B’nai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael Shul Demolished





You can discover a compelling collection of this shul on the "Abandoned New York" Instagram page. Despite several attempts, I've never managed to enter this particular synagogue in my neighborhood—it just never panned out. My explorations were further thwarted when the roof collapsed in January before I could explore inside one last time. I considered making an attempt during its demolition, but by then, much of the synagogue had already been dismantled, compromised by its precarious lean against a neighboring occupied apartment building. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we must accept the stark realities of life: we win some, we lose some.


In Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn, the Hebrew Israelite congregation once vibrated with the echoes of prayers within the walls of their 19th-century shul. However, a tragic event in 2017 cast a long shadow over this historical edifice. A 71-year-old roofer, while attempting to repair the roof, inadvertently set it ablaze with his torch. This accident not only ignited the roof but also created a cascade of challenges for the congregation. The fire required the intervention of 100 firefighters to tame the flames that threatened to consume the entire structure. Subsequently, the building was declared uninhabitable, and the dreams of restoration dimmed alongside the smoldering remnants.


The hopes of revitalizing the historic building dwindled further in March 2024, when the City of New York intervened, shouldering the costs of demolishing the precarious structure that now leaned dangerously towards an adjacent property. Rabbi Yehudah and his congregation were left with a dual burden: repaying the city and salvaging their beloved shul. Faced with financial hardships, they envisioned a partnership with a developer to reconstruct the site into a mixed-use housing development, potentially securing the congregation's future. However, bureaucratic red tape presented yet another hurdle. Zoning laws proved to be a formidable opponent, with estimates placing the cost of necessary changes at around $200,000—a sum far beyond their strained resources.


Efforts to navigate these legal complexities were further complicated by the congregation's accumulation of legal and building violations over the years. Moreover, the land, with an estimated value between $8-12 million, attracted numerous buyers, but the congregation steadfastly resisted these overtures, aiming to retain their ownership and preserve their community's heritage.


This saga of the Hebrew Israelite congregation is not just a tale of a building lost to flames and bureaucracy but a reflection of resilience and determination. As they stand at the crossroads of history and modernity, their journey underscores the challenges faced by urban communities clinging to their cultural and spiritual identities amidst rapidly changing city landscapes. Their story continues, a poignant testament to faith and endurance in the face of overwhelming odds.




B'nai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael Synagogue is no more. Now an empty lot




In 2018, a significant act of preservation unfolded, which saw the restoration of three Torah scrolls that had been damaged in the fire. These scrolls, bearing the weight of history with ages ranging from 100 to 150 years, were not just religious artifacts but also cultural heirlooms, encapsulating generations of faith and tradition.


The scrolls were rescued from the blaze by firefighters, who managed to save them from the flames but could not prevent one from being stained by water and fabric dye from an ornamental covering. This led to a challenging restoration process, headed by Rigoberto Emmanuel Viñas, a skilled Torah scribe and former rabbi of the Lincoln Park Jewish Center. Viñas brought his expertise in Torah restoration to bear on these sacred texts, meticulously reapplying ink to the faded letters and words, a necessity under Jewish law which stipulates that all letters and words in a Torah scroll must be intact for the scroll to be considered kosher.


The restoration of these Torahs was not just a matter of religious obligation but also a profound act of cultural restoration. Viñas performed this delicate service free of charge, a gesture that underscored the communal and spiritual importance of these scrolls. The estimated cost of such a restoration service would have been around $8,000, highlighting the substantial effort and expertise involved in preserving these vital links to the community's spiritual history.







The rich tapestry of New York's religious and architectural history, the building at 1006 Greene Street stands as a monument to the evolving landscape of faith communities in the city. Originally constructed in 1912 for the Trinity Baptist Church, the structure was the brainchild of architects Dodge and Morrison. The design emerged during an era of robust ecclesiastical architecture, reflecting the congregation's deep roots in the community, which stretch back to the mid-1870s.


By 1918, the building had transitioned to a new chapter under the stewardship of a Seventh-day Adventist church, signaling the beginning of its varied religious affiliations. A 1929 map denotes its use as a synagogue, marking a significant transformation in its identity. By 1931, it had become the home of Congregation B’nai Jacob, weaving yet another layer into its storied existence.


