Too Cool for Shul: High Holidays With NYC’s Hippest Rabbis

Daniel T. Allen |

For many Jewish New Yorkers, the upcoming “High Holidays” of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mean long hours in synagogue, tedious dinners with relatives and, oy, a full day without eating.

But a growing number of spiritual leaders in the New York region bring their own flavor to the “days of awe.” MetroFocus compiled a list of those who will lead a flock to the gates of repentance this year, but who still manage to stay “too cool for shul.”

Rabbi Darby Jared Leigh


Leading services at: The New Shul, 272 W. 10th Street, Manhattan

Signature shtick: Incorporating American Sign Language into the prayer service. May also quote heavy metal song lyrics during sermon.

Photo courtesy of Darby Jared Leigh.

The Heavy Metal Rabbi

Hitting the slopes, surviving the mosh pit, translating in American Sign Language while sermonizing.

In the beginning: Born profoundly deaf, Darby Jared Leigh grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. When a therapist recommended that his parents expose him to music, his mother took him to the local record store where he was first introduced to the music of Twisted Sister. Thus began his lifelong love affair with heavy metal music.

And ye shall know me: Leigh grew up to be a performer himself. He’s toured with the National Theatre of the Deaf and was invited onstage with Jane’s Addiction in 1997. In 2008, he was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and he now splits his time between The New Shul and Bnai Keshet in Montclair, N.J.

Preparing to repent: Leigh said that part of his preparation for the High Holidays involved being in the mosh pit at the “Big Four” concert at Yankee Stadium, where 45,000 people gathered to hear the heaviest names in heavy metal on Sept. 14. “Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax, these guys are the four horseman of the apocalypse,” said Leigh. At a time of year so focused on reflection and mortality, “this experience for me was a reminder about how important it is to live while you’re alive,” he said.

Latest gig: In April, Leigh took the stage with the band Twisted Sister, his childhood idols, and signed the lyrics of their song “The Price” as the band played.


Rabbi Simcha Weinstein


Leading services at: The Rohr Center, 543 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn

Signature schtick: “Anybody whose name ends in ‘man’ is either Jewish or a superhero.”

Photo courtesy of Simcha Weinstein.

The Comic Book Rabbi

Moses meets Marvel at a converted art gallery deep in Brooklyn’s hipster territory.

In the beginning: Born in Manchester, England, Rabbi Simcha Weinstein studied film and worked as a location scout before discovering orthodox Judaism. “I’m a former art school student turned art school rabbi,” said Weinstein, who operates a Chabad House serving the student population at Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

And ye shall know me: The rabbi is best known for publicizing the Jewish ancestry of America’s superheroes: Superman, for example, was created by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, two sons of Jewish immigrants. Weinstein is the author of two books “Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero” and “Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century.”

Preparing to repent: “I know what it’s like to be put into a sermon-induced coma so I don’t go for the long sermons,” said Weinstein, who uses humor to break up the monotony. As a self-described “comic book zealot,” his congregation can usually expect to hear some Spiderman or X-Men references.


Rabbi Jennifer Krause


Leading services at: 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave., Manhattan

Signature shtick: Also known as the “Rabbi Without Borders”

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Krause.

The Jewish Katie Couric

A pop culture commentator who asks the tough questions in one-on-one celebrity interviews.

In the beginning: In 2004, Rabbi Jennifer Krause became the first woman to lead services at the 92nd Street Y in its 130-year history. A transplant from her native Arizona, Krause has spent more than a decade writing, teaching and connecting ancient wisdom to modern life. She helped to found The New Shul, authored “The Answer: Making Sense of Life, One Question at a Time” and teaches at City College.

And ye shall know me: Krause is known for gigs as an interviewer and guest-host about town. For “Backstage Pass: Values and Visions Behind the Scenes,” a series she founded at the 92nd Street Y, she conducted onstage interviews with Elie Wiesel, actor Leonard Nimoy and “Sex and the City” writer/producer Cindy Chupack. She said one of her favorite interviews so far was with restaurateur Danny Meyer. “Danny and I talked a lot about the mitzvah of welcoming guests,” said Krause. Krause’s probing conversations continue at the downtown coffeehouse Joe, with a series called “Oy Latte.”

Preparing to repent: Krause said she’s working with her cantor Josh Nelson, with whom she often leads services, to include a rendition of U2’s “All I Want Is You” into this year’s service. There’s also an electric guitar Jimi Hendrix version of penitential prayer Avinu Malkeinu on the playlist.

Where to find her: Fedora, a restaurant near her West Village home, where she enjoys a glass (or two) of OPP Pinot Noir (yes, it is a reference to the Naughty By Nature song).


Amichai Lau-Lavie, pictured holding torah.


Leading services at: City Winery, Manhattan

Signature shtick: “Deep inside tradition and way outside the box.”

Photo courtesy of Storahtelling.

The Dramatist

Giving the bible an “extreme makeover” with word, song and new media.

In the beginning: After receiving formal training in both Jewish literature and theater, Israel-born Amichai Lau-Lavie found a way to make the bible come alive on his own terms. In 2002, he gathered with a group at the 14th Street Y on Yom Kippur for what turned into a massive jam session with didgeridoos, drums and cellos. “We didn’t want to stop,” said Lau-Lavie, “we ended the fast two hours late.”

And ye shall know me: From those jam sessions came Storahtelling, Lau-Lavie’s unique way of dramatizing Jewish liturgy. A Storahtelling performance reinvents the traditional Torah-reading ritual with skits, musical numbers and dance.

Preparing to repent: “The modern world has a new audience with a new set of needs. People don’t necessarily want to come to a traditional setting with all of the baggage,” said Lau-Lavie. Instead of printed prayerbooks, all of the liturgy for the Storahtelling High Holiday service will be projected on a screen. There are also surprises like an interfaith prayer on Yom Kippur afternoon, which has previously included performances from a Muslim Sufi singer.

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