Eastern Parkway, Frederick Law Olmstead’s six-lane masterpiece, bisects Central Brooklyn along its east-west axis, from Grand Army Plaza to Brownsville. And at the center of Eastern Parkway, in Crown Heights, stands an imposing building, whose limestone façade, oversized windows and prominent staircase resembles an Italian Renaissance palace, a palace that once anchored one of Conservative Judaism’s flagship synagogues, the Brooklyn Jewish Center.
Built in 1920 at the then-staggering cost of $1 million, the Brooklyn Jewish Center housed a massive sanctuary with an elaborate domed stained glass ceiling. The building, which also boasted a swimming pool, health club, banquet hall and classrooms, was the realization of Mordecai Kaplan’s vision of the modern synagogue as center of Jewish life. The center had a long and distinguished history; in its heyday, such Jewish notables as Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann and Menachem Ussishkin, in a 1921 delegation on behalf of the nascent Zionist movement, flocked there.
Israel H. Levinthal, the founding rabbi, preached into the 1970s and his sermons are still studied today. By the 1930s, the Center boasted over 4,000 members. Richard Tucker served as cantor in the mid-1940s until the Metropolitan Opera general manger heard him daven and lured him away. In 1954, Rabbi Benjamin Kreitman succeeded Rabbi Levinthal as spiritual leader and the center continued to flourish.
I spent most of my 1960s childhood within five blocks of the center. I lived in an apartment building close by and attended the Orthodox Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway. My family davened at the nearby “Lantziter” shteibel, with hard wooden benches, sagging bookcases and a shower curtain that served as a mechitzah. On Shabbat afternoon, we would stroll along Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn’s Champs-Elysees, sometimes stopping at 770, Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters, to listen to the Lubavitch Rebbe’s hypnotic farbrengen (chasidic discourses) and his followers’ mesmerizing melodies. We passed the Brooklyn Jewish Center regularly, but did not venture inside. It represented a distant and vaguely threatening world, one so removed it might just as well have been in Manhattan.
Then, in the fall of 1964, Robert F. Kennedy came to the center. He was on a campaign swing during his run for the United States Senate, less than one year after his brother’s assassination. Kennedy’s opponent was Sen. Kenneth Keating, a lukewarm Republican with a lukewarm record. I was a fervent Keating supporter. Why, you may ask. Because I was in second grade, that’s why, and liked the alliterative sound of his name.
Keating also visited the center on the same evening and the two candidates spoke, one right after the other. I sat with my mother who brought me. I was amazed by the space — I had never been in a room so large and imposing. And I gawked at the people. I had never seen Jews who looked and spoke like this, in unaccented English, and who were so well-coifed, with some men bareheaded.
Keating spoke first. The audience applauded and I yelled for joy. The senator left, and then Kennedy entered the sanctuary. If I don’t live to see the coming of the Messiah, this moment will do. The room erupted with a thunderous, standing ovation, waves of screaming that I thought would never end. I tried to remain seated but couldn’t. I don’t remember what Kennedy said and it didn’t seem to matter. The applause died down only when he began to speak and began again when he was done.
I next remember my mother hustling me out of the building onto the wide front steps. Everyone was trying to get a glimpse of Robert Kennedy. My diminutive mother somehow made her way through security and right up to Robert Kennedy, with me at her side.
The candidate and I eyed one another. I was unimpressed. Kennedy was short and slight, not at all like Superman. He tousled my hair and gave me his autograph, which my mother promptly took (and lost). Robert Kennedy told me to be a good boy.
That is how I remember it all through memory’s mist. When researching this article, I contacted the Kennedy Library and confirmed that on Oct. 26, 1964, Robert Kennedy had indeed delivered a speech at a large synagogue with a wide staircase located on the north side of Eastern Parkway. Only it wasn’t the Brooklyn Jewish Center, but the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway, three blocks away. Hey, a shul is a shul, right? The Young Israel of Eastern Parkway was a flagship synagogue of the Young Israel movement with a distinguished history all its own. The sermons of its late rabbi, Zvi Dov Kanotopsky, are sometimes quoted by the rabbi of my Teaneck, N.J., synagogue.
Robert Kennedy’s campaign stop, wherever it took place, did not auger the End of Days, but it did signal the beginning of the end of Brooklyn’s liberal Jewish presence for a generation. The ’60s were not kind to Jewish Crown Heights. The neighborhood “changed,” in the parlance of the time. Blacks moved in and the Jews moved out — the Orthodox to Flatbush, Borough Park and Queens, the non-Orthodox to Long Island and Westchester. Only Lubavitch remained.
The Lantziter shteibel is long closed, as is the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway. My old yeshiva exists, in name only, as a small kollel in Borough Park. And Brooklyn Jewish Center shut its doors in 1985. Its magnificent stained glass ceiling now adorns Temple Emanu-El in Closter, N.J., and its archives reside at the library of The Jewish Theological Seminary. The center now houses a large boys’ yeshiva, “the flagship school of Chabad-Lubavitch.” The magisterial sanctuary has been divided into a warren of cinder block classrooms with only an occasional ornate cornice peeking out to hint at what once was.
And I became a lawyer. I began my career in public service, inspired in part by Robert F. Kennedy’s example. I once visited Arlington National Cemetery and paid my respects to President John F. Kennedy. Then I walked over to his brother’s simple grave, close by. I thanked Bobby Kennedy for talking to me that day. I told him about my work at the attorney general’s office. I told Bobby Kennedy I had been a good boy. ◆
Barry E. Lichtenberg practices law in New York City. His articles have appeared in The Jewish Week’s journal Text/Context and on the paper’s back page.