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Congregation Beth Elohim

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Congregation Beth Elohim


Basic Information

Location 274 Garfield Place, Brooklyn, NY, United States
Country United States
City Brooklyn

General Information

Open to visitors yes
Geographical Coordinates 40.67089,-73.97451


Congregation Beth Elohim (Hebrew: בֵּית אֱלֹהִים), also known as the Garfield Temple and the Eighth Avenue Temple, is a Reform Jewish congregation located at 274 Garfield Place and Eighth Avenue, in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City, United States.

Founded in 1861 as a more liberal breakaway from Congregation Baith Israel, for the first 65 years it attempted four mergers with other congregations, including three with Baith Israel, all of which failed. The congregation completed its current Classical Revival synagogue building in 1910 and its "Jewish Deco" (Romanesque Revival and Art Deco) Temple House in 1929. These two buildings were contributing properties to the Park Slope historic district, listed as a New York City Landmark district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The congregation went through difficult times during the Great Depression, and the bank almost foreclosed on its buildings in 1946.[4] Membership dropped significantly in the 1930s because of the Depression, grew after World War II, and dropped again in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of demographic shifts. Programs for young children helped draw Jewish families back into the neighborhood and revitalize the membership.

By 2006, Beth Elohim had over 1,000 members, and, as of 2009, it was the largest and most active Reform congregation in Brooklyn, the "oldest Brooklyn congregation that continues to function under its corporate name", and its pulpit was the oldest in continuous use in any Brooklyn synagogue. In 2009, it was listed by Newsweek as one of America's 25 "Most Vibrant" Jewish congregations.

History and time period

Congregation Beth Elohim was founded on September 29, 1861 by 41 German Jews at Granada Hall on Myrtle Avenue, members of Congregation Baith Israel who had become disaffected after they attempted and failed to reform practice there.The synagogue name was chosen by a vote of the membership, and the services were led by George Brandenstein, who served as cantor, and was paid $150 (today $3,900) a year. Brandenstein was hired as cantor, not rabbi, because "the congregation believed having a cantor was more important", though in practice he filled both roles. A shamash (the equivalent of a sexton or beadle) was also hired for $75 a year.

While searching for a permanent location, the congregation continued to meet and hold services at Granada Hall. Men and women sat together, unlike the traditional separate seating, and services were conducted in German and Hebrew.[18] Within a few months, the former Calvary Protestant Episcopal church on Pearl Street, between Nasau and Concord, was purchased for $5,100 (today $120,000) and renovated for another $2,000 (today $47,000). The new building was dedicated on March 30, 1862, and the congregation became known as "the Pearl street synagogue". By 1868, membership had increased to 103, and by 1869, almost 100 students attended the Sunday school.

Beth Elohim had originally conducted its services in the traditional manner, but on February 19, 1870 "inaugurated the moderate reform services" instead. In an attempt to stem defections and make the synagogue more attractive to existing and potential members, that same month the congregation purchased, for $55,000 (today $1,030,000), the building of the Central Presbyterian Church on Schermerhorn Street near Nevins Street. Sufficient numbers of new members did not, however, materialize, and the congregation was forced to give up its new building, forfeit its $4,000 (today $75,000) deposit, and return to the Pearl Street building. Instead, the Pearl street building was renovated, and an organ and choir added.

Beth Elohim voted to retire Brandenstein in 1882, an action which created some controversy both within the congregation, and among other Brooklyn synagogues. Younger members of the congregation found no specific fault with Brandenstein, but wanted "a change", and succeeded in dismissing him and electing an entirely new board of officers. The final vote was 29 in favor, 21 against, out of a total membership of 53 or 54 (only the male heads of households were counted as members during this era). Solomon Mosche was hired to replace Brandenstein.

In April 1883, Baith Israel, Beth Elohim, and Temple Israel, Brooklyn's three leading synagogues, attempted an amalgamation. This was the third such attempt; the previous two had failed when the members could not agree on synagogue ritual. The combined congregation, which would purchase new premises, would have 150 members; members would be refunded half the purchase price of the pews in their existing buildings. Mosche and the rabbi of Temple Israel were to split the offices of rabbi and cantor: Baith Israel, at the time, had no rabbi. Though this attempt also failed, in the following year the three congregations carried out combined activities, including a picnic and a celebration of the 100th birthday of Moses Montefiore. Membership at that time still hovered around 50.

Mosche fell ill in 1884, and after being unable to serve for six months, was replaced by 26-year-old William Sparger. Despite his illness, Mosche lived until age 75, dying on November 3, 1911.

Sparger was Hungarian by birth, a graduate of the Prince Rudolph University of Vienna, and, according to a contemporary New York Times article, "belong[ed] to the extreme liberal school of Hebrew theology". He introduced changes to the services, including improving the choir, bringing in a new prayer book, adding Friday night services, and the "radical reform" of making the sermon the most important part of the service. He appealed to younger congregants, and, under his direction, the synagogue experienced a large increase in attendance.

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