The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn
by Ellen Levitt

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"Pleading With History": Memories of Brooklyn's Ex-Shuls

In The Secret City, Fred Gorman's book about "Woodlawn Cemetery and the Buried History of New York" (2004) I found a quote that touched me in light of my study of ex-shuls: "We're all pleading with history, begging not to be forgotten..." (Gorman, p. 157) This is debatable; there are people who wish to be forgotten, overlooked, or who at least do not actively pursue a route toward immortality. But most of us want to be remembered, by family and friends, by professional colleagues, perhaps by millions or adoring fans of our work or our notoriety.

For Jewish people there is the need to be remembered, and it is proscribed in commandments and customs. Many Jews do want their names and accomplishments to be remembered through the yearly Yahrzeit traditions, by having their names inscribed upon tombstones and synagogue plaques and little metal plates attached to synagogue benches.

So what happens to the long-gone Jews who attended Brooklyn's ex-shuls? How are they remembered? Is this now the sole responsibility of their extended families? (Woe betide the bachelor and spinster, eh?) Who will drop by an ex-shul on East 95th Street in the East Flatbush-Brownsville pocket, now a Christian church, and spy their great-uncle's name? Who will visit a former synagogue on Newport Street in Brownsville and recognize their grandma's name on a plaque commemorating the Women's Auxiliary? How many people do not remember exactly which shul they went to as youngsters, other than that it was zayde's (grandfather's) shul and that's what you knew it as? How many people in their twenties even know where their great-grandparents, newcomers to America, came regularly to pray?

I thought about this throughout explorations in these neighborhoods, my actual visits inside several ex-shuls, and cemetery visits where I was able to locate the burial plots and gates of certain ex-shuls. The Christians who attend the churches that are now housed in the ex-shul buildings very rarely can read Hebrew, and for the most part they have little idea of what they can glean from the plaques and inscriptions found in these sites. Some surmise that there are lists of names, honors or some sort, dates and events described. But it is largely untapped information for these Christian congregants. And likewise, very few knowledgeable Jews venture into these buildings now, for their many reasons, and thus cannot let the world know of the treasure troves of information to found, the history that is still present within these walls.

Many people may have begged not to be forgotten, but they are overlooked, their memories in a dormant state. I assume that many Christian congregants realize that something significant is within these walls, a past that is quite different from their own, but they notice it only in passing while they walk to their seats, or join a committee meeting, or partake of the weekly food pantry or hot meals. And just as we do not often notice the ads in subway cars as we take seats, or overlook street vendors unless we need the umbrellas they sell or they snacks they offer up, these congregants have only a passing interest in the Hebrew writing and symbols gracing the ex-shuls. Or they think about it here and there, during a lull in the service or Bible study class. They become used to seeing them and it drifts into the background. I don't fault them. But Christians do become curious about these buildings and they may trace with their fingers the carved lettering or peer at the orphaned Ner Tamid, eternal light, or an oft-painted mezuzah that still guards a doorway.

And this is also why I have felt compelled to explore these ex-shuls and to bring my husband, father, and daughters to see them and take photographs and visit them. I wanted to try to reconnect to these pasts, to say hello to some old names, to explain a few things to the Adventists or Baptists or Church of God faithful who do have a yen to learn about their surroundings.

What Does Jewish Law Say About All This?

  A Jewish congregation sees its membership fall. Only a few active, interested members remain. Their neighborhood seems less hospitable than in the past; Jews are becoming the minority among other minority groups in the area. Someone from a Christian group approaches the shul about buying the building in order to establish a church there. Or the building is falling into disrepair and is repeatedly vandalized, with the congregation unable or unwilling to commit to its upkeep. What do the Jews do about their house of worship?

  The Jews in Brooklyn, as in many other urban (and sometimes suburban) areas in the United States and Canada, have faced dilemmas about how to handle their sacred sites and the items held within, when the congregation is shutting down or relocating. Do they abandon the buildings? Sell them outright to church groups? Sell to real estate brokers who may or may not sell the buildings to churches? Should a congregation purposely seek a non-religious organization to sell the building to, such as a non-sectarian school or medical center or to the city for public use?

  What does Jewish law have to say about all this? Civil law permits a host of real estate sales. A market economy encourages such transactions. But when Jewish law is involved, the issue is rarely simple. For those who want to do the right thing by halakhah, Jewish law, there are a variety of issues regarding and directing how to deal with a synagogue that is dormant or becoming so.

