Membership drive

The Orthodox shul that’s attracting a young crowd, especially post-Oct. 7 — along with major investors

Upper East Side shul sees surge in under-36 members, which its founders credit to efforts to make the community welcoming, post-Oct. 7 search for engagement

David, a 31-year-old bachelor in New York City, is not within the traditional demographic group that joins a synagogue. But at the Altneu, David — who requested not to be identified by his last name or profession — is among the largest and fastest-growing demographic. 

Polls from recent years show that synagogue attendance is dwindling for the majority of American Jewish young adults — especially those unmarried and without children — who either don’t attend regularly, or hop around between different synagogues without joining and paying dues. Yet people under 36 are increasingly flocking to the Upper East Side Orthodox synagogue Altneu — and committing to the $1,200 per person, per year price tag. (Dues increase to $1,800 per person, per year for those over 36.)

The synagogue’s leaders attribute this both to their own efforts to develop a welcoming, attractive community and to the broader rise in engagement that is being seen throughout the Jewish world after the Oct. 7 terror attacks and accompanying rise in global antisemitism, what the Jewish Federations of North America have referred to as “The Surge.”

According to the synagogue’s data from May, nearly 40% of the 430 paying member units are under 36 (this does not include children). Members between 36-55 and members older than 55 make up the remaining 30.42% and 30.76%, respectively. Congregants under 36 who spoke to eJewishPhilanthropy, several of whom did not come from a traditional Orthodox background, attributed Altneu’s allure to the newness and innovation of the synagogue that still hews to tradition. Additionally, they pointed favorably to the congregation’s lack of marketing specifically to young professionals as well as the similarly young ages of its leadership. 

“In my years after college, I flirted with shuls downtown that felt ‘sceney.’ This was the first community that felt right to me in a shul,” David said. “I think it’s important to pay dues at a shul, and I had no hesitation in doing so once I found a community that I did want to plant roots in… this is a well-curated, intellectual community with high-caliber people that feels different than whatever else is available,” he continued, noting that among single peers his age, paying synagogue dues and attending frequently are rare. “They’re not doing it, especially not the secular ones,” he said. 

“I wasn’t willing to compromise on a place that is Orthodox by the books,” David said of his yearslong synagogue search. “Altneu checks that box, but at the same time, Altneu is not all-encompassing in that sense. People there understand that.” 

Altneu was founded in 2022 by Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt, 36, and his wife, journalist Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, 32, after the couple abruptly split from the 130-year-old Park East Synagogue, one of the city’s most established and moneyed Modern Orthodox congregations, also located on the Upper East Side. Until this spring, Altneu had no permanent location. Each Shabbat, congregants fluttered between various neighborhood venues, which included private homes, the Asia Society, the Pierre Hotel and the Explorers Club. In March, after extensive fundraising from a board that includes bankers, CEOs and a Blackstone executive, Altneu purchased a Tudor Revival townhouse on East 70th Street for $34.5 million. (The donors have declined to be identified.) 

Altneu co-founders, Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt, 36, and his wife, journalist Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, 32, in the synagogue’s new building, in March 2024. (Daniel Landesman)

In an interview with eJP, Chizhik-Goldschmidt noted the significance of the new location’s timing — which she said will allow for more extensive classes and programming. “Post-Oct 7.,” she said, “there are those who are giving towards fighting antisemitism and looking outward. Now is also a time to focus inward, not just on strengthening Diaspora Jewry, but building sustainable, creative, innovative, forward-thinking communities that are not shells of themselves but real and vibrant.” 

“The space is so tight now, which is a good problem to have but it’s gotten so crowded that it’s almost uncomfortable,” David said of the six-story, 55-foot-wide townhouse, where he attends daily minyan. “It’s hard for me to differentiate if that’s because of [people wanting community after] Oct. 7, if it’s a momentum that was already there or if it’s the new building. It all kind of happened at once, but it’s probably all of the above.” 

Among the initial young members of Altneu — the ones who would eagerly wait for an email from Goldschmidt each week to learn which new spot they’d be praying at — were Amanda Daman, 32, and her husband, who are now the parents of a 7-month-old. “We started going right as they started services,” Daman, an Altneu lay leader who organizes programming and Torah learning for young women and couples, recalled. “We had just gotten married and didn’t know where to go and tried out this new thing. We tried out other congregations and loved that there were people of all ages, not just a young crowd or old crowd; it’s the mix that makes the shul so attractive.” 

