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Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish Community

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Bensonhurst, Brooklyn 1950Bazaar in Bensonhurst, 86th Street east from Bay 32nd Street, Brooklyn.

Emigration to New York began in about 1907, although a few arrived earlier. The Syrian Jewish community in New York originally consisted of two groups, Jews from Aleppo and Jews from Damascus. At first the convergence of the two groups was not easy. The Aleppan Jews, or Halabis, thought themselves superior, largely due to their history in Syria as a center of Jewish learning. They followed the traditions of Aram Soba. The Damascene Jews, or shammies, prayed in a different house of worship, although the two groups lived side by side, socialized and intermarried.

After living on the Lower East Side, in the 1920s the Syrian Jews began moving to Bensonhurst, a Brooklyn neighborhood, where they established a cemetery (first in Queens, then on Staten Island), two synagogues, a Talmud Torah and a ritual bath. The Damascene Jews prayed at Ahi Ezer Synagogue on 71st Street, led by Rabbi Murad Maslaton, while the Aleppan Jews prayed at Magen David Synagogue on 67th Street. With few exceptions, the families follow Orthodox Jewish religion, following Jewish law and the traditions and values of Sephardic and Syria tradition. They are highly respectful of their elders and of family values. In 1933, Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin, a Talmid Hakham from Jerusalem and a descendant of an unbroken chain of rabbis dating back to 1600, was hired as the community’s chief rabbi.

As the Syrian Jewish community grew, it established its own clearly defined infrastructure. At the same time, the Syrian Jews became assimilated into society through dress, language, and basic education. However, they continued to nurture and preserve their heritage, values and culture, as they had known it in Syria.

The community not only lived together, they vacationed together. As the winter months ended, summer vacations in Bradley Beach, along the New Jersey shore, became commonplace, as hundreds of families rented or purchased summer homes there. This started a popular social season where young boys and girls could meet and find a suitable spouse.

The Syrian Jews made their next move in the 1940s and 1950s, when the wealthiest members purchased homes in the Ocean Parkway section of Brooklyn.  In just a few years, the entire community had abandoned Bensonhurst and became clustered around Ocean Parkway, which was later dubbed by Syrian Jewish author Joseph Sutton, “Aleppo in Flatbush.” Shaare Zion Congregation, an architecturally magnificent building with a domed sanctuary on Ocean Parkway between Avenues T and U, was built to accommodate the growing community. The community continues to use the 67th Street synagogue for funerals and Sabbath services.

Over time more Sephardic immigrants arrived and were absorbed by the community – Egyptians, Lebanese, Persians, Iranians, Moroccans, and eventually, the last of the Syrian Jews who were permitted to emigrate in the early 1990s.

As a result of the strong Aleppan rabbinical leadership, the Syrian Jews continue in Brooklyn as a cohesive group.  Their devotion to Judaism is evidenced by the infrastructure of synagogues, yeshivas, high schools, mikvehs (ritual baths), a community center, social service organization, and several community-subsidized senior citizen apartment buildings.

Magen David Women
Untitled, 1921, V1992.37.2; Photography Collection; Brooklyn Historical Society. Magen David Synagogue Dedication.