  Not only are there particular laws, there is a range of interpretations. The Orthodox, traditional and strictly scriptural, approach handles it in a certain way (although there are variations even within this). The Conservative movement has more leniency regarding this, although still adhering to the spirit of the text. I could have written this book and ignored the topic but I felt that was wrong, even disingenuous. It is a topic that has been dealt with for quite some time and is still being dealt with because synagogues do die out or move to different locations. It is an issue in Brooklyn and other New York City boroughs, in other large cities such as Chicago and Detroit, and even in small towns throughout the Midwestern and Southern states. We will look at sources which grapple with the topic and then move onto commentary and real-life scenarios.

  Here are a few scenarios to show ways in which this has been handled. A synagogue on East 53rd Street called B’nai Abraham (Sons of Abraham) was written up in a mid-1970s New York Times article which depicted its woebegone state near its end. (Chambers for the NY Times, 10/4/1976, p.30) This building now is being used by an Orthodox Jewish school for its early childhood center. Although this is no longer a shul, it is still a building under Jewish auspices. Another ex-shul on a different section of East 53rd Street was renovated into a medical center. It now looks quite different from 2006, when it still featured much of its latent Judaica. It is clearly a non-religious site now.

  But many other former shuls, as depicted throughout this book, have become churches representing several Christian denominations. How does this square with Jewish laws and customs? When the particular Brooklyn neighborhoods focused on here had large Jewish populations they were certainly able to adhere to the following:

 “’When ten people pray together,’ says the Talmud, ‘the shechinah rests among them.’ (Berachot 6a) Judaism, therefore, attaches great importance to public worship (tefillah betzibur).” (Appel p.16)

 And certainly these neighborhoods, including Brownsville, East New York, East Flatbush and others, were home to many synagogues, many sites of public worship. Typically, from  the early 1900s through just after World War Two, it was not difficult for these many shuls to each assemble a minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish men, required for many prayers and for Torah reading. However, once the Jewish population began to dwindle, then rapidly decrease, minyans became scarce if not impossible to form. Would the following instead be an issue?

 “Where there is no steady minyan, they may compel one another to assemble regularly for a minyan so that communal worship may not cease.” (Appel p.57)

 But who would make such an appeal, and who would heed the call? There were cases of Jews who moved from, say, their old neighborhood of Brownsville but still returned (at least for a while) to their old synagogues, to help maintain the required minyan. But these ties eventually eroded, and who was left in the end? And in a largely secularized society, how compelling would this be to the majority of Jews, who were abandoning areas such as Brownsville?

  So the first thing to discuss here are the laws and then the interpretations surrounding the sale of synagogues that are no longer able to function properly.

  “If Jews have moved out of a neighborhood and the synagogue is left without a minyan of worshipers, or if it is not possible for them to maintain it for services, it is permitted to sell the synagogue, if possible through the intermediacy of a third party, such as the bank that holds the mortgage.” (Appel, pp.61-62)

  This interpretation, based  upon the Concise Code of Jewish Law (Kitzur Shulhan Aruch and other traditional sources) may be seen as common sense. Yet it can be heartbreaking for those who had associations with the particular shul. The straight-forward tone of the above obscures the emotions behind the decision and the history of the group, of the building.

  Rabbi Louis Jacobs wrote in 1995 that:

  “The question of selling a synagogue that is no longer used has been much discussed. As stated above, the question is discussed in the Mishnah (Megillah, Chapter 3) and in the Talmudic elaboration of the Mishnah. The final ruling is that when a synagogue can no longer be used it may be sold, on the grounds that synagogues are sanctified on the condition that they are used as such, so that once a synagogue is no longer used it loses its sanctity and may be sold.” (Jacobs, available through

  Extrapolating from that, Jacobs states that authorities allow for a synagogue to be sold and then turned into a church or mosque, although this is usually achieved through indirect sale to a third party (agent, bank, government, even a non-profit organization).

  Who within the congregation gets to make this big decision? This could  be a bone of contention among some members while others could be indifferent, disinterested. Some shuls chose to go to civil court to finalize their congregational assets (see case disposition book). Did some shuls dissolve into arguments over how to contend with the assets, including the shul building? Did some shuls simply abandon buildings out of fear of rising violence in the neighborhoods or for indecision over how to handle dissolution? Unfortunately this has not been systematically documented and easily accessed for research purposes, in most cases. It often became a private matter whose memory has faded with time.

  A few shuls moved elsewhere (even to Israel, where two synagogues became “transplanted”) and to suburbs (this happened a number of times in Chicago—see Chicago’s Forgotten Synagogues by Robert A. Packer) and some merged with healthier synagogues (the East Midwood Jewish Center of Brooklyn absorbed a merger with the former Shaare Torah, for instance). While there are a few main ways in which synagogues have been phased out, there is no central depository for this information so it is uncovered with luck and intense sleuthing. Some ex-shuls took civil legal routes, some dissolved in a member’s living room.

