Last Sunday was a big day for one synagogue in Flatbush.
In the Regency Room of the East Midwood Jewish Center was a family Chanukah party that more than 100 people attended. Afterwards, in the elegant and soaring sanctuary, more than 200 people celebrated the installation of the congregation’s new rabbi and celebrated the shul’s 90th anniversary. There were speeches and singing, prayers and members’ reminiscences, and a cocktail reception in the ballroom.
Sunday was also a symbolic day for the East Midwood Jewish Center, or EMJC, the only remaining Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, and one of the few in the entire borough.
In recent decades, Flatbush’s Jewish community has become increasingly Orthodox, and several Conservative congregations have closed their doors. Others have merged in an effort to save money and preserve their denominational identity.
“We’re still operating,” said Rabbi Alvin Kass, who became EMJC’s emeritus spiritual leader earlier this year after serving there for 36 years. (At 78, Rabbi Kass is still chief chaplain of the New York City Police Department. “Retirement? I don’t know of such a word,” he said).
He can list several nearby Conservative synagogues that have folded during his tenure while EMJC has stayed open — albeit with a diminishing membership.
“What we have accomplished is in a way extraordinary,” Rabbi Kass said.
EMJC now has some 250 households on its membership roster, about a quarter of its peak about two generations ago. But the members and supporters who came Sunday saw the results of extensive renovations throughout the 85-year-old domed Renaissance Revival building, and heard the success of synagogue leaders who have mounted an effort in recent years to enter the social media era.
To balance the budget, the congregation rents out space to karate and gymnastic programs, an independent day school and a Protestant church, which holds services there. The onsite gym and swimming pool also bring in money. “We have people in all the time,” said Toby Sanchez, EMJC’s co-president and historian.
She noted that each merger brought in both new members and active, often younger, leaders.
To attract young, progressive-minded people, two decades ago the congregation opened its worship services to women in the egalitarian fashion that now characterizes most of Conservative Judaism, and subsequently has added activities like Room J, a program for families with young children, and a monthly “Shabbat-a-Bim-Bom,” a musical, participatory service aimed at young families. To spread the word, the congregation uses Facebook, various listservs and weekly email blasts.
“We have younger members who are working very hard at that. We inherited the spirit of the founders,” a handful of residents of the then-undeveloped area of Brooklyn who established a congregation that was part of the synagogue-center movement of the 1920s, said Sanchez. “They were go-getters.”
Rabbi Matt Carl, who was installed as the synagogue’s spiritual leader on Sunday, said the online efforts are a means to an end.
“Social media is a tool,” he said.
Rabbi Carl, who earlier served at the Battery Park Synagogue and as director of community development and engagement at Hazon, called his decision to come to the Flatbush congregation a vote of confidence in its future. “The shul is growing. Slowly, but it is growing,” he said in an email interview. “We’re growing larger and younger.”
The latter was reflected in the dozens of children at Sunday’s Chanukah party.
Sanchez agreed that the synagogue is up the upswing. “We’re not a dying shul,” she said. “Our neighborhood is 50 percent Orthodox. But it’s 50 percent non-Orthodox,” potential members who are not interested in an Orthodox lifestyle.
According to UJA-Federation’s 2011 Jewish Community Study, the Flatbush/Midwood/Kensington area, with a Jewish population of 111,100, “contains one of the highest concentrations of Orthodox Jews (58 percent) alongside the borough’s two largest Orthodox areas, Borough Park (80 percent Orthodox) and Williamsburg (82 percent Orthodox).”
“On a one-to-one level, there is a warm relationship between our members and their Orthodox neighbors,” Rabbi Kass said.” “There are many Orthodox Jews who use our physical facilities.”
“They would swim with us, but they wouldn’t daven with us,” he said.
Over the last three-plus decades, three local Conservative congregations have merged into the EMJC.
“We benefited from the influx of cash and new members from each merger,” Sanchez added later via email. “These mergers took place in 1980 (Shaare Torah), 1990 (Progressive Shaare Zedek), 2000 (Jewish Communal Center of Flatbush).
To finance expensive repairs on the building’s dome, stained-glass windows and other out-of-repair features, the synagogue has launched fundraising campaigns, receiving money from the New York Landmarks Conservatory and the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.
The congregation is an example of a forward-thinking Conservative synagogue, which has presented a vision of involvement with the wider Jewish community outside the synagogue’s walls, said Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
EMJC is a member of Flatbush’s largely Orthodox Council of Jewish Organizations, and its members volunteer at the local kosher Masbia soup kitchen.
Members have participated in the movement’s leadership training programs, and the shul has offered job-finding programs for the unemployed and under-employed. “This is an example of a synagogue that has good leadership. This is a synagogue that seems to be thinking strategically, asking the right questions” about members’ “personal journeys,” he said.
While the old Jewish Center model has not served as a draw to many young Jews, in the opinion of Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University, EMJC is an example of a congregation that creatively presents a 2014-style version of the nine-decades-old, everything-under-one-roof philosophy.
In an effort to attract increasingly disenchanted Jewish youth then, synagogues offered athletic facilities and social events that buttressed a congregation’s spiritual activities. The so-called “shul with a pool.”
In addition to its pool, EMJC has a gymnasium and kitchens.
“In 1875 … the American synagogue was little more than a worship hall with a few dark and dingy classrooms in its basement,” David Kaufman notes in “Shul with a Pool: The ‘Synagogue-Center’ in American Jewish History” (University Press of New England, 1999). “By 1925, the complex synagogue-center had become the leading trend in modern Jewish life.”
This was especially evident in Brooklyn, then home to the city’s largest Jewish population. “The very act of settling a new area gave rise to the synagogue-center concept. The first Jews in such a new neighborhood soon felt the need for either a religious congregation (as in the case of the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center) or a Hebrew school for their children (as in the case of the East Midwood Jewish Center).”
Over the years, the synagogue ranks have included such notables as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (member), author-talk show host Dennis Prager (Hebrew school teacher), and composer Sholom Secunda (music director and choir conductor).
Rabbi Kass said he is optimistic for the congregation’s future — the population of Brooklyn is growing, but in-demand neighborhoods like Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights are rapidly becoming too expensive for young families. Rents and home prices are less expensive in the synagogue’s area, he said. Flatbush “will be rediscovered.”
Sunday’s celebrations will not be the last at the East Midwood Jewish Center, Sanchez said. “We have not disappeared. We are not going to disappear.”