The narrative took a poignant turn in 1954 when Rabbi Yirmeyahu Ben Daniel Ben Levi Ben Yisrael, z'l, established B’nai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. This congregation, a kehillah kedoshah (holy community), was part of the Israelite or Black Jewish movement, a distinctive thread in the fabric of New York's religious life. Under the leadership of Rabbi Yirmeyahu, a student of the late Chief Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew, the congregation blossomed rapidly, necessitating a move to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in 1956, and later to Greene Street in 1966. The purchase of the Greene Street building from B’nai Jacob Joseph, an Ashkenazi congregation, marked another growth phase for B’nai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael. The building, rich with the echoes of its multifaceted religious heritage, quickly became a vibrant hub for its 300-strong congregation. 


The synagogue at 1006 Greene Street, part of the B’nai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael congregation, stands as a poignant symbol of resilience and historical continuity. Established in 1967, this predominantly Black Hebrew congregation has weathered more than just the physical decline of its historic building, parts of which date back to 1786. Despite the sanctuary being in disrepair, rendering it unusable for the past 15 years, the congregation's spirit remains unbroken, continuing to gather in the modest confines of the synagogue's basement until it could no longer congregate.


The challenges faced by B’nai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael are emblematic of broader issues. The building itself, supported by wooden buttresses to keep its aging walls upright, tells a story of neglect and a struggle for preservation. There was a time when this congregation, dedicated to both spiritual and social outreach, provided meals to the less fortunate. However, financial constraints have long since halted these acts of community service. Rabbi Baruch Yehudah, the current spiritual leader, has openly discussed the financial burdens weighing heavily on the congregation, with more than $73,000  in fines owed to the city and a daunting $4.5 million needed for renovations. Despite these challenges, the congregation has managed to raise only about $24,000 since the devastating fire compromised their place of worship.


This synagogue's struggle is heightened by its isolation from other Jewish communities. Situated between the influential Satmar community of Williamsburg and the Lubavitch community of Crown Heights, B’nai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael has not found the financial support or recognition from nearby Jewish congregations that might help alleviate its hardships. This isolation is shared by Beth Shalom Hebrew Congregation, another Black Israelite congregation located just 10 blocks away, which similarly exists somewhat apart from its neighboring communities.


The storied narrative of B'nai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael not only paints a vivid picture of a resilient congregation but also charts the evolution of a significant religious movement within New York City's diverse tapestry. Founded in 1954 by Rabbi Yirmeyahu Yisrael, a disciple of Chief Rabbi W.A. Matthew, the congregation initially came to life at 204 Lenox Avenue in Harlem. This early chapter set the stage for a history rich with cultural and spiritual milestones.


During a transformative period in the mid-20th century, when the neighborhood demographics shifted and many Ashkenazi Jews moved to other parts of the city, the landscape of religious buildings underwent significant changes. Many synagogues were left behind, and while some were repurposed into churches, others, like the one that would become B’nai Adath, were embraced by Black Jewish communities. In 1967, B’nai Adath took stewardship of a synagogue originally established by Ashkenazi Jews and known as B’nai Jacob Joseph. This building, embedded with history, became a beacon for the Black Hebrew movement.


The 1970s were particularly pivotal for B’nai Adath. It was within its walls that the Israelite Board of Rabbis and the Israelite Rabbinical Academy were founded, underscoring the congregation's role as a central hub for theological and communal development. The significance of B’nai Adath extended beyond its immediate community; it served as the mother congregation for a network of congregations across the United States and even into South America.


Among these are Hashabah Yisrael of Brooklyn, which itself founded further congregations in Guyana and Baltimore. Kwahal B’nai Yisrael and Kwahalet Mishpachah in Atlanta, along with She’ar Yashuv in the same city, illustrate the reach and influence of B’nai Adath’s spiritual legacy. More recently, the congregation's influence has stretched to Charlotte, North Carolina with the establishment of the Hashabah Yisrael Hebrew Family.


Other congregations such as Kol Sheareit B’nai Yisrael in the Bronx and Kalutzeh Yisrael in the Bronx trace their roots back to B’nai Adath, showcasing a broad and enduring impact. The enduring flame of B’nai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael, through its foundational and ongoing contributions to the Israelite community, highlights a unique chapter in the story of New York's religious landscape. This congregation not only preserves but actively nourishes the rich heritage of Black Judaism, ensuring its vitality and relevance in a continuously evolving cultural milieu.


