August 26, 2020 The Church that Shrank
Site: Hewes Street Shul / Klausenberg Yeshiva
Location: 624 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211
This is the story of a church that transformed—and shrank.
I wrote about 624 Bedford Avenue before when I was tracking the vanishing Stars of David in Williamsburg. As you’ll see in this post, I wrote about Hasidic anti-Zionism.
But the larger story of this magnificent building is very interesting too. I think this building is real architecture eye-candy, but it’s best appreciated for its details!
Photo 1: 1909—The building was first a Lutheran church called Church of the Redeemer.
Photo 2: 1940—The building served as the Hewes Street Synagogue for the B’nai Israel Congregation.
This is a new picture I found off the maps of the 1940s I wrote about previously.
At this stage, it was no longer a church. That’s not surprising; by the 1940s, Williamsburg was already an intensely Jewish neighborhood, even though the holocaust survivors had yet to settle there. The neighborhood was still a lot more demographically diverse, with varying degrees of Jewish observance, as described by Philip Fishman in A Sukkah is Burning:
“Prior to the large-scale immigration in the early 1950s of chasidic refugees from Europe, the neighborhood’s Orthodox culture was religiously heterogeneous and had little of the charedi attributes that dominate it today. The two largest synagogues, the Clymer Street Shul and the Hewes Street Shul, had a strong Zionist orientation. The other prominent synagogue, the Young Israel of Brooklyn, with its highly innovative ‘Americanized’ prayer services, represented, at the time, a radical shift away from the traditional East European prayer styles typical of most Orthodox synagogues. I am told that on the day in 1947 that the U.N. voted for partition (two states), in effect, allowing for the establishment of the State of Israel, all of the many synagogues lining Bedford Avenue joyfully displayed the blue and white Israeli flag outside their windows with the sole exception of the small anti-Zionist Agudah synagogue occupying a converted brownstone next door to the imposing Hewes Street Shul. The transition of this neighborhood into a charedi anti-Zionist stronghold that occurred in the post-War period was accompanied by much tension.”
Notice that Fishman mentions the Hewes Street Shul and how important it was. Notice too that in the picture, the building’s steeples are intact.
(You can read my interview with Fishman about his book here.)
Photo 3: 1965—Notice the steeples have been removed.
This is very interesting. By 1965, Williamsburg’s transitional period was more or less complete. It was by then a very religious neighborhood, and those who wanted a more diverse community were moving out. The Hungarian Hasidim had won their territorial battle. So even while the synagogue was still operational, the steeples had been removed.
PHOTO 4: 2012—And it shrank more! You’ll see that another layer of steeples had been lopped off, and the once majestic church now looked quite modest. But in this 2012 photo by Flickr User Matthew X. Kiernan, the building still boasted a Star of David.
Photo 5: 2019—And finally, the Star of David disappeared. This is the building today:
The glass window has a globe, but the engraving above the doorway still reads “Congregation B’nai Israel.” The exterior is very run down, which is—sigh—very common here.
Bonus Photos: Like almost all Hasidic schools, the building doubles as a banquet hall. You’ll find the hall on Google Maps under “Bedford Paradise,” and you can work up an appetite by checking out the pictures of the fine food at the parties!