn’t a clear marking of ‘us’ and ‘them.’” He attributes some of this benign attitude to the fact that after more than five generations, many of the Jews here have family ties to one another. And one tends to accept family members even across ideological divides. Romm hopes that, as the neighborhood is changing, we’ll all learn to transfer those same accepting attitudes onto the newcomers.
Rabbi Romm and his wife, Shira, have three children. Chava Ora, 6, attends the Bais Yaakov girls school on Broome Street. Aharon Shmaya, 3, is about to enter the Torah Tots program at the Educational Alliance. Their youngest, Miriam Leba, is 8 months old.
“I’m very excited about the school which we’re starting, God willing, in September,” says Romm. “We hope that as it grows it will become part of a broader educational enterprise which will offer a lot of adult education.” The Bialystoker already offers several outreach programs, aimed at helping non-practicing Jews become more familiar with their tradition, particularly the prayer services.
“The two pillars on which I want to found the shul are passion and tolerance,” says the rabbi, adding, “but tolerance to some means that the big issues don’t really matter. That’s a dangerous idea. I believe we should be accepting, and at the same time passionate about our Judaism.”
The new rabbi has invested much of his energy in promoting women’s study groups. His great success to date is the Monday night class which examines prayer texts, as linguistic, moral, historical and philosophical resources. The Monday at 8:45 pm group is attracting more than 40 women, many of whom structure their entire week around it.
Women are welcome at many other classes at the Bialystoker, including a Shabbat afternoon class on the laws of the Sabbath. Both men and women attend this class.
Rabbi Romm has also revived the junior congregation, which had been defunct for some 20 years. And he has been instrumental, together with Sharon Ganz of Orthodox Singles Inc., in hosting singles Shabbat get-togethers, which attract more than 100 men and women from outside the neighborhood, all of whom are hosted by local families.
One other brave and passionate move has been Rabbi Romm’s gentle yet firm stirring of his flock towards a more involved participation in the prayer service. “Those of us who are the shul’s regulars must also tap their passion and energies,” he says.
The Romms live in a breakthrough of a one- and a two-bedroom in East River Housing. They divided their apartment into the public part – where they entertain, and the private living quarters. Architect Michael Stein, of New-Age Construction, introduced several space-saving ideas, such as building a slanted wall for one of the kids’ bedrooms, maximizing both the room space and the passage way outside.
Another idea was to connect the “public” dining room with the kitchen via a window, rather than an open counter. Plates can be moved in and out of the kitchen, and when the meal is in progress the window can be shut. “Both Shira and I are very grateful for the opportunity to live and work here,” says Rabbi Romm. Having spoken to many people in his congregation, we believe the feeling is mutual.
Rabbi Romm purchased his breakthrough apartment through LoHo realty.