Boro Park Flashback: Congregation Beth El, Boro Park’s Oldest Shul
By Yehudit Garmaise
On June 11, 1906, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Boro Park’s oldest shul, Congregation Beth El, was large enough to serve all the Jews who lived in the neighborhood at the time.
Created in 1902, the members of Temple Beth El first davened in Forest Hall, which was located at 13th Ave. and 39th St., until 1906, when the shul built the neighborhood’s first synagogue at 1166 40th St, a building that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
Brooklyn architect John C. Walsh designed Temple Beth El in the classic style of a Lower East Side “tenement synagogue,” with Moorish spires that are topped with Magen David stars.
“There are more Jews in this great city of ours than in any other city on earth, and as time goes on, you are beginning to play an important part in the workings of this great nation,” 1906 Brooklyn Borough President Bird S. Coler said to 1,000 Yidden at the laying of the shul’s cornerstone.
“If we are to have good citizens, it must be through the religious organizations, and I hope that the Jews will be in the forefront of that work,” Coler said.
By 1909, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that the Boro Park Jewish community was flourishing, and the number of Jewish congregations in the neighborhood had grown to five.
Temple Beth El’s first location on 11th Ave. and 40th St. housed not only Boro Park’s first shul, but also the neighborhood’s first elementary yeshiva: Yeshivah Toras Emes, which first met in the shul in the 1930s.
When Beth El outgrew its original three-story building after two decades, the kehilla moved to 4802 15th Ave.
In addition to the shul’s beautiful buildings on both 40th Street and 15th Avenue, over the years, Temple Beth El has been known for its beloved rabbeim and world-famous chazzanus.
In 1906, Rabbi Avroham Ever Hirshkowitz, zt”l served as the shul’s first rabbi, and in 1927, Rabbi Simon Glazer, zt”l, led the kehilla until 1930.
In 1938, Rabbi Israel Schorr, zt”l, who passed away in 2000, began his 60-year tenure as Beth El’s longtime, beloved rav.
Since 2000, Rabbi Moshe Snow, shlita, who attended Mesivta Tiferes Yerushlayim and received smicha from Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, has led the kehilla, which especially appreciates his inspiring d’var Torahs.
In addition, since the shul first opened in 1906, Temple Beth El has been renown for its world-class chazzanus.
For instance, in 1920, Reb Mordecai Hershman, served as the shul’s chazan, until Chazzan Moshe Erstling replaced him.
Cantor B. Shifman came next, followed by Reb Berele Chagy, a chazzan and a composer, whose father and grandfather before him were also chazzanim.
In 1952, Reb Moshe Koussevitzky, who is considered one of the greatest chazzanim of the 20th century, replaced Reb Chagy, and sang on Shabbos at Temple Beth El until he passed away in 1966.
Chazzan Paul Zim sang at the shul from 1966 to 1968, and he was followed by Reb Moshe Stern, also one of the greats, from 1968 to 1977, until he returned to Israel, where he had lived for 18 years before coming to New York.
Since 1981, Reb Benzion Miller has led the singing of the shul, which around the time of his hiring, merged with Young Israel of Boro Park, and changed its name to Young Israel Beth El of Borough Park
Still popular 119 years after it began, the neighborhood’s oldest shul remains a vibrant place, where congregants daven, learn Daf Yomi, Gemara, Parsha, and women can attend a weekly tefilla shiur.
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