Brooklyn Heights

Renewal of family faith brings growth of synagogues in Brownstone Brooklyn

May 18, 2017 By Jenny Powers Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Rubin and Belle Huffman, founding members of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Serge Lippe/Brooklyn Heights Synagogue
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Welcoming Shabbat, the free weekly sing-along for toddlers hosted by Brooklyn Heights Synagogue was recently named one of the Top 5 “Absolute Best Kids Music Classes in New York” by New York magazine, making it the only faith-based class to receive the honor and even ranking above popular mainstream offerings like Music Together.

Oprah Winfrey hosted a televised tour of Congregation B’Nai Avraham’s ritual immersion bath known as a Mikvah, which Orthodox Jewish women use each month to spiritually cleanse themselves after their menstrual cycle.

Congregation Mount Sinai opens its doors to the entire community one Wednesday each month and hosts a film series chronicling Jewish life and history.

And Kane Street Synagogue, often referred to as “The Mother Synagogue of Brooklyn” for being oldest Jewish congregation still serving the neighborhood in which it was founded, has brought Shabbat services to the residents of the Cobble Hill Health Center for the past 25 years.

The irony that all of this robust Jewish culture is thriving in a borough historically known as “The City of Churches” and in neighborhoods whose quaint little streets still bear the names of prominent Christian men of yesteryear is not lost. It is a solid reflection of the gentrifying changes happening in some of Brooklyn’s oldest neighborhoods.

Both Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, communities firmly rooted in Christian faith, are now also home to a total of four thriving synagogues, a testament to the Brooklyn renaissance in the new century.

But none of this happened overnight.  

It began at the turn of the 20th century, when Jewish immigrants moved from Eastern Europe to Manhattan’s Lower East Side and took up residence between Borough Hall and Fulton Ferry. Initially, all prayer, learning and meetings took place in private homes or rented facilities but as the community itself increased, the need for a place of their own did too.

As many Lower Manhattan synagogues began to relocate uptown, both downtowners and Brooklyn residents saw the need for a place closer to where they lived.

In 1862, the first building in Brooklyn to be built as a synagogue was known as Congregation Baith Israel. In 1905, it was renamed Kane Street Synagogue as we know it today.

Since 1996, the conservative congregation has been led by Rabbi Sam Weintraub and is now home to more than 300 member families. Like all their synagogue counterparts, the synagogue’s pre-school, drop in classes, religious school and adult education courses are all open to both Jews and non-Jews alike. It also offers a variety of civic-minded programming, much of it focused on social activism such as the current nationwide “Refugee Welcome” campaign supported by over 200 congregations and launched by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to welcome and advocate for refugees.

Weintraub said, “Jewish law codes teach that a synagogue has to have windows. A lot of people don’t know that and the reason it has to have them is so we can be aware of the world around us. We are a synagogue who not only keeps our doors open to welcome people but our windows open to be sensitive to what we see outside of our own walls.”

Rabbi Serge Lippe, who has led the Reform congregation at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue for 20 years, says of his own congregation, “We aren’t just welcoming, we are inviting. Rather than take a passive approach, we are proactively finding ways to invite people inside.” Some of those ways include hosting a sample Seder for people unfamiliar with the Passover tradition, establishing a parenting center for new moms and dads and offering a monthly Shabbat service for millennials called “The Other Friday Night.” They have also operated a seasonal homeless shelter five days a week for the past thirty years that is solely run by members of the overall community, including a variety of different houses of worship.

The synagogue opened in 1960 after Heights residents Rubin and Belle Huffman invited neighbors into their living room to discuss starting their own synagogue. They now live-stream their weekly Shabbat services to the entire community and have more than 470 member families. They purchased the brownstone next door to accommodate their growing numbers. Lippe, who was recruited by a national placement service while serving as an associate rabbi in Paradise Valley, Arizona, says he is a “familiar face to many non-Jews in the community.” In fact, it was Lippe that led much of the Anti-Hate Rally in Adam Yauch Park when it was vandalized with spray-painted swastikas last year.

Every summer, Lippe hosts an afternoon barbecue in his backyard and invites members of the Rabbinic Clergy Association to, as he puts it, “break bread without agenda.” He also encourages jointly sponsored and interfaith programming with other synagogues in the area as well as the local mosque and churches. “We aren’t particularly territorial, everyone is taxed and maxed with our own congregations and when we can do things together and support one another, well, that’s great,” Lippe says. “We all try and help one another out whenever we can, with whatever he can,” he adds. A perfect example is now that Brooklyn Heights Synagogue’s congregation is too big to fit in its own sanctuary for High Holiday services, Plymouth Church graciously allows them to host services in its parish every year; and Our Lady of Lebanon and Grace Church have hosted its Women’s Seder.

Just a few doors down from Brooklyn Heights Synagogue sits Congregation B’nai Avraham, which opened in 1988 and has been led by Rabbi Aaron Raskin since its inception. It is part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and is also affiliated with Kiddie Corner, the largest established Jewish preschool in Downtown Brooklyn known for the little red buggies it carries its youngest students in. The rabbi’s wife, Shternie Raskin, runs the school, which welcomes children of all religions from all over the community.

The challenge was that once children aged out of Kiddie Corner, there was nowhere in the neighborhood for them to continue their Jewish education. That all changed when the neighborhood restaurant The Moxie Spot closed and The Brooklyn Heights Jewish Academy opened in its place. The school is an Orthodox, co-educational facility, and Rabbi Raskin serves as the dean.

This fall, the academy welcomed their inaugural kindergarten and first-grade classes. “Every single year we’ll grow by a grade level and our goal is to go up to 12th grade,” says the Head of the School Marina Pinkhasik.

According to Pinkhasik, whose own children currently attend Kiddie Corner, the academy abides by New York state’s standards and educators work to holistically integrate Judaism into the overall curriculum in a variety of creative ways, such using matzos to count during math class and learning about budgets by figuring out how much to spend at the Court Street Farmers Market for Seder supplies. Students also learn to read and write simultaneously in Hebrew and English, and this month they have invited Israeli soldiers for a class visit as part of their social studies on citizenship.

Congregation Mount Sinai, located at Cadman Plaza, has long been considered a central meeting place for not just Jews, but also Christians and Muslims. Rabbi Seth Wax, who has led the congregation since 2013 and who will be stepping down this summer when he moves, has served as the co-president of the Brooklyn Heights Interfaith Clergy Association and for the past two years has co-led an Interfaith Scripture study group, which he describes as “a powerful and deep look into multicultural texts.” One of the many of interfaith programs will take place Monday, May 22 and will be hosted at the Brooklyn Friends Meeting House (110 Schermerhorn St.). Titled “Faith and Justice: Misogyny and Religion,” this forum is the first in a series that will tackle the problem of religions being complicit in oppression of various peoples, such as women, ethnic and racial minorities, and the environment, in order to maintain power. The forum begins at 11 a.m.

On Sunday mornings, Mount Sinai opens its doors and hosts “Resurrection Brooklyn,” a mobile church that holds worship services in a variety of different locations.

In 2012, it was revealed that one in four residents in Brooklyn were Jewish according to the UJA-Federation of New York’s Jewish Community Study of New York.


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