Why this Blog Exists

To make the case for expanding the Park Slope Historic District

Friday, April 16, 2010

Park Slope Jewish Center - Part 5

We conclude our series on the Park Slope Jewish Center with some words about its cultural significance.

The congregation's home, at 8th Avenue and 14th Street, is already listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places:

Park Slope Jewish Center
Allen A. Blaustein, architect - 1925

But the congregation is equally significant for the many ways in which its history parallels that of Park Slope and larger American society in the 20th century.

The congregation's Historic Register Designation Report tracks the decline, consolidation, and ultimate resurgence of the three congregations that ultimately became PSJC:

The decline in the Jewish population in New York City due to passage of the restrictive immigration law of 1924 resulted in declining membership at Tifereth Israel and other synagogues. The original plan to build a $250,000 community center in the adjacent lot was not carried out...

After World War II, the decline in Jewish populations in Park Slope continued to sap membership. The first formal discussion of a merger between Congregation Bnai Jacob Tifereth Israel with Congregation Bnai Sholaum took place on April 20, 1948... Representatives of Congregation Bnai Jacob Tifereth Israel agreed to accept mixed seating of men and women during the services, as long as separate men-only and women-only sections were also established. The proposed name of the new organization was "South Brooklyn Jewish Organization." It is not clear why the merger was not finalized until 12 years later... merged on January 4, 1960 to form Park Slope Jewish Center. At the time, Bnai Jacob Tifereth Israel had only 125 members and Bnai Sholaum had only 80 members.

The decline in membership continued. By December, 1981, membership had shrunk to only 45 households... The congregation began growing slowly in the early 1980's, as Jews moved back into the Park Slope neighborhood. By December, 1982, there were 77 households.

The question of women's role in Conservative Judaism looms large in the history of the Park Slope Jewish Center, echoing women's search for equality in larger American society. The Park Slope Jewish Center has been at the forefront of this struggle:

The women's movement in America, which began in the 1960's, has had its Jewish counterpart. In traditional Judaism, women were relegated to the balcony, or separate side sections of the synagogue. They were not allowed to read prayers. Ordination as rabbis or cantors was out of the question...

PSJC began experimenting with expanded women's roles in Friday night services in 1981. In 1983, the same year the Jewish Theological Seminary voted to admit women, PSJC's members voted to follow and egalitarian form of worship in all services, granting full equal rights to women in ritual matters. The issue of women's rights and women's ordination has been divisive for the Conservative movement as a whole. It was extremely divisive at PSJC. Some members were so opposed to this vote that they split off from the congregation, claimed that the vote was invalid, and insisted on a right to use the lower sanctuary. Court action on these questions lasted from 1983 until the cases were finally settled in 1999.

In 1983, PSJC elected a woman president of the congregation. In 1984 the congregation hired a woman rabbi, and around the same time hired a woman as cantor. Women rabbis and cantors were rare at this time in the Conservative movement.

The LGBT movement, which has played such a large role in Park Slope's recent history, also finds a pronounced echo in the Park Slope Jewish Center:

The gay and lesbian movement in America also has its counterpart within Park Slope and within Judaism. The PSJC has a vocal and supportive lesbian community, and has an annual Gay Pride parade. Traditional Judaism forbids homosexual activity. However, Conservative synagogues are reconsidering this position, and many have dropped all restrictions on gay and lesbian members. During the 1990's the Conservative movement began deliberating the acceptability of ordaining openly gay or lesbian rabbis and cantors.

PSJC's mode of worship is now fully egalitarian. During the 1980's, the synagogue began a practice of offering family membership to gay and lesbian families on the same basis as traditional families.

Not all of these many changes were fully accepted by everyone at the Park Slope Jewish Center. In a kind of microcosm of America's "culture wars," the congregants who had decamped to the Lower Sanctuary ultimately left altogether, and reoccupied the old 9th Street home of B'nai Sholaum, now reconstituted as the new, Orthodox Congregation B'nai Jacob (not to be confused with the "old" congregation B'nai Jacob!):

Originally Congregation B'nai Sholaum
Hedman & Schoen, architects - 1913-15
Present-day Congregation B'nai Jacob

Paralleling the resurgence of Park Slope in general, the Park Slope Jewish Center has attracted many families who have decided to remain in the city rather than move to the suburbs. PSJC has recently restored much of the main building, and has plans to soon rebuild the steep front steps, long blocked off due to their poor condition. The congregation even has plans finally to build a small accessory building on the adjoining lot, where a community house was supposed to have been built decades ago; the addition will provide additional office space and much-needed elevator access to the main sanctuary floor. The renditions of the proposed work, from the congregation's website, make clear that the congregation is highly sensitive to the surrounding historic fabric of the neighborhood, and that the proposed work is very much in keeping with Park Slope's historic character:

Park Slope Jewish Center - proposed new front stair configuration

Park Slope Jewish Center - proposed addition

In every sense, the Park Slope Jewish Center is a foundational component both of Park Slope's history, and of its present and future; Park Slope is privileged to be the home of the PSJC.

The rest of this series on the history of the Park Slope Jewish Center is available here:
Part 1: Beginnings
Part 2: Congregation Tifereth Israel
Part 3: Congregation B'nai Jacob
Part 4: Congregation B'nai Sholaum


ellen said...

i found this series yesterday by accident - what a fantastic read! thanks.

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