'We feel the Rebbe put his eyes on this place'

Bobover Hassidim buy abandoned Brooklyn Conservative shul.

synagogue 298.88 (photo credit: Alexander Rapaport "REBEL Images")
synagogue 298.88
(photo credit: Alexander Rapaport "REBEL Images")
For many years the corner of 49th Street and 15th Avenue in Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood was home to an empty synagogue. Membership in the Temple Emanu-El Conservative congregation had dwindled, and the almost 100-year-old building sat like an empty shell. A month ago, the architecturally unique building was torn down to make room for another, bigger synagogue. This time, a no-frills structure to serve Bobover Hassidim. Last week, the concrete parking lot where Emanu-El once stood was covered by an enormous tent. The plans is to build a synagogue big enough for 3,000 families, with a school next door. On Thursday night, the tent held a yartzeit commemoration for the late Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Halberstam, the fourth Bobover rebbe. (Since his death in 2005, the sect has split in two over who is the rightful successor.) Meanwhile, historian and author Oscar Israelowitz is trying to save a set of stained glass windows designed by Payne-Spears Studios of Paterson, New Jersey, before they are destroyed with the rest of the school building. The windows, which measure 3.8 meters by 2.9 meters and line the hallways that used to connect the school with the synagogue, honor victims of the Holocaust and hope for the future. The central panel shows six burning candles with images of several men in prayer shawls. To the right are images of the crematoria, and on either sides are images of rebirth. At some point images of people were covered over with black paint. Israelowitz says that can be fixed and has contacted a handful of museums and synagogues to see if they have space to house the windows. So far, he has had no luck. "This is what we are here for, to save our history," he said. "It would be such a crime if this goes." Over the years the neighborhood became home to a largely haredi population. Everyone in the neighborhood knows the Georgian-style building, built in 1908, with its white Corinthian columns and dome, but few have been inside. To many it looked like a church, and symbolized a Judaism that ultra-Orthodox Jews want no part of. Architecture, in and of itself, doesn't hold much weight for haredim, especially at a time when many of the Brooklyn communities are bursting at the seams. An unused building is considered a waste - columns, or no columns. Last summer, after it had passed through several owners, the faction of the Bobover sect led by Rabbi Mordechai David Unger, Halberstam's son-in-law, bought the synagogue as well as the property next door from the Beis Yaakov school for $14 million. But the Bobovers's connection to the property dates back 40 years, according to Rabbi Wolf Reichberg, head of public relations for Unger's group. The original headquarters of Bobover Hassidim was in the Crown Heights neighborhood. But in the mid-1960s, racial tensions made the community to look elsewhere. The rebbe inquired about Temple Emanu-El in Borough Park. The owners were asking for $70,000, and Halberstam couldn't afford it (he had $35,000). Instead they bought a property on 48th Street between 14th and 15th Avenues. "Our people feel that the rebbe had already put his eyes on this place," said Reichberg. "I don't know what it means but maybe he thought that one day we would have it."