East Midwood Jewish Center is a Conservative synagogue located at 1625 Ocean Avenue, Midwood, Brooklyn, New York City.
Organized in 1924, the congregation's Renaissance revival building (completed in 1929) typified the large multi-purpose synagogue centers being built at the time, and was from the 1990s until 2010 the only synagogue with a working swimming pool in Brooklyn. The building has been unmodified architecturally since its construction, and in 2006 was added to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).
Membership dropped during the Great Depression, and the synagogue suffered financial hardship, but it recovered, and by 1941 had 1,100 member families. In 1950 the congregation built an adjoining school; at its peak its enrollment was almost 1,000. As neighborhood demographics changed in the late 20th century, and Brooklyn's Jewish population became more Orthodox, the East Midwood Jewish Center absorbed three other Conservative Brooklyn congregations.
The East Midwood Jewish Center has had only four rabbis since it was founded. Reuben Kaufman served from 1924 to 1929, Harry Halpern from 1929 to 1977 and Alvin Kass from 1976 to 2014. In 2014, Matt Carl became the rabbi.
East Midwood was organized in 1924NRHP Continuation Sheet, Section 8, p. 2. by Jacob R. Schwartz, a dentist who was concerned that his two sons had no nearby Hebrew school which they could attend.Kaufman , p. 258. From the start his intention had been to create a Conservative synagogue: Conservative Judaism was seen as a compromise between Orthodox and Reform, providing the familiar (and lengthy) Hebrew services of Orthodox Judaism, but, like Reform, adding some English prayers. East Midwood differed from earlier Ashkenazi synagogues in New York, as services were to be conducted in Hebrew and English only (not Hebrew and Yiddish), and the members were to come from immigrants from all over Europe, not just one city or region.NRHP Continuation Sheet, Section 8, p. 3.
East Midwood held its first annual meeting on November 18, 1924 at the Jewish Communal Center of Flatbush (also known as the Flatbush Jewish Center),NRHP Continuation Sheet, Section 7, p. 3. and there elected its first president, Pincus Weinberg. Weinberg, who was also chair of the Real Estate Committee, was the father of Sidney Weinberg, who rose from the job of assistant porter to head Goldman Sachs from 1930 to 1969. Prior to moving to Flatbush, Pincus Weinberg had been president of Congregation Baith Israel Anshei Emes.Greenwald (2001), p. 35.Barton (2006).
East Midwood's first rabbi was Reuben Kaufman, and its first cantor was Jacob Schraeter. Kaufman, a Brooklyn native, had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Baith Israel Anshei Emes.Levin (2006).
Groundbreaking, July 13, 1925.
The Real Estate Committee almost immediately purchased land located on Avenue L between East 26th and 27th Streets. Most members, however, felt a location on Ocean Avenue would be more desirable. Issues arose with developing the land on Avenue L, and in 1925 the Committee purchased the current location at 1625 Ocean Avenue in Midwood, Brooklyn. The cornerstone was laid in 1926, and, although not complete, the building was fully enclosed by the autumn, and High Holiday services were held there that year. The Center's Talmud Torah, which had been created in 1925 and held in a temporary structure, also moved into the new building.
Designed in the Renaissance revival style, the building was finally completed in 1929 at the cost of $1,000,000 (today $).Kaufman (1999), p. 259. It typified the new "synagogue-centers" being built at that time, combining the functions of both a synagogue and community center, and included "a synagogue, auditorium, kitchens, restaurant, classrooms, gymnasium, and swimming pool". That year Kaufman left the Center to become the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Paterson, New Jersey,Kass (2006). and Harry Halpern became East Midwood's rabbi. Halpern, who also became an adjunct professor of pastoral psychiatry at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA), would go on to serve as rabbi for 49 years, until his retirement in 1977, four years before his death in 1981.Waggoner (1981).
Great Depression and school building
The Great Depression took its toll on the congregation, and membership dropped. In order to cope with the financial burdens, dues were raised, teachers were given endorsed notes rather than paychecks, the Executive Secretary was laid off, pews were sold, and individual members provided mortgage guarantees. The synagogue survived, and membership recovered; by 1934 there were 300 members, and by 1944 there were 1,100.
In 1950, East Midwood built a three-story school building and a two-story bridge link between the school and synagogue. At its peak in the early 1950s the school had an enrollment of almost 1,000.
East Midwood later created a Conservative Jewish day school, serving students from kindergarten to Grade 8, and also providing "afternoon religious instruction for public school students through high school." The school was subsequently renamed the Rabbi Harry Halpern Day School, in honor of Rabbi Halpern.
In October 1968, then Mayor of New York City John Lindsay was booed and jeered by a huge crowd at the East Midwood Jewish Center, in an infamous incident during the 1968 New York City teachers strike. Lindsay had supported a school decentralization plan that had pitted mostly black parents against mostly Jewish teachers and school administration; after the administrator of the Ocean Hill—Brownsville school board dismissed 13 teachers and 6 administrators for opposing decentralization, the United Federation of Teachers "called a strike that closed 85 percent of the city's 900 schools for 55 days".
When Lindsay arrived he was met by a mob of 2,000 people outside the synagogue, who shouted "Lindsay must go" and "we want Shanker". Halpern admonished the protesters, asking "Is this the exemplification of the Jewish faith?", but many replied "yes". Lindsay was heckled off the podium by the audience inside, and his limousine was "pounded on" and "pelted with trash" by the mob outside (which had grown to 5,000) as he drove away. The strike, which was marked by "threats of violence and diatribes laced with racism and anti-Semitism", ended when the New York legislature suspended the administrator and the board.
