Former members of prominent Brooklyn Conservative synagogue return to old neighborhood, which is now a chasidic stronghold.
A few years ago, while rummaging through a small storage closet in his Crown Heights day school, an administrator discovered a cache of old prayer books.
The decades-old siddurim had been the property of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, one of New York City’s most prominent congregations back in 1920, when it was founded on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights. The books were embossed with the names of onetime members, dedicated at bar mitzvahs and other simchas.
Rabbi Nosson Blumes, director of development at Oholei Torah, the flagship elementary school of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement that first moved into the Brooklyn Jewish Center building four decades ago, wasn’t sure what to do with the prayer books. “I had hundreds … they were connected to someone’s history.”
The rabbi decided to return the items to their rightful owners — the people whose names are marked on the covers, or their relatives — if he could find them.
Rabbi Blumes, a native of Winnipeg, Canada, who has worked at Oholei Torah since 1997, started doing research online. He tracked down scores of people; most were glad to receive the old prayer books, and many were interested to learn the fate of their families’ former congregation. Subsequently, many have come for a visit to the building and their old neighborhood.
The biggest result of the rabbi’s work is a gala Brooklyn Jewish Center reunion that will be held there this month.
Rabbi Blumes, who is organizing the Center archives stored in boxes in the building’s crowded storage rooms, is helping to coordinate a reunion dinner at the defunct synagogue-turned- school on Sunday, Sept. 25, the 90th anniversary of the dedication of the building’s sanctuary. At least 400 people — including former members of the Brooklyn Jewish Center and their relatives, government officials, and representatives of the Lubavitch community — are expected to attend the event. Any proceeds will go to the school’s general renovation effort, but the event is intended primarily as a social one, rather than a fundraiser.
For the ex-Center members, the event is a chance to relive the glory years of their old congregation, where they studied and married, played and prayed. For the representatives of the school and of the wider Lubavitch community, it will be a chance to show off the renovated building and the vibrant Jewish life that continues there. For both groups, it will be an opportunity to bridge denominational barriers.
The reunion, the culmination of a $1.5 million restoration campaign at the day school, which is repairing the building’s interior and exterior, is the latest sign of a unique mutual respect that has developed between members of a chasidic group and a Conservative institution.
Oholei Torah occupies the building only because the Conservative congregation was willing to make a financial sacrifice, Rabbi Blumes says. In selling the building in 1982 for $400,000, considerably below the market rate, the Center trustees “really gave [the building] to us. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.” Plaques with names of the building’s original donors still line the walls. Rabbi Blumes speaks nostalgically of the deceased members who held Shabbat services in the building until 1991, long after they’d sold the building, and would come on weekdays to kvell at the sight of halls filled with Jewish students. Those members donated money to help renovate one yeshiva classroom that is dedicated to the congregation. On one recent afternoon Rabbi Blumes paid a visit to the Flatbush home of Rabbi Benjamin Kreitman, who was the spiritual leader of the Brooklyn Jewish Center from 1954 until 1968. For an hour the two rabbis discussed plans for the reunion; while they differ on some interpretations of Jewish tradition, they agree on the value of cooperation, they said.
“It’s an example of how we can work together,” says Rabbi Kreitman, now in his 90s. The rabbi served for many years as executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism after leaving the pulpit rabbinate.
“They respect us, and we respect them,” Rabbi Blumes says. “We’re showing appreciation to the members of the Center” who sold the building to the day school at a fraction of its market value when the congregation’s demise, the result of members moving away for decades or dying, became inevitable.
At the reunion, opera star Cantor Richard Tucker and abstract painter Mark Rothko, both of whom worked at the Center early in their careers, will be honored. (Rothko taught fine arts at the synagogue in the 1920s before changing his name from Marcus Rothkowitz.)
Both the Center and the Lubavitch movement reached out to the wider Jewish community; Chabad’s worldwide network of emissaries has pioneered an outreach to the wider Jewish community; the Brooklyn Jewish Center, in its time, opened it doors in a like way.
The Center, founded in an area that was at the time home to one of the city’s most established and upscale Jewish communities, became the neighborhood’s largest synagogue and a leading example of the early-to-mid-20th-century Jewish Center movement, which sought to bring the increasingly secular children of immigrant families into synagogues by offering an array of social and cultural activities.
In the 1920s, “the complex synagogue-center … originally and quintessentially American … had become the leading trend in modern Jewish life,” David Kaufman writes in “Shul with a Pool: The ‘Synagogue-Center’ in American Jewish History” (Brandeis University Press, 1999). “The Brooklyn Jewish Center certainly led the way” for similar congregations, like the West Philadelphia Jewish Center and The Jeshurun Center in Jerusalem, “the first and only Synagogue Center in Israel.”
