On Sunday, September 15, a gala dinner will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Brooklyn Jewish Center.
Built as a Conservative center, today it houses Oholei Torah, Crown Height’s main Lubavitch yeshiva (both elementary and post-mesivta) and features Lubavitch weddings nearly ever night.
Most buildings lose all connection to their previous occupants once they’re sold – as the Brooklyn Jewish Center was 35 years ago – but in 2009, Rabbi Nosson Blumes, Oholei Torah’s director of development and director of the Brooklyn Jewish Center Circle, decided to bridge the gap between the old and new owners, and thus was born an unusual relationship between Conservative Jews and Lubavitcher chassidim.
“We knew who the original members of the Brooklyn Jewish Center were, so we started reaching out to their children,” Rabbi Blumes told The Jewish Press. “We saw positive feedback from the people about how happy they were that their building was alive and well.”
When it was built, the Brooklyn Jewish Center was an impressive structure, featuring marble staircases, a magnificent synagogue (which was partially converted into a beis medrash two decades ago), classrooms, a gymnasium, a banquet hall, a full-service restaurant, and a swimming pool. It hosted everything from daily, Shabbat, and Yom Tov services to basketball tournaments and lectures by Jewish icons and politicians.
Thousands attended its religious services. Its members included Abraham Beame, New York’s first Jewish mayor, and the operatic tenor Richard Tucker served as the center’s cantor for many years.
But over time, membership of the once vibrant center began to dwindle, and in 1982, the board of the Brooklyn Jewish Center had a pivotal decision to make. “The neighborhood got bad for a while, and everyone was leaving except for the Lubavitch,” said Ruth Sedenberg, who attended the center as a child and whose father was a trustee on the board.
“The center needed money, and a church wanted to buy it for a tremendous sum in those days,” she said. “My father went insane. How could this wonderful Jewish institution become a church? My father went to meeting after meeting, and finally he came back one day excited that he had succeeded in convincing the board to sell it to the Lubavitch and keep it as a Jewish center.”
“The members become emotional,” says Mendel Duchman, who works alongside Rabbi Blumes. “They start talking about how they got married there and their bar mitzvahs. The Brooklyn Jewish Center is an ongoing connection of their past, the present, and the future.”
One member, Helen Freedman, told The Jewish Press, “I lived just a block away, and the Brooklyn Jewish Center became my home away from home. I started Hebrew school there when I was five and I never left until I got married there.”
Freedman says she’s very happy that the building is now in Lubavitch’s hands. “I am very proud to see this.” Ruth Sedenberg, another old Brooklyn Jewish Center member, echoed her sentiment. “I’m thrilled. I’ve always felt they did good things. It’s a thriving yeshiva and Chabad is doing wonderful things throughout the world,” she said.
“The members of the Brooklyn Jewish Center knew the only way they could continue their legacy was through Oholei Torah,” Rabbi Blumes said, “and they felt comfortable that we would give them the respect and recognition they deserve. No other project to preserve an old institution has done more work than we have to preserve the Brooklyn Jewish Center.”