The Rabbi and the Comedian
How showbiz, religion and great real-estate values bond on the Lower East Side
by Margaret Mitchell
The Sixth Street Community Synagogue (bet. 1st & 2nd Ave.) has always had to adapt to the changing times. It started out as a Lutheran church, serving the area’s German immigrants. In 1904, more than 1,000 parishioners died in a blazing pleasure boat on the East River. A while later the building was sold to the next group of newcomers, Eastern European Jews. Nowadays the synagogue is serving a newer yet group of Lower East Siders: spiritual thrill seekers and hipster Israelis.
Enter one of New York’s hottest new comedians, Modi Rosenfeld, who is both a seeker (graduate of a hasidic cantorial school) and boasting Israeli roots. Modi has appeared on HBO’s The Sopranos, NBC’s Friday Night Videos, BET's 10th Anniversary of Comic View, Comedy Central’s USO Tour Live from Gutannamo Bay, Cuba and “Tough Crowd” with Colin Quinn. He has appeared in countless indi films (the most recent of which, “Waiting for Woody Allen,” shows him in full hasidic garb, waiting to steal a minute with the great director). He can soon be seen on the big screen with Chevy Chase and Brooke Shields in “Rent-a- Husband.” You can catch his act in comedy clubs all over town (check out his website: www.modi.cc).
Whenever he’s in town, which is most weekends, Modi serves as the Sixth Street shul’s other cantor. A dedicated man named Mendel Kaplan, who has been with the synagogue through thick and thin over the years, is the regular cantor. Kaplan also reads from the Torah, prepares children for their Bar Mitzvah ceremony and is the backbone of the institution.
Rabbi Avi Berkowitz, who, in addition to an Orthodox ordination has a PhD in Political Science from Columbia University, has been serving the Community Synagogue for 12 years. Besides scholarship and a light-handed leadership style, Berkowitz, who also teaches History to the higher grades at Ramaz high school, is a natural embracer. It takes a special man to accept in an unflinching manner all the many kinds of Jews roaming our downtown streets, and to make them feel at home while holding on to the standards of Orthodox practice. Berkowitz is one such man.
When Modi started looking for an apartment on Grand Street, Rabbi Berkowitz personally called LoHo Realty’s Jacob Goldman to ensure absolute top priority for Modi. Four of the Rabbi’s congregants:Yitzhak & Gita Giar and Simon & Nurit Ben-David have recently moved into apartments in Seward Park and East River, respectively. Both couples purchased through LoHo Realty.
“The location is great for me,” Modi explains. “Everything I do is eastside and downtown. And there’s a sense of community here. I’ll give you an example. The other day I was at the LoHo office, finishing up my application for the Co-op Board. The next day in shul the rabbi says to me, I heard you were in LoHo Realty, somebody told my wife at the butcher shop. It’s so small town and so adorable.”
Somehow it all seems to fit: the neighborhood, the people, and the synagogue.
“I brought friends of mine who aren’t Orthodox t o the synagogue,” says Modi. “They were so fearful at first, then they admitted it was the most casual experience they had. The rabbi was great, he didn’t talk too long...”
“And what he said was brilliant,” Rabbi Berkowitz interjects. Their banter is feisty and funny throughout our interview. “There’s no sense that anybody’s judging you,” Modi adds later. “It’s such a casual place, and yet it’s an Orthodox service.”
Are they into matchmaking? “Of course we are,” Modi declares. “You never know who might walk in. We had just this weekend a bunch of kids from Cooper Union Institute and we gave a big kiddush (celebratory luncheon) downstairs. These kids are geniuses! And they were all mingling - it’s a great place for a shidduch.” “We want to bring in more and more of the Jewish singles who live in the neighborhood,” says the rabbi. “We have young doctors who come to our services from the nearby hospitals...” Nothing like dangling the promise of a young unattached Jewish doctor to draw them in. But the kiddush itself, it turns out, is a savory affair even without the matrimonial applications: an offering of schnapps and cake, tsholent (slow-simmering stew of beans, grains and meat) and cold cuts.
The relationship between rabbi and comedian extends beyond the synagogue’s walls. Before appearing on the Colin Quinn show, Modi was handed a question dealing with Judaism. “I actually consulted my rabbi for that one,” Modi says.
The comfort they feel together is obvious, and is a reflection of the atmosphere of the shul. Modi says he feels completely at ease when his rabbi is in the audience at one of his shows. “It’s because for the first time I have a rabbi with a real sense of humor.”
Which is why a recent dinner honoring Rabbi Berkowitz was turned by Friar Club member Modi into a half hour roast. Have we come a long way since Moses or what?