January 17, 2020

In Brooklyn, Conservative and Orthodox Jews Quarrel Over Rental of School Space 

East Midwood Jewish Center's Rabbi Cantor Sam Levine. Photo by Debra Nussbaum Cohen.

Inside a ballroom at Brooklyn’s East Midwood Jewish Center (EMJC) — a Conservative synagogue — some 200 members danced in celebration of the installation of their longtime cantor, Sam Levine, who recently was ordained a rabbi and appointed to that role as well. Outside, about 150 Orthodox Jews protested the congregation’s recent decision to rent out its former day school building to a charter school that serves mostly black students.

Demonstrators held signs and recited psalms. While generally peaceful, some anger flared when a crowd of about 1,000 showed up for an informational meeting the congregation held for the community on Nov. 25. 

That meeting turned into “a melee,” said Levine, as Orthodox opponents of the synagogue’s plan shouted their opposition, according to local news accounts. One Orthodox Jew at that meeting said that Urban Dove, the charter school that serves students at risk of failing ninth grade in other high schools, will bring a bad element into the neighborhood. “We hope to convince Urban Dove that they don’t belong here.”

Urban Dove is expected to soon start renovating the former day school building and open its doors to 300 students next September.

“This is a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. We feel very slighted that EMJC went out of our neighborhood to seek tenants rather than coming to us,” a woman named Tammy, who declined to give her last name, told the Journal. “It’s very hurtful to us. There are local schools that need the space.”

Protestors handed out a flyer warning that the charter school may have students prone to  “gang affiliation, violence or drug habits.”

 “The idea that these few kids are somehow going to have this unbelievable impact on the neighborhood, that there will be drug abuse and violence, if that’s not racist I don’t know what is.” — Rabbi and Cantor Sam Levine 

Levine noted that three public high schools in the area have almost 12,000 students combined.  “The hysteria, the idea that these few kids are somehow going to have this unbelievable impact on the neighborhood, that there will be drug abuse and violence, if that’s not racist I don’t know what is,” he told the Journal. 

When the longtime Jewish day school that was a tenant for decades closed in 2018, EMJC rented the space to a Chabad school, which soon stopped paying rent.

Last summer, “we showed it to 17 different organizations and ended up having discussions with eight yeshivot and two Jewish day schools,” Levine said. “Nobody could afford the rent we were asking. One Orthodox yeshiva came close and we seriously considered it, and when we asked them to put a deposit down, they wouldn’t, which suggested it wasn’t a serious offer. 

Claire Friedman, a local resident of 40 years, insisted that the Conservative synagogue had ignored Jewish potential tenants.

“Urban Dove came around. They were serious. They liked the space, would pay what we were asking, would pour $3 (million) or $4 million into renovating the building, and were willing to sign contracts,” Levine said. 

Claire Friedman, a local resident of 40 years, insisted that the Conservative synagogue had ignored Jewish potential tenants. “People wanted to rent the place and they weren’t given the option; they just brought in an outside group.” she said.

“We can’t survive without the income we get from the school,” Levine said. Income goes toward supporting the historic building designed in the style of an Italian Renaissance palacio. The congregation was founded in 1924 and the ornate building — with a grand sanctuary seating 875 surrounded by a dozen tall stained-glass windows, two ballrooms, a swimming pool, sauna, gym and lots of classrooms — cost $1 million when it was completed in 1929.

Membership peaked at 1,430 families in 1963, according to the synagogue website, and began to decline steadily after the 1980s as families moved out of Brooklyn and the area became more Orthodox. EMJC’s current membership is 250 households, Levine said. 

Today the synagogue rents out space to a Haitian church twice a week as well as several Orthodox groups. An Orthodox girls basketball team gathered in the gym as the party ended and the demonstrators dispersed.  

“Against our own values, we have pool hours just for girls and women, and times just for boys and men,” Levine said. “We have Orthodox camps renting the gym and pool spaces all summer.”

The idea that East Midwood Jewish Center didn’t want to rent to a Jewish school “is just preposterous,” he said.


Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a freelance journalist in New York City.