“The Brooklyn Jewish Center,” Kaufman writes, “was a young people’s synagogue … emphasizing the more pleasurable aspects of life.” In addition to classes and daily prayer services, it offered a pool and gym, sauna and handball courts, a library and kosher kitchen, Saturday night dances and concerts. “Many of the founders of the Brooklyn Jewish Center had come from that nearby ghetto [Brownsville], often called the ‘Jerusalem of America.’ By 1923, Brooklyn was the New York City borough with the largest Jewish population, with 740,000 Jews compared to Manhattan’s 706,000.”
On Shabbat, it was standing room only in the Center’s main sanctuary. “It had a seating capacity of 1,700,” says Rabbi Kreitman, who would come to worship services in his pre-pulpit student days in the 1940s. “I had no place to sit. I stood.”
And this was for “a regular Shabbos,” where there was no bar mitzvah or guest speaker, he points out.
“It wasn’t just another synagogue; it was open seven days a week,” says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University. “It was immensely important.”
At its peak in the 1940s and ‘50s the synagogue’s membership was about 3,500. An architectural model of the building is part of the core exhibition of the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
Within a few decades the character of the ethnically and religiously mixed neighborhood, like that many urban neighborhoods, started to change. Out went many of the old-time Conservative Jews; typical is Dr. Jeffrey Borer, chairman of the reunion dinner committee. He had a bar mitzvah in the synagogue, left for college in 1963 and never came back.
In came blacks, many with Caribbean roots, and members of the Lubavitch movement.
Crown Heights was typical of neighborhoods in New York and other cities that lost significant numbers of Jews and other white ethnic groups to the suburbs in the 1960s and ‘70s, the result of urban blight, rising crime rates and (for Jews) upward mobility. But Crown Heights was also atypical, because growing numbers of chasidic families were moving in, making up for the vanishing liberal Jews.
“The ghosts of once thriving Jewish communities could be seen in the brick facades of buildings that dotted the streets of New York, now used primarily as churches,” according to the brooklynjewishcenter.org website, which Rabbi Blumes maintains. “Membership in the Center dwindled to a bare handful.”
Oholei Torah began renting space in the in-need-of-repair Center in 1972. A decade later, with the area’s Jewish demographic shift overwhelmingly in favor of the Lubavitch chasidim, the synagogue became a full-time day school. “The remaining Board of Directors was faced with three choices: sell the land to a developer, accept the offer of $6,000,000 from a local church, or accept the offer of the Lubavitcher community, our neighbors since 1940, to take over the facility,” Borer, professor and chairman of the Department of Medicine at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center, wrote in a recent letter to the synagogue’s former members. “The Lubavitchers had only $400,000 to offer. Nonetheless, the Board, in keeping with the principles set forth by the Center’s founding rabbi, Israel H. Levinthal, who foresaw the inevitability of change, sold to the Lubavitchers to maintain a use consistent with the beliefs of the founders.
“To provide amenities for the entire Crown Heights community, the Lubavitchers gradually restored the swimming pool and gym; to serve the students during their long days in school, as well as to serve for their own assemblies and celebrations, they restored the beautiful first-floor ballroom, the mezzanine floor dining room, and the twin kitchens,” wrote Borer, who is not Orthodox.
Now living in Manhattan, Borer decided to become active in the reunion effort after receiving one of Rabbi Blumes’ letters a few years ago and reclaiming his old siddur. Several of his relatives were among the shul’s founders, and he has fond memories of his days in the synagogue, he says. “I absolutely loved growing up in Crown Heights.”
Because he contributes to a wide range of Jewish causes, Borer had already donated to Oholei Torah before realizing that the day school had taken over his old synagogue at 667 Eastern Parkway, down the block from the Lubavitch central headquarters. When he saw the address, he was hooked. “I realized [the building] was being put to good purposes.”
Ten years ago the school, which now enrolls more than 1,600 boys, built an extension whose façade is virtually identical to plans the Center had considered in 1945.
At the reunion dinner, large photographs of the Brooklyn Jewish Center in its heyday will be displayed, to evoke old memories, Rabbi Blumes says. “We want people to feel comfortable here. We want people to feel that it’s [still] their home.”
And members’ old prayer books will be available, the rabbi says. “If people come to ask for them, sure.”
Family memorabilia, videos, personal memories and photographs of events at the Brooklyn Jewish Center are sought for the Sept. 25 reunion dinner. For information: (718) 483-9000; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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