Why this Blog Exists

To make the case for expanding the Park Slope Historic District

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Park Slope Jewish Center - Part 1

This past weekend we had the great privilege of attending the opening of "Building on a Strong Foundation," an exhibit mounted at the Park Slope Jewish Center, 8th Avenue and 14th Street in Park Slope. The wide-ranging exhibit explores the extremely rich history of PSJC, which traces its roots back to three South Brooklyn congregations that are as old as Park Slope itself: B'nai Jacob, B'nai Sholaum, and Tifereth Israel. We will try to capture a bit of this rich story here. This fascinating story reflects aspects of American immigration and religious history, the history of American Judaism, of Brooklyn, of Park Slope, and of the larger social currents of American life in the 20th century.

PSJC's home has also been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the designation report, available for download at New York's Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, makes for very interesting reading. We will draw from both the exhibit and the designation report.

Background (from the National Register Designation Report):

In addition to its architectural significance, Park Slope Jewish Center is also historically significant... for its association with the development of Conservative Judaism. It is also important in the area of ethnic heritage for its association with the history of Eastern European Jewish immigration in New York City. The synagogue exemplifies the history of American Jewish congregations, and the ways that Jews have changed and adapted to life in this country.

While Jews have been in America since the earliest colonial days, there was not a large presence in Brooklyn until the second half of the nineteenth century. The early immigrants were Sephardic Jews. During the early 1800s the immigration shifted to Ashkenazim from Germany... Things changed rapidly in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Many Jews moved to New York. Between 1880 and 1910 1.4 million Jews moved to the city, and 1.1 million stayed. Before the First World War, Jews began leaving the Lower East Side of Manhattan for other neighborhoods around the city. One of these neighborhoods was the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Background (from the Exhibit):

Legend has it that, in the 1830s, the Levy family rowed across the East River to attend Shabbat services. German Jews arrived in the mid-1850s, and soon Reform congregations were springing up. Beginning in the 1880s, an influx of traditional Eastern European Jews brought more Orthodox congregations. South Brooklyn was never a "Jewish" neighborhood, but the Jewish community was growing. Over time, mergers and splits of congregations were common, as ritual preferences diverged and population patterns shifted.

Each of our congregations began modestly. At first they met in people's homes or rented space. Only when they achieved a degree of success and stability did they put up buildings of their own.

Early History of Congregation Tifereth Israel (Designation Report):

Congregation Tifereth Israel was founded in 1900, according to papers in the synagogue's archives. The congregation filed its articles of incorporation on April 12, 1912, under the name of "Congregation Thifereth Israel, Inc." The congregation dates from the period when Park Slope was being developed, and benefited from the major wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe from 1880 to World War 1.

Early History of Congregation Tifereth Israel (Exhibit):

This was a congregation of immigrants (as far as we know). Services were Orthodox, and shul business was conducted in Yiddish. The membership was organized as a chevra, with members referred to in meeting minutes as "Brothers". In 1912, the Chevra hired a doctor, available to members for an extra $2.00 per year in dues.

The Exhibit details the locations where the young congregation worshiped. The earliest was on the second floor of 232 15th Street (between 5th & 6th) which no longer stands; our comprehensive photographic survey of Park Slope shows an empty lot there:

(Formerly) 232 15th Street
Earliest location of Congregation Tifereth Israel

(Parenthetically, the lot until quite recently held a very early Park Slope theater building, a view of which is preserved in Google's street view below. We recall attending one of theater historian Cezar Del Valle's walking tours of early Park Slope theaters, and he stopped the tour at the building shown below, now gone:)

Google street view showing early Park Slope theater, now demolished

Tifereth Israel's next location was at 411 7th Avenue, third from left in the set of four matching buildings shown below:

407-413 7th Avenue
Congregation Tifereth Israel, 411 7th Avenue until 1915

Next, the congregation purchased 397 14th Street, between 7th & 8th, in 1915, and the following year purchased the adjoining 399 14th Street:

399 14th Street
Tifereth Israel here from 1916-1925

397-399 14th Street at center

In 1925 the congregation built PSJC's present home at the corner of 8th Avenue and 14th Street, which we will examine in a subsequent post.


thanbo said...

I've seen the old documents for the synagogues in Park Slope, having once been on the board of Bnai Jacob. The synagogue on 14th St was built by Bnai Jacob, not by Tifereth Israel. Tifereth Israel merged with Bnai Jacob in 1947.

If you can look under the tin PSJC sign above the doors of the 14th St building, you'll see that the name molded into the concrete sign is "Bnai Jacob - Tifereth Israel", which suggests that Bnai Jacob was the senior party in the merger.

The absence of the name Bnai Jacob suggests to me a campaign of making an "un-synagogue", erasing our part in the whole saga of synagogue mergers and splits in Park Slope.

The timeline as I see it:

188? - Tifereth Israel founded
1897 - Bnai Sholaum founded
1900 - Bnai Jacob founded
1913 - Bnai Sholaum builds 9th St bldg
1925 - Bnai Jacob builds 14th St building
1947 - Tifereth Israel merges into 14th St
1960 - Bnai Sholaum merges into 14th St, becoming Park Slope Jewish Center
1965 - PSJC sells 9th St building
1984 - Conservatives and Orthodox split, both remaining in 14th St building, the Conservatives trying to force the Orthodox out, the Orthodox separately incorporating as Cong. Bnai Jacob. Lawsuit and countersuit ensue.
1996 - American Legion sells 9th St building to Rabbi Hecht and Cong. Bnai Jacob.
1998 - Bnai Jacob moves to 9th St, lawsuit settled.
Before 2011 - PSJC renovates basement, installs electric-eye toilets, making it impossible to invite religious relatives to family occasions at the synagogue - clearly their enmity for the Orthodox continues.
2013 - Bnai Jacob opens mikvah on 15th St.

The continuing enmity for Orthodoxy goes along with erasing the name "Bnai Jacob" from PSJC's and 14th St history.

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