ORIGINSDuring the second decade of the 20th century, a small group of far-seeing Jews met in a living room in Brooklyn and began to plan a bold new undertaking, a new type of Jewish institution. It was a good time in America. The Great War had ended and the world was to be "safe for democracy." The Jazz Age was about to begin, and the stock market crash and Great Depression were a decade away. For American Jews it was time for something big and ambitious, something that would embody the ideals of Judaism in a unique way.
From its inception, the Brooklyn Jewish Center was seen as a symbolic bastion of Jewish strength in the eyes of the nation, embodying the idea that the road to Americanism was paved not with abandonment of tradition but with Jewish pride and contribution. In the words of the first president of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, "All American Jewry… world Jewry, is watching us in our efforts. We have made a contribution to American Jewish life, and the foundation has been well built."
The idea that swept the imagination of the Center's founders was of a single institution that would encompass all aspects of life - educational, religious, social and recreational - and be a haven for all family members in all stages of life from toddler through adulthood. How well they succeeded may be judged by the fact that the "Jewish Center" is now a ubiquitous feature of American Jewish life. At the first organizational meeting, the Center's rabbi for more than half a century. Rabbi Dr. Israel H. Levinthal, pointed out that the Jewish Center was "a novel notion in Jewish life." The Center, it was hoped, would be a new way of addressing the issue of Jewish continuity in America.
A MAJOR INSTITUTION"The value of the Center," Rabbi Levinthal declared at the building's dedication in 1920, "will lie not in its physical structure, beautiful though it be, but in the message that will go forth from this building into our hearts and minds. Its usefulness will be measured not by the material appurtenances with which it is outfitted, but by the type of character that shall here be developed."
As to the "material appurtenances," a million-dollar building was constructed on 11 lots that the group purchased on Eastern Parkway, called in a contemporary account "one of the most beautiful avenues in Greater New York." The grand edifice housed a magnificent synagogue, as well as a large gymnasium, a banquet hall, dining and lounge areas, classrooms, and a swimming pool. Everything from bar mitzvahs to basketball tournaments, from Sabbath and holiday services to lectures by prominent individuals on the political and cultural scene, would take place at the Center.
The opening dedication of the BJC took place in the presence of many of the most distinguished figures in American Jewish life. Highlighting the theme of Judaism and Americanism, an American flag that had been used by Jewish soldiers on the battlefields of France was raised.
SOURCE OF JEWISH PRIDEThe imposing edifice presided over a stretch of historic Eastern Parkway -one of the most beautiful avenues of greater New York at the time, and the nation's first six-lane thoroughfare. It augmented Brooklyn's hub of culture along the Eastern Parkway-Flatbush Avenue axis together with the Brooklyn Museum, Grand Army Plaza, the Brooklyn Central Library, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Key intellectual figures lectured there, Columbia University offered extension courses, and every type of instruction was available.
Primarily, however, the Brooklyn Jewish Center, under the leadership of Rabbi Israel H. Levinthal, was a beacon of American Jewish life and a source of Jewish pride. Thousands would stream to hear Rabbi Levinthal's popular sermons on Friday evenings. Walking from surrounding Jewish neighborhoods, they often arrived to find standing-room-only crowds filling the great sanctuary.
From an early membership of several hundred, the center grew to a peak of about 3,500. At its height, recalls a long-time member, there was no prominent Jew in Brooklyn who did not have some association with the Center. The first Jewish mayor of New York City, Abraham Beame, was a member, as were the judges, doctors, lawyers and politicians who made up the elite of Jewish society. Magnificent weddings and celebrations were held in the grand ballroom of the Center, which is famous to this day for its old-world style with its impressive chandeliers and luxurious décor.
Among the notable figures associated with the Brooklyn Jewish center were: Chaim Weizmann, Albert Einstein and Menachem Ussishkin, who came in 1921 as a delegation on behalf of the Zionist movement; Moss Hart, who served as a social director in 1927; Heinz Liepmann, Einstein, Stephen Wise and Will Durant, who were involved with the establishment of a Library of Nazi Banned Books; Rollo G. Reynolds (Provost of Teachers College), who was the founding Educational Adviser of the Center Academy in 1928; Mark Rothko, the world famous artist, was the arts teacher in the School Academy, Samuel Lemberg (philanthropist), who initiated plans for the mortgage redemption; and Abraham D. Beame (later mayor of New York City), was an active member. Richard Tucker served the congregation as its cantor for many years.
The Center is also known for its publications, the Brooklyn Jewish Center Bulletin, which appeared as a monthly in 1933, a quarterly from 1957 and then semiannually. The Review was a pioneering journal and included synagogue news, editorials, a rabbi's column, articles of general Jewish interest, and short stories.
The Center Hebrew Academy, where Jewish children learnt of the heritage and culture, was a great pride of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. Plans were drawn up to invest in a new separate building for the Academy, yet it never materialized. Interestingly though, 50 years later, under the auspices of Educational Institute Oholei Torah, such an edifice was built, almost to the exact original plans.
