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The logo for Brooklyn Jewish Heritage Initiative whose mission is to Organize Public Events, Create Oral & Video Histories, Provide Resources to the Brooklyn Jewish Community

Brooklyn Jewish
Historical Initiative

Schools & Community Centers

Organized Jewish life in Brooklyn extends far beyond the synagogue. Jews have continually created institutions to support their evolving needs. In some cases, communities re-created the institutions they had in their countries of origin, Americanized them and added new ones to meet new needs.

Jewish groups began organized life with, at the very least, a burial society and a prayer hall. After this, other basic organizations were founded, e.g., a bikur cholim (originally, aiding the sick, now social services agency), schools, and a mikvah (ritual bath).  Ashkenazi immigrants in the early 20th century set up landsmanshaftn, hometown societies of immigrants from the same town or region. The landsmanshaftn functioned as a kind of “social clearinghouse” providing employment as well as aid when sick and burial plots.
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Brooklyn has been a pioneering site of Jewish education, whether in the Bais Yakov, Orthodox girls schools, the immersive Hebrew-language in Shulamith School or  in Williamsburg’s Mesivta Torah Vodaath. Many varieties of Jewish education have evolved:  including distinguished yeshivot (Jewish schools), most of which teach a dual curriculum incorporating Jewish studies with secular studies. Some Jewish children attend public school and then go to an after school or supplementary Jewish education program, often called a Talmud Torah, and frequently connected to a synagogue.

The Day School movement of Conservative Judaism in which students spend part of the day studying the standard secular curriculum as well as Jewish studies, Hebrew literature and Israeli culture and Modern Hebrew was pioneered in Brooklyn with the Bialik school, which was housed in Kensington’s Flatbush Jewish Center for many years. The Bialik School was founded after World War II by Zionist activists who wanted a more modern approach to day school for their children.

As communities have grown, more and more needs were acknowledged.  Community centers have grown up, as have senior citizen programs, senior housing, drug education programs, and mental health facilities. To help the poor, the bikur cholims opened food pantries and gammahs (lending everything from baby equipment to bridal gowns). In addition, counseling is provided by a number of institutions. These include JASA, Council on Jewish Organizations (COJO), as well as mental health and special education providers such as OHEL and Sephardic Bikur Holim.

Community centers were built to meet the physical, social, cultural, and adult education needs of each community. Some were built onto the synagogues, while others were free standing buildings with tremendous programming potential. Classes could be offered to help immigrants learn English, to teach a craft or a trade, for the bereaved, for the disabled, etc.

These community centers were especially important for children as they provide after school and weekend programs. The centers also house preschools, teen and sports programs, as well as summer day camps.

As the population has aged, senior citizen programming, including day programs, is increasingly in demand. Many centers also provide career and job counseling, some specializing in jobs in Jewish-owned businesses. There are also organizations that provide small business counseling and loans.

All of these institutions were created to serve the Jewish population in Brooklyn.