  The Conservative movement as well as the Orthodox community has also studied the topic of selling holy property; this includes shul buildings and any sacred items such as Torah scrolls, prayer books, books of study, ornamentation associated with holy items (pulpit covers, Torah covers, the yad [pointer used by Torah readers], furniture (especially if it has Judaic ties such as a lectern for the reading of a Torah scroll). Even smaller items such as tallisim (prayer shawls), a ner tamid (“eternal light” light fixture) and ceremonial wine goblets have to be dealt with by a congregation in its sunset (although there are cases of shul buildings that were left with many of these items, which were sometimes incorporated into the churches).  

 The Conservative committee, by examining Mishnah Megillah 3:1 stated that “1. Holiness accrues to certain items used for worship and study.  2. If the holy item is sold, the holiness transfers into the funds for which it was sold. 4. Holiness is not uniform, but is distinguished by degrees. (Examples from the Megillah: ‘If they sell a synagogue, they must buy an ark. If they sell an ark they must buy the dressings for the Torah.’)  (Rabbi Fine, p.1)

 Thus there is intrinsic value to various religious objects and these items cannot just be sold at a garage sale. Care must be taken in selling these items and in how money received will in turn be used.

  It is easier, therefore, to sell a synagogue than a Torah scroll. Once the building has been stripped of Judaica it is just a building. However, a Torah scroll’s letters cannot just be erased, nor the other elements recycled. It is easier, and more desirable, simply to donate an unused Torah scroll to an active shul or school.

   And what should a shul, nearing its end, do with any money earned from sales of the building and its holy items? According to the Megillah, the money cannot just be divided up by remaining members and /or their relatives; a higher purpose must be sought for the pool of money. In many cases this has actually meant that the money was donated to another synagogue, religious school, or Jewish charity;  “one may use the proceeds from the sale of a synagogue for the construction of a Jewish school.” (Fine, p.8) Other less holy funds may be derived from any membership fees the congregation had banked as well as burial plots the group had purchased together.

   Perhaps the easiest way to take care of any of these items from a closing shul is to hand them off to other congregations and schools. Even then, however, such items should be examined for structural problems. This is particularly important with Torah scrolls, which can be considered Pasul, unfit for use. (A Torah must be mended by a qualified scribe.)

   The other halakhic consideration I had to make while researching this book is about entering churches. I have photographed over ninety former synagogues from the outside and scouted out about a dozen more from the street, and many of these buildings now house churches. I have been inside close to thirty of these buildings in order to investigate the Judaica inside, as well as to take photographs of their interiors. I spoke with members of the current churches on several occasions. At times I examined former and current social halls, libraries, classrooms, lobbies, rooms used as food pantries and for clothing drives—and many of the sanctuaries.

   There are Jewish laws regarding Jews entering non-Jewish houses of worship. There are various interpretations and opinions about the appropriateness of doing this. Jews are offered several options depending upon their level of observance. Certainly many Jews, especially those who are not very observant, have little or no problem with entering a church. For those who are more observant there are more issues, restrictions and considerations.

     According to the website,

     “it is forbidden for a Jew to enter the sanctuary  of the church, i.e., where the active prayer services are held. This could be misinterpreted as identification with the philosophy (of the church). However, it is permitted to enter other rooms in a church for non-religious purposes.”

       Rabbi Naftali Silberberg posted this in a straight-forward passage, especially targeted to Jews who are less likely to have studied the laws pertaining to this.

       Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, a British rabbi, also addressed the halakha of entering churches on his website:

       “The law banning entry to a house of worship is predicated on the assumption that it is pagan…

       “The Maharal of Prague (ShoT 24), the Tifferet Yisrael (Avot 3.14), and the Noda Biyehuda (in the introduction to Hitnatzlut HaMechaber) all declared that Christianity was not idolatry because it accepted the idea of Divine revelation…

       “Amongst the answers is that of ‘eyvah’, a Talmudic principle that requires us to maintain good relations with those we live amongst, regardless of their religion…

       “In fact, I, personally, have gone into churches to look at art and architecture, and to listen to concerts…” (Jeremy Rosen, pp. 1-2)

 While I investigated former synagogues which are now churches, I was not praying and made it known that I was there to conduct research. Everyone I met at these houses of worship respected my wishes and seemed to understand my intentions clearly.

