Brooklyn, New York
The Jewish community of New York City is the largest anywhere outside of Israel, and it represents the full diversity of the Jewish religious and cultural experience. While all five boroughs have large Jewish populations, the most prominent are in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Manhattan boasts many of the city’s most famous Jewish sites and its strong tradition of Reform and Conservative Judaism. But to experience the hard core Orthodox aspects and culture of the Jewish faith, one must explore the Jewish neighborhoods and sites of Brooklyn. Brooklyn is the American center of Orthodox Judaism, and some of the best sites related to that faith can be found here: Congregation Shaare Zion, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the United States; Kehilas Yetev Lev D’Satmar, the Hasidic Miracle Synagogue that was constructed in under three weeks; and the world headquarters of Chabad Lubavitch.
Jewish immigrants began settling in Brooklyn as early as in other parts of New York, but the larger communities did not begin forming there until the early decades of the 20th century. Jewish enclaves developed throughout the borough, especially from the 1920s onward. But the influx of Orthodox Jews really took off in the years leading up to World War II.
One of the first and most prominent groups to become established in Brooklyn at this time were members of the Chabad Lubavich. This denomination of Hasidic Judaism had formed in Eastern Europe in the 1770s and were among the most visible, and therefore among the most oppressed Jewish groups. At the outset of World War II, the leader of the Chabad Hasidim, Rabbi Yosef Schneersohn, fled from Poland to New York where he spent the rest of his life trying to rebuild his devastated following. After the war, the Chabad Hasidim decided not to move back to Poland, but instead established a new permanent community in Brooklyn.
The Lubavichers were not the only Orthodox group trying to rebuild their lives and shattered communities in America at this time. Jews were fleeing not only from Europe, but from the Middle East as well. One group from Aleppo in Syria came to Brooklyn, where they founded the Congregation Shaare Zion in 1941. This congregation, which grew very quickly, became one of the largest in New York. In 1960 they built one of the first major synagogues of the modern era, and at the time of its completion the second largest in New York.
Brooklyn also became a major destination for Orthodox Jewish immigrants after the war, when survivers of the horrifying ordeal made their way across the Atlantic. One group, led by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, moved from Hungary and settled in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. Some of these went on to settle in the famous Jewish community of Kiryas Joel; but other stayed in Brooklyn. Both groups went on to build massive synagogues. The one in Brooklyn, the Kehilas Yetev Lev d’Satmar, is the third largest synagogue in the United States. Big enough to hold over two thousand people, construction was completed in a mere fourteen business days, earning it the nickname, the Miracle Synagogue.
The Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters is a beautiful pre-war red brick building in Brooklyn’s storied Crown Heights area. From a visitor standpoint it’s the neighborhood that is the main attraction. The area is a wealth of Hasidic Jewish culture, with everything from traditional business to synagogues and yeshivas. Next door to the headquarters is the Vaad Rabonei Lubavitch, a court of sorts where Jewish legal decisions are made. Across the street is the Jewish Children’s Museum. The CLWH is located in the heart of Brooklyn, approximately five miles southeast of Downtown Manhattan. Web: http://lubavitch.com (official website).
The Congregation Shaare Zion is one of America’s great post-war synagogues, both culturally and architecturally. The modern structure is dominated by the spectacular circular, domed sanctuary. The outstanding feature is the upper balcony, which circles most of the sanctuary beneath the dome, and is entirely cantilevered with no supporting columns. The Congregation Shaare Zion synagogue is located close to the southern end of Brooklyn approximately nine mile south of Downtown Manhattan. Web: www.shaarezionny.com (official website).
Kehilas Yetev Lev D’Satmar, the Miracle Synagogue, was constructed in its entirety in a span of less than three weeks in 2006, with the goal of its completion before the Jewish high holy days. It took over two hundred workers going eighteen hours a day to complete the exterior of the impressive 18,000 square foot building. The interior, which seats thousands, was completed thereafter. The speed with which the synagogue was completed raised questions of construction standards and safety, but to date there have been no repercussions. Kehilas Yetev Lev D’Satmar is sometimes refered to as the Home Depot Shul. It is located in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn just across the river from Downtown Manhattan. Web: http://hasidicwilliamsburgtour.com (official website).
Lost amid Brooklyn’s grand old Jewish neighborhoods are a trio of interesting sites, oddly all related to the Hanukkah holiday. One is the Living Torah Museum, home to the world’s oldest known Menorah. There is also the Safari Dreidel Collection. And for the truly hard core, the Knitting Factory bar hosts the world’s most famous Jewish sporting event, the annual Major League Dreidel championships.