The story of Young Israel Beth El of Borough Park is indeed one of harmony. The magnificent building that now houses the combined congregations of Young Israel of Borough Park and Congregation Beth El was designed to display the voices of the chazanim. A symphony hall within a shul. More harmonious is the joining of two Orthodox synagogues.
Congregation Beth El of Borough Park was established in 1902 in the heart of Borough Park. The Moorish-Egyptian designed three-story brick building located at 48th Street and 15th Avenue was erected in 1920 and has deservedly been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 2010.
The Young Israel of Borough Park was previously located on 50th Street between 13th and 14th Avenues in a beautiful facility that at one time included the Shulamith School For Girls. It was a modern Orthodox school with a focus on educational excellence and Zionism and was the first Orthodox elementary school for girls in the country. By prior arrangement, it had been decided that if one of the partners in the building decided to sell, the other owner would not object. Thus when the Shulamith School For Girls decided to move to Flatbush, the building was sold to the Klausenberg kehilah. Although the Young Israel congregation continued to rent the facility from the new owners, they maintained the financial windfall from the sale. Eventually, the search began for a new location.
Fortunately there was a substantial membership and money in the bank. The building Congregation Beth El was in needed repairs and new members. Thus the making of a shidduch that took place in 1988.
As an aside, both the Shulamith School for Girls (when it was on Boro Park) and Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva (currently) have had their graduation ceremonies in Beth El.
Today, if Brooklyn were a city, it would rank as the third largest city in the United States. Borough Park houses one of the largest populations of Jews in the world and the largest Orthodox community outside of Israel. Originally, Blythebourne, as the village was called, was developed in 1887 as a small community of cottages. The municipality’s growth was due to housing development and the construction of the Sea Beach Railroad. Blythebourne’s name was officially changed to Borough Park in 1902. Jewish settlement began in the early 1900s, amplified by the building of a large YMHA in 1914. Pushcart vendors populated the streets in the 1930s until the city built a public market which in turn fortified 13th Avenue as a street of mercantile and specialty shops.
The demographic population in the 1980s was Italian, Irish, and modern Orthodox Jews. An astounding 85% of the residents of Borough Park were Jewish in the early 1980s. With an increase in the chassidic population, Jewish culture flourished, encouraging the opening of Jewish businesses including bookstores and restaurants.
Great rabbinical dynasties made their home within its boundaries, including Bobov, Satmar, Ger, Klausenberg, Skver, and Belz, and the more modern Orthodox Jews began moving to other areas. An example of the outflow of the modern Orthodox could be seen in the Shabbos attendance at the Young Israel of Borough Park. The Shabbos shul-goers decreased from 1,000 in its heyday to 400.
Illustrious is an understatement for the magnificence of the structure and its famous chazanim. At the top of the “world famous” list is Benzion Miller who has been the chazzan at YIBE for more than thirty-six years. In addition, YIBE holds the bragging rights for the longest running choir in America – Alan Dershowitz was once a member. In a display of confluence and unity, the choir is comprised of both chasidic and non-chasidic singers.
Beth El has a history of featuring cantors for over one hundred years. In the early 1900s the Conservative movement began making inroads in Borough Park. Although Temple Beth El has always been an Orthodox shul, there was a concern about a potential loss of members. Thus a chazzan was hired to “outdazzle” the Conservative synagogues – and became a mainstay. The famous chazzan Moshe Koussevitzky was one of the chazanim for sixteen years and followed by the acclaimed Moshe Stern from 1968 to 1977.
Current chazzan Benzion Miller was born in a displaced person camp in Germany and moved with his family to Canada as a young child. As was his father, he is also a shochet and mohel. His grandfather and great-grandfather were great cantors in Poland. Chazan Miller is one of the most acclaimed interpreters of liturgical music. He has performed with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony, and many other prestigious symphonies worldwide.
Longevity is a descriptive element of Young Israel Beth El for its rabbanim as well. Rabbi Israel Schorr was the first rabbi beginning in 1938. Rabbi Moshe Snow became the youth director in 1968, and then the assistant rabbi. When Rabbi Rav Gedalia Schwartz stepped down as the main rabbi in 1986, Rabbi Snow took over. When the shuls merged, Rabbi Schorr of the Beth El remained the main rabbi and Rabbi Snow became the assistant rabbi. It was a mutually respectful and symbiotic relationship. When Rabbi Schorr was niftar in 2000, Rabbi Snow became the official Rav. The charismatic Rabbi Snow has advanced degrees and smicha from Rav Moshe Feinstein, z”tl.