 Here is another look at the issue:

 “Entering a house of avoda zarais forbidden for four reasons: The first is the prohibition of mar’ith ‘ayin, making it look as though a Jew would think of worshipping avoda zara… There is the assumption of someone participating in a church service. The second is a more controversial point: a house of avoda zara is considered in the category of meshamshei avoda zara and is therefore… forbidden to derive any benefit from it, e.g., shelter from the sun.

         “If there are no statues in the building, (one) prohibition would not apply…” (Jewish Mailing List, vol. 17, Number 42, December 1994)

This response was directed to a more scholarly and strictly observant audience but I include it to show that there is debate about the act of a Jew entering a church. Yes, someone could see me, entering a church, and assume that I came for the service. Instead I came to conduct research and let people know of the existence of my research project. I have always made it known to the people at these churches that I was Jewish and came for historical and interfaith purposes. I realize some people will disagree with my decisions and the extent to which I made them, but I wanted access to material that could only be seen in these houses of worship. One of my goals was to bring to life “hidden” Judaica, to make fuller the story of Brooklyn Jewry. Some of these buildings may be gone or significantly altered in a few years or many years down the road, and I wish to relate at least some aspects of them for future generations of Jews, as well as all Brooklynites and anyone else interested in urban Jewish history.

Brooklyn Synagogue Tour Guide (excerpt)

Congregation Chevra Torah Anshei Radishkowitz (now Love Tabernacle Fellowship Intl. and St. Timothy Holy Church), 135-9 Amboy Street at Sutter Avenue,  Brownsville, Brooklyn, 11212.

This former shul, which now is home to two Christian congregations, was featured in a New York Times article on January 28, 2008. On page B6 are three photographs of the building’s interior; the largest still shows the remaining grandeur of this once stunning building, while one of the two smaller shots shows the dilapidation that has taken its toll here.

The shul originated in 1922 and was the result of a merger of two shuls—Anshei Radishkowitz (1898) and Chevra Torah (1899). The first congregational rabbi was Benjamin Fleischer and the rabbi at the time of the WPA survey was Morris Rosen.

This is a decent-sized building, at 60 by 86 feet and three stories. There is a pleasantly maintained garden adjacent to it. In the “Sunday Visits” chapter I describe my visit there, but I will point out here that there is still a great deal of Jewish detail to be seen today. The front gate features Jewish stars; there is Hebrew writing on the front wall and chiseled into the walls of the foyer; Jewish symbols adorn the front and certain parts of the interior.

There are several other ex-shuls close by and this is one that is particularly impressive. Even the brickwork and pointing still look handsome at 139 Amboy.

Young Israel of Prospect Park
 (now Faith Assembly of God)     
2170 Bedford Avenue at Martense St., Flatbush, Brooklyn

Brooklyn has had many branches of the Young Israel movement, in several neighborhoods. The synagogue movement Young Israel had its debut in Manhattan before World War One and spread to Brooklyn, as well as other parts of New York City and throughout Jewish precincts elsewhere in the United States. (Kaufman, pp.200-202)

Today if you travel around Brooklyn you will see many active Young Israel sites, as well as a few that have died out or are in limbo. The Young Israel of East Flatbush has an entry in this chapter; another is the Young Israel of Prospect Park. The building was originally a church, then it became a Young Israel, and now it is again a church. The main remaining feature of its Young Israel days is the large rose window on the Bedford Avenue side, which features five smaller windows, each exhibiting a Judaic symbol (menorah, Magen David, Decalogue, and two open books). The inside of the circle has an equilateral triangle with the Hebrew letters Yud and Tzadi. These are typical of many Young Israel buildings.

Oddly enough if you go online to you will still see a listing for this Young Israel, and also on GeoNames. This particular Young Israel still held on until the 1980s at least. There are at least two other Young Israel shuls that are either inactive or nearing it (YI of Vanderveer Park is one of them). But this one on Bedford Avenue shows how houses of worship can flip religious affiliations.

Congregation Rishon L’Zion /Yeshivath Rishon L’Zion (now Church of God of East Flatbush)
409 East 95th Street, upper East Flatbush (near Brownsville)

At street level the former Rishon L’Zion is rather interesting because of all the Judaica still found on the front gates: Jewish stars and lots of engraved names in Hebrew. Looking at the building from across the street you also get to see the nice brickwork and scalloped designs near the roof. (This is echoed in a stretch of houses for a few blocks on nearby Avenue B.)

