by Ellen Levitt
Brooklyn has a large number of synagogues, and they come in many varieties. You can easily find various types of Orthodox shuls,as well as Conservative, Reform, non-denominational; Ashkenazi and Sephardi. Congregations with perhaps a bare minyan and others with a few thousand members. But for all the synagogues Brooklyn has within its midst, it has also seen many synagogues disappear. Some have merged with other nearby congregations while others closed up, their members and assets dispersed. Dozens of shuls have been closed up and the buildings torn down, other structures erected on their lots. Other closed synagogues still exist in a bittersweet fashion: their buildings still stand but the sites are now occupied by churches, schools, medical facilities, or even serve as private residences.
I have been documenting these “lost synagogues” of Brooklyn, as well as in the other NYC boroughs and Governors Island, for more than a decade. In my 2009 book The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn, published by the scholarly press Avotaynu, I offer photos and text about more than 80 former synagogues. Since that time I have found more than a dozen others, and sadly a few other congregations have closed up in that time. There are many lost synagogues in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Brownsville, East New York, Flatbush and East Flatbush. Jews moved out of those areas and left behind their shuls, schools and other communal sites. Other neighborhoods with several “ex-shuls” include Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg, and New Lots. You might be surprised to learn that there are former shuls as well in Bensonhurst and Sheepshead Bay! Some of these buildings have a lot of remaining Judaica on the exterior and interior– Jewish stars, Hebrew writing, cornerstones, Decalogues and stained glass windows with Jewish designs. Others have little or nothing left, but I have found records that indicate that they were, indeed, used as synagogues at some point.
To personalize this a bit, let me tell you about Shaare Torah, the synagogue I attended until I was not quite 7 years old. Located on East 21st Street at Albemarle Road, it was a beautiful and spacious building with unusual windows and other artistic features. I recall celebrating Simhat Torah there, getting a flag and marching around in the street! What fun. But my family moved south and joined the East Midwood Jewish Center, to which I still belong. In 1999 I drove over to the old Shaare Torah, and discovered that it was now Salem Missionary Baptist Church. My parents knew about this but hadn’t told me. I made sure to snap photos of it and discuss this with people. From that time on, I have been more and more fascinated by these sites, and devote much time to photographing and researching them. But I am also interested in meeting the people who now use these sites. Studying these buildings and their pasts, I bring together urban history, Jewish studies, an appreciation of architecture and art, and more.I hope to hear from you about these sites, if you attended them or know others who have.