A Message from the Chairman
March 12, 2011
I am writing now to ask for your support for a worthy undertaking about which you may be unaware - and for an institution, the Brooklyn Jewish Center, with which you have not been associated for many years.
It is unlikely that any of you know or remember me. Nonetheless, we share a common background that may make this letter not unwelcome. Like many of you, your children or your parents or grandparents, I was associated with the Brooklyn Jewish Center throughout my formative years. Indeed, my association is particularly strong: my grandfather and several of his brothers-in-law - my mother's uncles - were founding members of the Center in 1919. My parents were married there in 1944, at the last wedding which the great tenor, Richard Tucker, then the cantor, participated. I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah at the Center, went to Hebrew School there, attended Sabbath and High Holy Day services there, used the gym and the swimming pool and the four-wall handball courts regularly, and went to dances on Saturday nights to meet girls when I was in high school.
However, like many of the congregants, my family left the neighborhood, moving to Manhattan in the 1960s, while I was away in college. In fact, by 1982, so few members remained that the services and amenities that were an important part of the cement that kept our community together, as well as the magnificent building, no longer could be maintained. 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. 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.
Under the leadership of the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, the Chabad Lubavitch community began the expensive and painstaking (and painstakingly slow, given the dearth of money) process of stabilizing the building and gradually adapting it to uses that, while not different from the original, involved a reorganization of resources. Chabad determined that the Center should become the primary location of its yeshiva, Oholei Torah, which was enlarging and which, in 1972, received a charter from New York State to grant college degrees (and now serves 1600 students from pre-school onward). The community raised money (including a donation of $100,000.00 from the Brooklyn Jewish Center to dedicate a classroom in memory of Emanuel Cohen, a past president) to add a building for this purpose in what had been the playground that was adjacent to the Center, but which subsequently had become a parking lot. Oholei Torah utilized the original Hebrew School classrooms on the upper floors of the Center, as well. 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 (dairy and non-dairy). What had been the Junior Congregation on the third floor was maintained as a synagogue. However, after 20 years, in 2002, the magnificent main sanctuary, the esthetic equal of which, unfortunately, never will be seen again, was removed in order to provide more space for the educational mission. Parts were sold to other synagogues then being built. In fact, of course, this sanctuary was not needed by the Lubavitcher community, which long had had its own synagogue just one and a half blocks down Eastern Parkway, at 770. When I toured the facility and saw the loss of the main sanctuary, I was shocked and saddened. However, I soon realized that the importance of this beautiful facility was greatest to its builders - our ancestors, most of whom had escaped pogroms in Eastern Europe only 15 years earlier. They had succeeded in forging new lives in New York and succeeded sufficiently to found the first Jewish community center in the US, to build the sanctuary, and to create new traditions by reserving an area in the sanctuary where men and women could sit together, with other areas remaining gender specific. They thus established "conservative" Judaism, as compared with orthodox and reform. For the children of these founders, the importance of that statement of success was less important, and for their grandchildren, like me, it was all taken for granted. Now, with the sanctuary no longer serving its intended purpose, it seems most fitting that it should be employed in a parallel good - the education of succeeding generations of children who should not forget our heritage and whose ethical and intellectual grounding should be strong.
Clearly, Oholei Torah has expended extraordinary resources of effort and money, money of which there is relatively little available to them, to enable the Center to survive. More importantly, I believe it was the steadfastness of these people that preserved Crown Heights and prevented it from descending into the chaos of the South Bronx during the tense times of the late 1980s and early 1990s (now best remembered for a murder rather than for all the earlier, wonderful things that we can recall). The Lubavitchers reached out and joined with their non-Jewish neighbors, who also reached out, to relieve the tensions, to make the streets safe, and to enable the area to prosper once again.
Now the Center needs an additional infusion of cash - and the need is sufficiently urgent that it is beyond the means of the community through its traditional fund-raising strategies. The fašade of the Center needs to be repointed to prevent deterioration beyond reclamation and, with it, further deterioration of the steel superstructure that had been damaged by years of neglect before 1982. As some of you may know, limestone is a "living" substance, which absorbs water, expands and contracts with the weather, and crumbles if not maintained. Deterioration of the building carries potentially disastrous consequences for the educational mission. However, the fašade has an additional, symbolic, importance, as well as an intrinsic esthetic value. The slow restoration and adaptive reuse of the Brooklyn Jewish Center during the past quarter century is a metaphor for the restoration of the surrounding community and of the deathlessness of our traditions and of the values of our forebears. To allow the building to crumble would be a tragedy for the school but, also, a tragedy for us.
In this spirit, I ask you to consider support for the fašade restoration project. I know that the economy is in difficult times and many have lost jobs and money. Nonetheless, human need and important projects continue. If generosity is possible, now is a good time to provide it.
Some of you may wonder how I, personally, came to be associated with this effort. I am neither a Lubavitcher nor am I orthodox. Over the years, I had given some modest donations to Oholei Torah because I believe I owe a debt to the people who saved the Center. However, 3 years ago, in a formal attempt to reconnect with the Center community, the director of development for Oholei Torah, Rabbi Nosson Blumes, sent me a letter. While working in the building, he had come across a cache of old siddurim. They were embossed with the names of the donors. As you may recall, a few prayer books were donated by the celebrants when weddings and Bar Mitzvahs occurred at the Center. In fact, I still have my original copy, given to me by the Sisterhood at my Bar Mitzvah in 1958. However, Rabbi Blumes had found one of the copies donated to the Center, and wrote to ask if I wanted it. A worthwhile cause clearly would be subserved, so I sent a small donation and received the book. When the current further restoration of the Center was needed, Rabbi Blumes reached out to me again (he now had my home address!). By the time of this second interaction, I was about to move my professional activities from Weill Cornell Medical College, my workplace for the preceding 30 years, to State University of New York Downstate Medical Center - at the junction of Crown Heights and East Flatbush, and across the street from my high school, George W. Wingate. Since the department that I direct is rather large and is intended to provide health care for the community, as well as to teach medical students and to create new knowledge through research, it seemed that a symbiotic relation might develop here. I responded to Rabbi Blumes, who arranged a tour of the Center for my wife and me - followed by a surprise visit, arranged by the rabbi, to the house at 1439 President Street, bought by my grandfather in 1922, in which I, and my father before me, had grown up but which I hadn't entered in 45 years. It is now occupied by a rabbi and his wife and children who are members of the Lubavitcher community. From my tour, the needs of the Center, and the extraordinary value of the educational and community services provided in the facility, became clear. When help was needed for the fašade restoration project, I was happy to be a part of the effort.
I hope you will want to participate, too, if you can.
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