Following Halpern's retirement in 1977, East Midwood hired as rabbi Alvin Kass, a graduate of Columbia College and the JTSA, with a Ph.D. in philosophy from New York University.
Late 20th-Early 21st century
As Brooklyn's changing demographics have made non-Orthodox institutions less viable, East Midwood has absorbed three other congregations, including the Jewish Communal Center of Flatbush,NRHP Continuation Sheet, Section 8, p. 4. where East Midwood had held its first annual meeting, and, in 1978, Flatbush's Congregation Shaare Torah.In Loving Memory: Rabbi Aaron Pomerantz, East Midwood Jewish Center website. In 1996, membership was 1,000 families.
The synagogue building has remained architecturally unchanged since its construction, and was from the 1990s until 2010 the only synagogue in Brooklyn with a functioning swimming pool. In June 2006, it was added to the NRHP. That year the congregation received a $300,000 loan from the New York Landmarks Conservancy for repairs for "masonry and steel repairs on the side and rear facades."2007 Annual Report, New York Landmarks Conservancy, p. 15. It also raised $40,000 in order to receive a 2:1 "matching grant" of $20,000 from the Conservancy, and completed the repair work in 2007. In November 2007 East Midwood was awarded a $409,575 New York State Environmental Protection Fund grant to "restore features of the sanctuary including stained glass windows, stained glass dome and skylight."Press release, Governor Eliot Spitzer, New York State Executive Chamber, November 29, 2007.Environmental Protection Fund Projects, New York State Executive Chamber, November 29, 2007.
Aaron Pomerantz joined as associate rabbi in 1978. Born in Poland, he had escaped Europe after the outbreak of World War II, moving to Canada and then the United States. There he graduated from Manhattan's Washington Irving High School, and in 1952 received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin. From 1948 he had served as ritual director and then rabbi of Congregation Shaare Torah, joining the East Midwood Jewish Center when the two congregations merged. He served until his death in May 2009.
Dr. Alvin Kass served as Rabbi from 1976-2014. Kass has also been a New York City Police Department chaplain for over 40 years, and had previously served as a United States Air Force chaplain for two years. At one point during his service as Police Department chaplain he and his family received months of 24-hour security after death threats, and at another he defused a hostage situation by providing the hostage taker with sandwiches from the Carnegie Deli.See Parker & Freeman (2004), pp. 60–61, Jacobs (2006). Kass, who teaches ethics at the Police Academy, was instrumental in getting Jewish police officers time off to observe the Sabbath. He also convinced the NYPD Shomrim Society (the fraternal organization of Jewish members of the New York City Police Department) to admit David Durk. Durk, along with the more famous Frank Serpico, had been the source of the allegations of police corruption that led to the formation of the Knapp Commission. In 2014, Rabbi Kass retired from the position of Rabbi at East Midwood Jewish Center and currently serves as Rabbi Emeritus.
As of 2014, Rabbi Matt Carl and Cantor Samuel Levine serve as the clergy of East Midwood Jewish Center.
Ceremony in honor of the laying of the cornerstone, June 13, 1926.
The East Midwood Jewish Center building's architect is uncertain. The design is officially credited to the Building Committee and Irving Warshaw, the construction superintendent. The architect's name is not recorded in synagogue records, nor on the building's dedicatory plaque. The Center's National Register of Historic Places nomination form, however, argues that the architect was Louis Abramson, based on visual evidence and one piece of written evidence.
Abramson was a leading architect of synagogue-centers at that time. He designed a number of New York examples, including the original synagogue-center, the Manhattan Jewish Center (1918), as well as the Brooklyn Jewish Center, the Flatbush Jewish Center, and the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center (all constructed in Brooklyn between 1920 and 1924). While the Flatbush Jewish Center has been completely remodeled, the Brooklyn and Ocean Parkway Jewish Centers are visually similar to the East Midwood Jewish Center, and the Brooklyn Jewish Center in particular has an identical layout. The written evidence consists of an entry in a souvenir journal commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Flatbush Jewish Center, stating that Abramson drew East Midwood's plans. The NRHP nomination form speculates that Abramson drew the basic plans for the East Midwood Center, and that the Building Committee completed them, in order to save money.
Alternatively, Maurice Courland's 1957 obituary claims the East Midwood Jewish Center as his work. Courland also designed a number of synagogues and New York landmarks, including Brooklyn's Magen David Synagogue.
Author and talk show host Dennis Prager taught at East Midwood's Hebrew Day school,Koppell . and famous congregational members have included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was confirmed at East Midwood,Pogrebin (2007), p. 19. and filmmaker Marc Levin.Kalish (2005). Levin's grandfather, Herman Levin, had been a president of the East Midwood Jewish Center, and had also helped found, and been a long-time lay-leader of, the Reconstructionist movement.New York Times, April 2, 1990.
East Midwood has also had members who have died under tragic circumstances, including Jason Sekzer, who was killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks,The 4,000 Jews Rumor, United States Department of State's Bureau of International Information Programs website. and Danny Farkas, a New York police lieutenant and National Guard soldier who died while stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan.Edward (2008).Chandler (2008).Yaniv (2008).