For a good part of the 20th century Rabbi Levinthal steered his flock through good times and bad, drawing a wide following and yet remaining personally involved with all the members of the Center and their families, taking notice of graduations and other major events as sons and daughters of the original members grew up to adulthood and often continued their association with the Center through another generation.
Rabbi Israel H. Levinthal, continued in this capacity until 1954, then later became the Rabbi Emeritus. He was succeeded by Rabbi Benjamin Z. Kreitman.
Rabbi Benjiman Z. Kreitman, joined the Center in 1952, as the associate Rabbi, and began working with the young adults, and later Rabbi Kreitman founded the famous Mishna Class, which continues consecutively for over 25 years. Rabbis Schwartzman, Haymowitz and Bloch also served as Spiritual Leaders of the congregation.
TRANSITIONBut times change, society changes, and neighborhoods change. During the 1960s the area around the Brooklyn Jewish Center was in a state of decline. Jewish families moved to the suburbs or to other neighborhoods. 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. Membership in the Center dwindled to a bare handful that held on tenaciously to the grand old structure on Eastern Parkway and all that it represented to them, refusing to sell the building despite generous offers.
At the same time, in the very backyard of the Center, another phenomenon was taking place. The Chassidic community, which had began to take root as early as 1940 with the arrival from Europe of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, at that time, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, was now growing by leaps and bounds. As a matter of principle, the Chassidim were committed to remaining in and building up the neighborhood and its communal infrastructure. Their immediate problem: lots of school age children, no building to house a school.
The logical solution was like an answered prayer for both institutions. Thus a thriving partnership developed between the Brooklyn Jewish Center and the flagship school of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Educational Institute Oholei Torah.
PASSING THE TORCHIn 1972 the Brooklyn Jewish Center began renting space to the Educational Institute Oholei Torah for use as classrooms. This school, which had started out with a small number of elementary school students in a rented house in a less-than-desirable area, had grown to several hundred students. At the time they were being bused each day to a dilapidated, rented building that was inadequate for the needs of a modern school.
And so the marble stairs and decorous halls echoed again to the sound of children's steps and laughter. Classrooms were filled with the love of Judaism that was being taught within their walls. Members of the Brooklyn Jewish Center continued their tradition of Sunday morning services long after the Shabbat services of the Center had been discontinued. They met at the synagogue for a class in Mishnayot, brunch, and other activities. The partnership continued for many years. Despite continued offers by other institutions to purchase the building for a huge price, the Center's board of trustees refused to sell.
In 1978, at a ceremony of the Brooklyn Jewish Center honoring Rabbi Levinthal, now past 90 years of age, wrote a personal message to the congregation he has led for a jubilee. He spoke about the growth of the Center and its future as well as its past.
"Nothing is static in life," he said in his letter. "Every generation produces and is affected by change… despite changing conditions, we dare not permit our spirit to falter or wake or yield to a feeling of defeat. New problems may demand different methods of solution or fresher remedies… we can again make of the Brooklyn Jewish Center what it was for more than two-thirds of its life - the pride and beauty of American Jewry."
Rabbi Levinthal wrote further that although his physical contribution was limited due to his advanced years, he hoped to continue to "help maintain this Brooklyn Jewish Center as the superlative beacon it has been in Jewish life."
And it was under his leadership, together with many of the members of the Board of Trustees that they sold the Brooklyn Jewish Center to Oholei Torah, keeping the great building as part of the Jewish Community. The Yeshiva education offered in our building, they said, is a giant step towards replacing what we are losing.
Ben Moskowitz, the last President of the Center, who also was instrumental in the sale of the BJC to Oholei Torah, was quoted as saying " How can we resist what is progress for Judaism. This is preserving our heritage. They are our future and in fact, the perpetuity of our religion"
REMAINING TRUE TO OUR IDEALSThe goal of Jewish continuity was being carried forward they seemed to say, albeit in a different style. In 1985 the trustees sold the Brooklyn Jewish Center building to Oholei Torah outright. They accepted an offer, which was a small fraction of what they could have received from others who had been trying to buy the building for years. Thus they guaranteed that the principals, the hard work, the ideals and personal sacrifice of all those who came before them in building up the Brooklyn Jewish Center would not be forgotten. The trustees, the administration, and indeed all the students of Oholei Torah maintain an ongoing gratitude and respect for the Center's founders and supporters.
A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITYThe friendship and partnership continued years after the sale of the building, and today, in show of Oholei Torah's appreciation to the members of the former Brooklyn Jewish Center, a committee has been established to continue this friendly relationship.
A unique opportunity has arisen to re-connect and pass on the legacy and great devotion of the founding members to their descendents through the newly founded Brooklyn Jewish Center Circle.
It is our goal that this bring about a renewed interest and involvement on the part of the former members of the Brooklyn Jewish Center and their descendants and strengthen the base of friends and supporters of Educational Institute Oholei Torah, to whom the Board of Trustees saw fit to continue the pride and beauty of the Center Building.
For more information, call Rabbi Nosson Blumes, Co-coordinator, 718-483-9000.
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