Coming Home to Crown Heights
The emotions and memories of many attending spanned close to a hundred years. Rabbinical and community reminisces were spoken, childhood highlights recalled, generations remembered.
The evening was filled with tributes and fellowship, music and art, history and personal stories. Rabbis and leaders recalled experience after moving experience. Honors were offered. Yet, perhaps the most moving moments of the evening were those not open to public view. When a tear fell from the eye of Richard Tucker’s son, Barry as an elderly former congregant related a private memory of his late father, it seemed to sum the many parts of the equation that created this special evening.
Special honors was paid to Cantor turned opera star, Richard Tucker, and Marcus Rothkowitz, a member of the congregation later known as the artist Mark Rothko. The son of Tucker and daughter of Rothko received their fathers’ awards. When he was Hazzan of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, Richard Tucker drew 1600 or more people to weekly services. As the widely known tenor of the Metropolitan Opera, Richard Tucker, he sang to millions on the Met’s international broadcasts.
Crown Heights has changed. It is a very different place than when, during the mid-century, Tucker enthralled a congregation of upscale Conservative Jews. The sanctuary no longer seats worshippers dressed in Shabbat finery; it is now home to hundreds of boys studying Torah in traditional mode. Still, there are deep connections between the conservative Lubavitch community that now calls the Brooklyn Jewish Center the Chassidic “Oholei Torah School” and the scattered congregation of the Conservative BJC. Yet, on the ninetieth anniversary of the building’s dedication, the two groups gathered together to celebrate the continuity of Jewish life and the future of a vibrant Jewish community.
Two men, connected mostly by their Judaism, birthed the miracle of this reunion. Rabbi Nosson Blumes, Director of Development at the Chabad-Lubavitch School, and Dr. Jeffrey Borer, a Manhattan physician whose family was among the founders of the original congregation, met on a wing and a prayer – or, a prayer book. Blumes found a cache of hundreds of “dedicated” prayer books and decided to try to find the owners. Among those he contacted was Dr. Jeffrey Borer, now a Manhattan physician. Dr. Borer has served as Dinner Chairman, forming a continuing “partnership” with Rabbi Blumes.
Since its purchase of the building in 1982 at a bargain price of $400,000, Oholei Torah, the lead school of the Lubavitch community, has invested over $1.5 million in restoration – with much additional work planned. Members of the original congregation worshipped in the building until 1991, even as the yeshiva grew. The once crumbling building now is an active school for 1600 students from the Lubavitch community.
Rabbi Benjamin Kreitman, the senior rabbi from 1954 until 1968, is now in his 90’s. He lives in Flatbush and has developed a warm relationship with Rabbi Blumes. The respect between the two Rabbis was evident as they greeted one another at the celebratory dinner.
Always known for its outreach, the Brooklyn Jewish Center continues its mission as a synagogue-school-community center. Its multi-function campus was a model for Jewish centers throughout America. It reached its heyday in the 194o’s and 1950’s serving an immigrant community running as fast as possible towards becoming “Americans.” In its 2011 incarnation, it is a major social center for the Crown Heights community, home of hundreds of weddings and celebratory events annually.
Guests at the dinners left with honey cake and holiday good wishes. Rabbi Blumes says “we want people to be comfortable. It’s still their home.” “I had no idea of how this would grow,” said Dr. Borer, “I originally wanted to do this event earlier but then agreed to this date. The chosen date turned out to be the date of the first service held in the sanctuary – slichot, September 24, 1921. “Look how God is having His hand in everything! Both in the Hebrew and English calendars, the dates are the same.”
Both agreed, “we are looking at our unity for many positive and happy occasions.”