Brooklyn Daily Eagle
September 14, 1925
In the Beginning
For ten years, Congregation Tifereth Israel of South Brooklyn had worshiped in two adjoining houses on 14th Street. But by 1925, they had outgrown their space. The “brothers,” as they called themselves, filled with the optimism of the era, bought two empty lots down the street, found a classically-trained architect, and over several hectic months, built what we now know as the Park Slope Jewish Center.
These founding families were part of a distinct moment. Across Brooklyn in the 1920s, first- and second-generation Jewish-Americans built large synagogues, putting down new roots in their new country. They were creating houses of worship, and at the corner of 14th Street and 8th Avenue, they were also launching an institution that would come to embody many of the significant changes in American Jewish life. From its Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox origins, PSJC evolved into today’s egalitarian Conservative congregation, where men and women share equally in the rights and responsibilities of religious and community life. PSJC hired the first Conservative woman Rabbi in Brooklyn, and later the first Conservative lesbian Rabbi and Cantor. Today, PSJC’s hallmarks are the warmth of our welcome and the embrace of all who want to join us.
Throughout this remarkable evolution, we’ve had a beautiful home.
The PSJC Building
The PSJC Building is listed both on the National Register and New York State Register of Historic Places. Designed by architect Allen A. Blaustein, who donated his services, PSJC’s building evokes the Romanesque architecture of central Europe. Many of Tifereth Israel’s original members were from Germany, where Romanesque architecture flourished. Blaustein combined Romanesque elements with typically Jewish symbolism to make for an inventive, yet eclectic design.
The stained glass throughout the building is especially beautiful when the sun shines through in the afternoon. In the center of the upper facade, visible in the sanctuary above the rear balcony and above the Bimah, are two rose windows with Star of David motifs. The large central domed skylight is meant to represent Jewish unity. The ceiling of the building is whimsically decorated with a hand-painted sky filled with fluffy clouds.
Photo credits: Greg Selig
The lovely “marble” throughout the building is actually not stone at all, but scagliola, a hand-crafted trompe l'oeil effect made of highly polished mineral pigments and plaster. Scagliola was used in many public buildings, and especially settings in which the weight and cost of marble would have been prohibitive. Today, singing, chanting congregants fill the balcony pews beneath the dome during the Yamim Noraim (literally, the Days of Awe). Originally though, the balcony was only for women and, in a sign of the times, there were no book racks!
In the northwest corner of the balcony, there is a small room that was intended to serve as a sukkah, with a retractable skylight that allowed the room to be exposed to the open sky and so function as a kosher sukkah. The founders remembered where they came from and built the room as a hedge against a time when celebrating openly might be greeted with hostility. This proved to be somewhat prescient when the surrounding community changed in the 60’s and 70’s and there was overt anti-Semitism in the neighborhood.
Unusual design elements of the building include the exterior walls. The most distinctive features are the bold blind arches of cast stone along the upper parts of the south and east elevations, featuring unusual tripartite arched corbels and Romanesque foliate designs. The outside of the building has a great deal of design detail with Jewish symbolism as well.
Photo credits: Greg Selig
The original building plan called for a community center to be built next to the sanctuary building. But sadly, the stock market crash of 1929 put those dreams on what turned out to be a permanent hold. Instead, the side yard has become home to many outdoor congregational events — kosher barbecue, anyone? — holiday children’s services, and an outdoor sukkah which congregants start building each year on the day after Yom Kippur. As our Hebrew School and staff have grown, we have had to be extremely resourceful to develop classrooms and office space (originally planned to be located in the community center) within the synagogue building!
Photo credits: Matt Septimus
It takes patience and a sense of humor to live with the foibles of a synagogue building. In 1925, services were held on the High Holy Days even though construction was still underway. Over the decades since that first Rosh Hashanah, both the building and the Park Slope community withered. In 1960, after a series of mergers among three dwindling congregations (B'nai Sholaum, B'nai Jacob and Tifereth Israel), the Park Slope Jewish Center (PSJC) was formed with 205 members. By 1975, as congregants aged or left Brooklyn, the membership had fallen to only 40 households.
Then a remarkable revival began. Young Jewish families started moving into first Park Slope and then Windsor Terrace, Ditmas Park, and Kensington. They joined PSJC, halted its decline, and began its reinvention. In 1983, the congregation voted to grant women full rights in ritual and all synagogue matters. The same year, PSJC hired Rabbi Julie Gordon, the first woman to gain a Conservative pulpit in New York. In 1999, PSJC hired Rabbi Carie Carter, the first openly gay Rabbi in brownstone Brooklyn. Today PSJC has more than 350 member units, families and singles, young and old, drawn from the marvelous mosaic of our neighborhoods.
Not surprisingly, the PSJC building reflects the changing fortunes of the congregation. From the founding through the 80’s only minimal building maintenance took place. Even in the early 90s, when we were still fairly small and struggling, the building was only maintained through the “sweat equity” of remaining membership, which could not keep up with increasing building challenges. As PSJC began to grow and thrive, we were confronted with the results of the earlier building neglect and design limitations. Early renovations (e.g., construction of a Rabbi’s Office) were achieved through the hands-on efforts of congregants, but it became increasingly apparent that a more extensive, professional effort was necessary to save the building and bring it back to its original glory, while creating more usable space as well.
In 1999 architects were hired and, with membership input, a master plan was developed. Major repair was done to the roof, stained glass windows, sanctuary columns (some of which had collapsed), walls (more than 70% of the plaster was replaced) and the ceiling (time and water damage had completely eliminated all the clouds). Working from the master plan, over time, PSJC has added a sweeping new front entrance staircase and portico. We put on a new roof, repaired and repainted the walls and ceiling, built a library, and completely refurbished our ground floor, creating an events space, modern rest rooms, office space and – perhaps most importantly – classrooms for our thriving Hebrew school.
Photo credit: Matt Septimus
Photo credit: Greg Selig
Photo credit: Matt Septimus
Looking Back and Forward
PSJC’s building is now included on both the National and New York Registers of Historic Places. And it has had a role in popular culture too. The bat mitzvah scene in Season Six of Orange is the New Black was filmed in the sanctuary. And when director Sidney Lumet needed a venue in 1992 to shoot a Hasidic wedding for A Stranger Among Us, he used PSJC.
We like to think that this history would please Rudolph Sanders, one of the founding Tifereth Israel’s chaverim. Sanders, the congregation's president for 18 years, donated the Bimah (podium) as well as the decorative arch surrounding the Aron HaKodesh (ark) in memory of his parents. Born in Romania, Sanders owned a nearby movie theater, first known as the Marathon, and, after the arrival of “talkies,” the Sanders – today it’s called the Nitehawk, still on Bartel-Pritchard Square.
Sanders loved the movies and he would recognize the satisfying back-from-the-brink arc of our story. We dream of one day fulfilling the vision of the original building founders: to construct a building in the yard to better meet the needs of our thriving community. We also would love to install an elevator to replace our stair climber and maximize accessibility. And of course, being nearly a century old, we must continue to keep up the building maintenance. If you would like to help support our building, please consider making a donation on this website. Together we plan to keep making more American Jewish history in Brooklyn.
Photo credit: Greg Selig