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Congregation Shaare Zion
|Location 40.599351°N 73.966197°W|
|Country United States|
|City New York City|
|Open to visitors yes|
|Need appointment no|
|Handicap accessibility no|
|Geographical Coordinates 40.59936,-73.96607|
Congregation Shaare Zion (Hebrew: שערי ציון) is an Orthodox Sephardic synagogue located at 2030 Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, New York. Shaare Zion typically has an estimated 1,000 worshipers who attend its services Fridays and Saturdays for Shabbat making it one of the largest Sephardic synagogues in North America. In its over fifty years of existence, the synagogue has hosted over ten thousand occasions including Brit milahs, Bar mitzvas, engagements and weddings. The synagogue generally serves the Aleppo or (Halabi) descendants of the Syrian Jewish community.
History and time period
The original congregation was started in 1941 as a local minyan, led by several prominent Syrian Jewish families in a residential home located at 1756 Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, New York. Early in its development, the synagogue generally maintained around 75 worshippers. However, during the High Holy Days, attendance swelled to 750 congregants at a nearby hall called Aperion Manor, a few blocks away at 815 Kings Highway due to space constraints at the home. The high attendance indicated to community leaders that a large central structure was needed for the growing crowds. On March 24, 1951, six leaders from the Shaare Zion committee met to discuss the acquisition of land for such a synagogue. They decided on a plot of land on Ocean Parkway and between Avenues T and U – the current site of the building. The same year, they purchased the land and later in 1953, architectural plans were drawn up for the present structure.
To finance the cost of construction, the community had, since 1941, already amassed a fund of $250,000. But soon after construction got underway, the building fund was entirely depleted and the whole project was nearly aborted due to lawsuits regarding a shortage of capital for the project. In 1957, several financial pledge drives were orchestrated to raise necessary funds to begin work on the building. The house quickly sold for $90,000 to a commercial realtor (eventually becoming part of an apartment complex) and the committee members were able to draw on the funds to continue construction for the central dome and the rest of the synagogue. In September 1958, Congregation Shaare Zion moved into the unfinished social hall for holiday prayers, while construction continued through 1960. Designed by renowned architect Morris Lapidus and completed in 1960, the structure includes a main sanctuary that can seat over 400 worshipers.
The eloquent design of the main sanctuary presented a unique challenge to engineers and architects. The engineering of the magnificent curved balcony, which blends harmoniously with the dome, drew an objection from the NYC Building Department. The department demanded that 20 supporting columns be installed to hold up the balcony. With assurances from their own engineers, the committee resisted the order since it would mar the structure’s beauty. The balcony had been carefully designed with no visible supports because it was to be cantilevered off the main structure, which was engineered to be strong enough to maintain the balcony’s fully loaded weight. Erected in the rear section of the property was a banquet hall used for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and other social functions. Popularly known as the Social Hall, this facility was also used on Shabbat as an additional space for prayers. The main sanctuary of Shaare Zion opened for 2,100 congregants on the High Holy Days in 1960. The dome, banquet room, terrace room in the basement, and midrash upstairs were all utilized.
The roof of the dome constructed of concrete reinforced with steel rods; is extremely strong and has remained intact since its completion. The roof received a coat of white paint in 1993. In addition, the seats have been reupholstered, their wood trims renewed and carpeting replaced numerous times. The carpeting is regularly replaced every few years, whenever it appears worn, according to the office staff. David Eliahu Cohen, chairman of the building committee in the 1950's commented, "There were never any leaks in the roof or in the structure,". He went on to add, "In 1990, 30 years after the building was completed, two panes of the glass wall in the dome had become weathered. “We replaced two glass panes. That's it,". Even the stone-studded wall covering that was installed in 1985 remains in good condition to this day.
In January 1990, the congregation bought the house next door, on the north side of the building. Renovations were completed a year later, in 1991. Known as the Annex Building, it is used for daily prayers and Torah study. The building also contains office space. In 1996, extensive renovations were done to Social Hall area of the building. The hall was demolished, and a new more modern banquet hall was built in its place. Additionally, a new synagogue building known as B'nei Shaare Zion capable of seating upwards of 250 worshipers, a Beth midrash with dual use as a prayer space on an upper level, and a secondary synagogue along with several meeting rooms on a lower level were built as well. During the 2000s, restoration work was carried out on the dome of the main sanctuary after forty years of continuous exposure to the elements.
Secondary proposed expansion
On December 20, 2011, a plan to expand the facilities of the synagogue was voted down by Brooklyn's Community Board 15, as congregants and nearby residents strongly opposed the development. Representatives of the congregation’s board came requesting approval for a bulk variance to allow the enlargement; which would have seen a new six-story, 62-foot-tall tower in place of the Annex Building. Within the tower were plans to include classrooms, study rooms, multi-purpose rooms and prayer rooms. Opponents of the construction plan took turns voicing their opinions complaining about noise, garbage and parking, which they said would worsen with the enlargement. Immediate neighbors also feared that a taller structure would limit the amount of sunlight hitting their property. The Board of Standards and Appeals will provide a final decision on the variance following an appeal by committee members.
Born in Jerusalem in 1900, the late Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin, was brought in to lead the congregation as the new Chief Rabbi of the community in 1932. Kassin was instrumental in establishing several binding edicts during his tenure, such as the 1935 "Conversion to Judaism proclamation". His son-in-law, Baruch Ben Haim (1921–2005), also served a leadership role for the synagogue and the community. Ben Haim is credited with a number of contributions to the synagogue, including the founding of the Shaare Zion Torah Center, where many congregants spend their time learning Torah. The Torah Center was established to educate the community in subjects of Jewish law and Torah. Morning and evening study classes are given by influential rabbis on a daily basis.
Between the 1940's and the 1950's, the rabbi of the congregation was the late Rabbi Kurt Klappholz; an Ashkenazi rabbi born in Berlin to Polish parents, who was also principal of the Magen David Yeshivah, the congregation's day school. Jacob Kassin's son, Rabbi Saul J. Kassin originally served as a consulting rabbi along with Rabbi Abraham Hecht, who took over when Rabbi Klappholz left for another position. Hecht had served the Sephardic community for over fifty years: directing the large minyan of the main sanctuary, offering classes in Jewish Law, as well as scheduling and attending social receptions such as Bar Mitzvahs and Brit Milahs, along with officiating countless wedding ceremonies. However, due to controversial views regarding the Arab–Israeli conflict, Hecht was forced to exit his position under political pressure.
Another notable rabbinic figure to serve the congregation, was Rabbi Dr. Raymond Harari. Harari directed the B'nei Shaare Zion minyan in the former banquet hall for a period of 18 years; from 1980 to 1998. Harari subsequently resigned his position for a different opportunity to lead the smaller Kol Israel congregation in Midwood, Brooklyn. Harari is also currently the Rosh Yeshivah of the Yeshiva of Flatbush. Rabbi Yaakov Ben Haim and Rabbi David Maslaton both jointly lead the new B'nei Shaare Zion synagogue in his place. Currently Rabbi Saul J. Kassin, a graduate of the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy, leads the overall congregation along with the Syrian Jewish community in general, as its new Chief Rabbi. Controversy
On July 23, 2009, Rabbi Kassin, 87, and Rabbi Eliahu Ben Haim, 58, brother of Rabbi Yaakov Ben Haim; along with 42 other officials and religious leaders were arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of a major corruption and international money laundering conspiracy probe called Operation Bid Rig. Acting U.S. attorney Ralph J. Marra Jr. described the arrest during a news conference saying, clergy members "cloaked their extensive criminal activity behind a facade of rectitude."