During the transformative decades of the 1960s and 1970s, New York City's religious landscape was enriched by the emergence and consolidation of several Black Jewish congregations. These congregations, each with its own distinct character and leadership, played crucial roles in shaping the spiritual, cultural, and social dynamics of their communities. The period was marked by a burgeoning sense of identity and autonomy among Black Jewish groups, often navigating their relationship with the broader, predominantly white Jewish community.


Key among these congregations was Rabbi Matthew’s Commandment Keepers Synagogue on West 123rd Street in Harlem, a foundational institution in the Black Jewish movement. Rabbi Yirmeyahu ben Yisrael’s Congregation B’nai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael in Brooklyn stood as a beacon of the Israelite faith, drawing members from across the city and beyond. Rabbi Levi ben Levy led Beth Shalom E.H. Congregation, also in Brooklyn, fostering a vibrant community of worshippers.


In the Bronx, Congregation Mt. Horeb, under Rabbi Albert Moses, provided a spiritual home for many, while Brooklyn housed several influential congregations such as Congregation Boneh Yerushalayim under Cantor Eliezer Brooks, and Congregation B’nai K’hal Haychal HaTorah led by Cantor Beni Israel. Each of these congregations had distinct practices and theological focuses, reflecting the diversity within the Black Jewish community.


Further contributing to this rich tapestry were Congregation Hashabah Yisrael, led by Hacohen Levi Ben Yisrael, and Congregation Col Shearit B’nai Yisrael in Jamaica, Queens, led by Mr. Yosef Vanterpool. Brooklyn's Congregation Beth Shalom and Congregation Beth Ahavath Yisrael were also significant, led by Mr. Raphael Tate and Mr. Menachem Bamber, respectively. These leaders, many of whom were trained at Rabbi Matthew's Israelite Rabbinic Academy, were pivotal in nurturing and expanding their congregations.


The congregations varied not only in leadership and locale but also in their degree of interaction with the mainstream Jewish community, which was predominantly white. This variance often stemmed from theological differences, community goals, and broader social dynamics. Some congregations sought closer ties with mainstream Judaism, while others preferred a more distinct identity, focusing on the unique aspects of the Black Jewish experience.


Additionally, the era was marked by the presence of several nationalist, Israelite groups, with the Twelve Tribes being the most notable. Known for their spectacular dress and militant discourse, the Twelve Tribes represented a more radical edge of the Black Israelite movement, often drawing public and media attention.


The 1960s and 1970s thus stand out as a period of significant growth and diversification within the Black Jewish communities of New York, highlighting a complex interplay of religious identity, cultural expression, and social activism. This era not only solidified the presence of these congregations in the city's religious landscape but also set the stage for future generations to explore and express their faith in increasingly diverse ways.





Sources:



1. Washington, R. (2024, March 25). (Historic synagogue in Brooklyn, home to Hebrew Israelites for half a century, set for demolition). Forward.

2. Corcoran, C. (2017, November 16). (What Will Happen to Bed Stuy's Black Jewish Congregation After Synagogue Fire?). Brownstoner.

3. Greenberg, R. (2024, March 25). (City demolishing historic Black synagogue in Brooklyn). Spectrum News NY 1.

4. n.a. (2017, November 13). (Bnai Adath Destroyed by Fire: Will Rise Again). BlackJews.org.

5. n.a. (n.d.). (B’nai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael). bakby.org.

6. Times Union. (1912, October 10). (Trinity Baptist has Celebration). Times Union, p. 6.

7. Bradley-Smith, A. (2024, March 22). (Congregation Fears Loss as City Razes Collapsing Bed Stuy Shul). Brownstoner.

8. Garcia, E. (2018, February 9). (Yonkers rabbi restoring fire-damaged Brooklyn Torah scrolls). lohud.

9. n.a. (2014, April 21). (Bed-Stuy Synagogue Praying for Another Passover). BKReader.

10. Wong, P. (2015, November 17). (Roofer Arrested For Starting Fire At Bed-Stuy Synagogue Tuesday Morning). Bkylner.

11. Fernheimer, J. W. (2014). Stepping Into Zion: Hatzaad Harishon, Black Jews, and the Remaking of Jewish Identity. United States: University of Alabama Press. pp.85.

12. (Corcoran, C. 2017, December 18). (Bed Stuy Synagogue Raises Thousands of Dollars to Rebuild After Fire). Brownstoner.


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