A Conservative Remarriage


In a bid to strengthen Conservative life in one of the Brooklyn’s most heavily Orthodox neighborhoods, the East Midwood Jewish Center has reached an agreement to keep 160 day school students learning on its premises.

The accord will be a new phase in the 50-year relationship between the landmark, 85-year-old Jewish Center and the East Midwood Hebrew Day School, also known as the Harry Halpern Educational Center, and pump new life into an institution that has been struggling financially.

“The school has a new energy,” said Jonathan Sohnis, chair of its board of trustees.
Once entwined with the temple’s operations, the day school had become more independent during the 1990s, to the point where some felt there was not only a management but a cultural divide.
“It crept up very slowly, and seemed to grow without anyone noticing it,” said Michael Sucher, vice president of the Jewish Center.

As the school hit hard financial times, some board members of the Jewish Center wanted to evict it in favor of a more stable tenant.

But people on both sides now feel that a stronger relationship would return both institutions to their original missions.

“The idea of a Jewish center as opposed to just a synagogue has been that the facility should be a center of Jewish life,” said Eugene Miller, a trustee of the day school. “The swimming pool and other facilities were built with that in mind, that membership in the Jewish center brings with it access to all these facilities designed to meet spiritual as well as material needs of the Jewish community.”
Miller said the board members of both the Jewish center and the day school wanted to “reintegrate the school and the shul as a way to reinvigorate egalitarian Conservative Judaism in South Brooklyn.”
The deal calls for the Jewish Center to absorb some of the financial burdens accrued by the school, which has classes from nursery through eighth grade. In turn, the students’ families will boost the Jewish Center’s membership, which has held steady in recent years but is now far lower than it was when the school opened.

“I hope this will be the beginning of a beautiful era of amity and harmony,” said Rabbi Alvin Kass, spiritual leader of the Jewish Center. “The last few years have been difficult, in terms of what is, simply put, a landlord-tenant relationship.”

He said the infusion of members from the parent body would “provide us with a potential nucleus of many young, dynamic good people who can get involved in the synagogue.”

The Jewish Center, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, received a 2006 landmark preservation grant from the city. It is on Ocean Avenue in the heart of Flatbush, an area that has seen an explosion of Jewish life in the past 50 years, including yeshivot, dozens of large and small synagogues, mostly Orthodox, and kosher establishments.

Statistics on Jewish affiliation in Brooklyn have not been compiled since 2002. The Jewish Community Study of New York published that year reported that in Flatbush, Kensington and Midwood, there are 101,100 Jews, of whom 54 percent identified as Orthodox and only 8 percent as Conservative. Fifteen percent identified as non-denominational.

There are several other Conservative congregations within a few miles of East Midwood, including the Madison Jewish Center and Temple Shalom.

But Conservative life has not kept pace with the area’s Jewish growth. Rabbi Kass recalls that when he took the pulpit 31 years ago, “the area was already beginning to transform demographically. We had about 1,000 families then.”

Day school parents, who pay up to $12,000 in tuition, will not incur an extra cost for membership in the Jewish Center but would be encouraged to take part in services and other activities.

The school, which is affiliated with the Solomon Schechter Day School Association of the Conservative movement, offers intensive Jewish studies including Bible and Talmud, together with a high-standard secular studies program. Many of the older students take science and language Regents exams, which are usually given in high school, before they graduate from eighth grade. The program, including Zionism and Hebrew language, is similar to that of many Modern Orthodox day schools, with the difference being that all classes, including Torah studies, are coed.

The Jewish Center is now fully egalitarian as well, having emerged from a rift in the mid-’90s with members who wanted to preserve traditional, divided-sex services.

“Those individuals who championed depriving women of the rights to be full members of the congregation were overruled by a majority of members who wanted to have an egalitarian Conservative congregation,” said Sucher. While some opponents left the congregation over the issue, he said, a majority have gotten used to it.

At its peak, in the 1950s, the day school had almost 1,000 students.
Today, the student body runs the gamut from Orthodox to non-affiliated and comes from all over Brooklyn, says Sohnis.

He said the school is concerned about losing enrollment because of two factors: the economy and the state’s recent approval of the Hebrew Language Academy, a charter public school in the same neighborhood that is expected to draw mostly from Russian immigrant families who have never experienced religious education.

“A mistake would be made by parents if they are going there looking for theological and cultural aspects of Jewish education which constitutionally shouldn’t be there,” said Sohnis. Still, he said, “if we lose 10 or 15 families, that’s substantial.”

He stressed that the philosophy of the East Midwood Hebrew School has always been to welcome families of varying levels of observance. “Each is entitled to practice as they believe at home,” he said.
It is that diversity that officers of both the synagogue and school hope will resonate to that small percentage of area residents who may be searching for affiliation.

“You still have people migrating through different factions and denominations amongst the Jewish community,” said Sohnis. “You also have a lot if immigrants who want to reconnect. They may ultimately become Orthodox, but some may certainly feel comfortable here.”

Rabbi Kass said he was optimistic about future growth because “Brooklyn has never been hotter. There are lots of people moving here from other parts of the city and they can’t all go to Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope. Midwood is a beautiful area.”