Rabbi Snow is proud of his shul and its eclectic congregation. Attendance on a regular Shabbos is usually anywhere from 50-100. But on Shabbos Mevorchim, when Chazzan Benzion Miller performs his cantorial, there can be 250 men and 400 women. Regular Shabbos Mevorchim attendees come from near and far, with many women walking the distance even in wintertime from Flatbush. While the services are more of a Young Israel style davening, the chazzan is a Bobover chassid.
Although most shuls offer the opportunity to sponsor a kiddish, Young Israel Beth El also offers sponsorship for Chazzan Miller. Shabbos services include additional tefillos for the welfare of the State of Israel, our President and Vice-President, and missing soldiers. The chazzan sings chasidishe negunim and the patron, in addition to being called for an aliyah, dedicates tefillos that are sung in someone’s honor or memory, or perhaps just for the pleasure of hearing the moving renditions.
In addition to daily minyanim, there is Daf Yomi, a Shabbos drasha, the rabbi’s Gemara shiur and a Pirkei Avos class with about sixty attendees. Another great factor is the lack of talking during davening.
As evidence that the Young Israel Beth El is more than a beautiful synagogue with unique and unified davening, it is a congregation with a soul. When the Victims of Arab Terror organization put out a call to adopt needy families in Israel, YIBE responded. In 2002 a group of Kiryat Arba residents were returning from Friday night services at Ma’arat Hamachpelah when they were attacked by violent Arabs. Moshe Fredj, from Mamre, was giving CPR to a wounded friend when he was shot five times. Moshe was in a coma for three to four months and had over thirty surgeries. With a wife and eight children depending on him, the needs were great. The Victims support group required a commitment of $5,000 annually for ten years to adopt a family and the mispallim of Young Israel Beth El have been sending at least that amount for more than twenty years. In 2015, Rabbi and Rebbitzen Snow visited with the Fredj family to celebrate his miraculous recovery. The shul is in midst of organizing a trip for members to visit the family they befriended two decades ago.
Young Israel Beth El prides itself on diversity, welcoming all Jews of any background, any level of observance, and that includes those with special needs. There is a HASC residential home nearby and the men are important members of the shul. Recently young women from a HASC Residential home have been coming as well. They have prime seats right next to the Rebbitzin.
The downstairs ezras noshim with its mechitza is a rather new addition to the shul. The original ezras noshim is an upstairs balcony with a bird’s eye view of the sanctuary in its entirety. The brass railings have a custom-made second row addition to increase the height for added safety. The grand facility, with a seating capacity of thirteen hundred, was designed with acoustics to replicate a symphony hall. Standing by the bima and holding a conversation, one becomes acutely aware at the lack of echo. Yet the chazzan’s voice fills the room. As Rabbi Snow says, “It’s like an optical illusion.”
The architecture is magnificent and befitting a House of God. Its intricacies include bas relief and an extraordinary amount of delicately painted Mogen Dovid symbols, all in the grandeur of large domes highlighted with stained glass windows on the sides. The gaslight chandeliers were replaced with exact replicas handmade by the Israeli artist Yochai and took a year to construct. They are on a pulley system so that the fixtures can be lowered to change the bulbs. Yet energy efficient was not a term used when the edifice was designed. Whether due to the air-conditioning in the summer or heating in the winter, the electric bill runs in the high thousands. As the Young Israel financial boon from the 1980s is long gone and dues are only $500 for a family membership, balancing the budget can be challenging. Nonetheless, the shul and its glorious history will be highlighted next year in the centennial celebration of Young Israel Beth El in its current location.
Congregation Beth El of Borough Park was established in 1902 and Young Israel of Borough Park was established in 1920. Hmm, an 18-year difference. They joined into a partnership in 1988. For thirty-one years the remaining remnants of the modern Orthodox community of Borough Park has been sharing a glorious facility with the chassidim of Borough Park. That heterogeousness is a gift as most shuls are homogeneous, especially in Borough Park. What could be more of a Kiddush Hashem than the harmony of this kehillah.