You can read more about Rishon L’Zion in the interview and church visits chapters. A further subtle, interesting point that can be made about this ex-shul is that the name of the shul is of a somewhat different genre than many of the surrounding ex-shuls. Many of the neighboring old synagogues had names which reflected places from Europe (Radishkowitz is an Anglicized spelling of a European town and just one example of this). Other shuls had fairly standard names recalling Jewish basics such as B’nai Judah (Sons of Judah), B’nai Isaac (Sons of Isaac), Etz Chaim (Tree of Life), Ohab Shalom (Lovers of Peace), Beth Hamidrash Hagadol (the Great House of Prayer). But there were a few shuls that had names that brought to mind Israel and Zionism.

Two prime examples of this in Brooklyn were Rishon L’Zion (the First of Zion, and the first settlement of modern Palestine-Israel) and Rochester Avenue’s Petach Tikvah (also a place-name in Israel). These two could be grouped with a set of other American shuls which David Kaufman dubs “the Phenomenon of the ‘Zionist Synagogue.’” (Kaufman, p. 196) Rishon L’Zion was organized in 1925 and the rabbi at the time of the WPA survey was Gilbert Steinberg (mentioned in the interviews chapter). They had ten Torah scrolls at the time.

If you visit the website of the church that resides in this building now you can view a slideshow that has some interior shots of the building. A handful of those show Jewish symbols (mostly menorahs) on their stained glass windows.

Machzikei Torah B’nei David (now Mt. Zion Pentecostal Holy Church)
175 Hart Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant  

At first glance the former Machzikei Torah is an unimpressive, small building, the size of a modest house. It has a worn-looking doors a front of faux brick. The interesting elements are time-worn stained glass windows. Coincidentally the church name echoes the ex-shul name with the initials M. T. becoming Mt.

Shaari Israel of Brooklyn (now United Pentecostal Deliverance Church)      
810 East 49th Street at Avenue D, East Flatbush

The in-depth chapter on Shaari Israel is about as extensive a history as we can get about any of these former synagogues. It is still a very nice-looking building with interesting details on view, among them the Decalogue with Roman numerals and a menorah near the top of the building’s front, as well as the scraped-at Hebrew words near street level, hiding behind a banister. The shul is diagonally across the street from the Hyde Park Jewish Center with its big outdoor mural. Here I will ponder what kinds of feelings each congregation had for the other; while there were several blocks in Brownsville and East Flatbush which housed more than one small to moderate shul, this is the one place in East Flatbush where we find two ex-shuls in such tight proximity. The two buildings are quite different in color and features but they both showcase dramatic entrances and were clearly more elaborate and larger than modest shuls.

Shaare Torah (now Salem Missionary Baptist Church)
305 East 21st Street  at Albemarle Road, Flatbush

You can read more about Shaare Torah in the interviews section and Sunday visits chapter. Suffice it to mention here that Shaare Torah is one of the more unusual ex-shuls stylistically. The overall look of the entrance is more modern than the majority of other old synagogues in this study. The artistic sculptural rendering of the shul’s name in Hebrew is also atypical. The menorah-laden fence at the entrance has elements in common with certain other shuls. Shaare Torah has an angled entrance that hints at the type of entrance seen on the former Petach Tikvah on Rochester Avenue (as well as Park Slope’s Garfield Temple) but one of the more striking aspects of this entrance, aside from the synagogue “sign” are the stone panels that rise and seem gently to undulate upward from the rounded entrance. It has the appearance of waving flags, or a net.

The Albemarle Road side of the building is also handsome and the stained glass windows draw the eye. The building is still in very good shape and is one of the highlights of an ex-shul tour. (It also has one of the highest estimated market values of any ex-shul in Brooklyn; in 2007 it was over $7 million.)

Congregation Adath Yeshurun (now Universal Temple Church of God)
1403 Eastern Parkway at Lincoln Place, Brownsville

This building is most unusual perhaps because it is built upon an angled street; Eastern Parkway and Lincoln Place meet at a sharp angle here and the building has an irregular shape. There are two small but obvious clues to its Jewish past; the small Magen David near the top of the building and a Decalogue (empty inside) inside a portico above the entrance. (And if you scrutinize the blank space underneath the portico you may see faint evidence of Hebrew lettering.) There are other nice decorative touches here such as the small circles featuring flowers and some of the windows are eye-catching. You can read more about this ex-synagogue in the Sunday visits chapter.

From modest to grand, from disheveled to near-pristine, the ex-shuls of Brooklyn that are described here span a number of styles. It is humbling to group them together and realize what they represent about Brooklyn Jewry, its goals and aspirations, its inspirations and realities.


This book, "The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn," can be ordered by clicking here.




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