David and Chizhik-Goldschmidt echoed that the blend of ages makes Altneu unique. “There are so many young people but I think I would be turned off by a synagogue that’s specifically marketed to young professionals,” David said. 

Chizhik-Goldschmidt, who is a news editor at the real estate outlet The Real Deal in addition to her role as rebbetzin, added, “We have a very high number for the young generation, but at the same time it is very proportionate of age spread across the congregation.” 

The mix of old and young is befitting to Altneu’s name — which is a portmanteau of the Yiddish words for “old” and “new” and a tribute to The Old New Synagogue, also called the Altneuschul, a historic Orthodox Jewish congregation in Prague. Goldschmidt, whose father is the former chief rabbi of Moscow, Pinchas Goldschmidt, said in a 2022 Shabbat sermon: “The Altneu name always struck me, since the first time I stepped foot inside the Prague synagogue when I was 15 years old, as it also has a personal significance to me. My father is Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, and his father is Sol Goldschmidt, the son of Fransicka Goldschmidt who was instrumental in arranging the Kindertransport from Frankfurt saving orphaned Jewish children, who was the daughter of Rabbi Dr. Tobias Lewenstein (rabbi of Zurich and before that Copenhagen) and Flora Lewenstein, who was the daughter of Theresa Meller of Altona near Hamburg, who was a direct descendant of the Maharal of Prague — making me the 17th generation to the Maharal. It is incumbent on every Neu to know that he or she is standing on the giant shoulders of the Alt.” 

Members and synagogue leadership said that several factors make Altneu appealing to young millennials and Generation Z. 

Judith Frishman, 31, joined Altneu with her husband, Shlomo, 30, in 2022. “I would hop between a few Upper East synagogues every week, usually Shlomo didn’t want to come,” Judith, who works at JP Morgan, recalled. “I tried out Altneu and since that time we basically stopped going anywhere else.” 

“I really would not go anywhere else. I would stay at home and once I started going to Altneu, I became the guy pushing my wife out the door to go to shul. Never in my life did I think I’d want to go to shul as much as I do now, so much so that I don’t like leaving the city,” added Shlomo, who is a native of Minnesota and works in accounting and finance for a health-care staffing company. “I make it a point to welcome new people at shul, and I’ve heard people say that they haven’t felt welcomed in a shul like they do in Altneu throughout their time in New York.”

Judith said that she liked that “the rabbi and Avital are very young and connected with modern Judaism. We are all working through the same things together because they are around our age.” 

According to Chizhik-Goldschmidt, “the shul is not a classic Modern Orthodox synagogue.”

“We have a broad spectrum,” she said. “Everyone from people who were unaffiliated before to those who grew up quite Orthodox. Everyone is looking for a spiritual experience. It’s a place where they matter and are seen. The beauty of a new synagogue — which I never thought about until this was my life — is that in a new synagogue, everyone is new. So there’s no dodgy, stuffy snobbery. The culture isn’t ‘who are you, what’s your name, where are you from’ like in a lot of New York City.”  

Despite the under 36 bracket being Altneu’s fastest-growing demographic, Chizhik-Goldschmidt said she still finds herself pleasantly surprised each time the congregation receives a membership application with a birthdate in the late 1990’s. “I’m like ‘wow, that’s real commitment,’” she said with a laugh.

“Part of the problem with congregations is that they have really lowered the bar for young people to be involved in community life,” Chizhik-Goldschmidt said. “They just throw a young professionals party every year and show that they have a party with enough photos from the event. We see that all the time — of nonprofits and synagogues. The difference here is we actually have a high bar for you. We believe young people should be involved. This shouldn’t be a community led by a certain generation. It has to be led by everyone.” 

“I don’t know if I really believed in the power of community until this whole story happened,” she said. 

The sentiment is certainly felt by Daman, who was in the process of planning the Altneu young couples summer soirée, held on Tuesday, when she spoke with eJP. “At Altneu,” Daman said, “you find that your presence means something.”