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SHAARE ZION: THE SYNAGOGUE THAT NEARLY WASN'T BUILT

By: Carolyn Rushefsky



As the flagship synagogue of Brooklyn’s Syrian-Sephardic community, Shaare Zion has hosted well over ten thousand happy occasions including berit milahs, bar missvas, engagements and, of course, weddings. This June will mark 50 years since the first wedding at Shaare Zion. And while our dependence on this community icon has continued to grow over the years, recollections of the early setbacks which nearly doomed the entire the project, are starting to fade. In an extensive interview, Mr. David Eliahu Cohen, who was co-chairman of the synagogue’s building committee in 1957, shared his memories of the massive project, and the formidable obstacles that had to be overcome for Shaare Zion to become a reality.

An Ocean Parkway Location

In the late 1930’s, many Syrian families moved from the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn where they had lived as a community since the 1920’s to the Flatbush, Midwood and Gravesend areas where larger houses were common. At first, the men who moved to these neighborhoods would walk some 25-40 minutes each Shabbat to the Magen David Congregation on 67th Street, the community’s main kinees at the time. But by 1941, as the population in Flatbush grew, the Syrian-Sephardic Congregation Shaare Zion was establishedwhen community leaders acquired a brick house at 1756 Ocean Parkway near Kings Highway. Prominent sponsors involved in establishing the new kinees, included the Beyda, Chabot, Esses, Haddad, Hedaya, Hidary, Labaton, Laniado, Levy, Mansour, Mizrahi, Shalom, Shamah, Sutton and Tawil families.

The house served the congregation’s 75 regular members. Attendance was about ten times that amount on the High Holy Days, when some 750 worshippers would attend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the Aperion Manor a few blocks away at 815 Kings Highway (currently Kings Terrace). Mr. D.E. Cohen says that the heavy attendance on the holidays indicated to community leaders that a large central synagogue was needed for the growing community.

On March 24, 1951, six leaders from the Shaare Zion committee met to discuss the acquisition of land for such a synagogue. They decided on a plot of land on Ocean Parkway and between Avenues T and U – the current site of Shaare Zion. That same year they bought the land and two years later, in 1953, plans were drawn for the present synagogue.The project was of grand scale, as the new building was intended to accommodate not only prayers, but also social events. To oversee design of the edifice, the committee selected renowned architect, Morris Lapidus, whose credits included the Fontainebleau of Miami Beach.

To finance the cost of construction, the community had, since 1941, already amassed a fund of $250,000 (about $2 million in 2012 dollars). But soon after construction got underway, the building fund was entirely depleted and the whole project was very nearly aborted.

The Builder Goes Bankrupt

“A general contractor began buildingShaare Zion in 1954, but after taking all of the community’s money, he went bankrupt in 1955,” Mr. D.E. Cohen relates. “Work stopped with only the foundation done.”

Subcontractors were suing the synagogue because they hadn’t been paid. There were law suits and liens on the building. The lot was closed off with a fence erected around it.

“It was so depressing,” Mr. Cohen recalls. “The community had donated $250,000 over almost 15 years, and it was all gone. There was no money to continue. Most community leaders and congregants were turned off to the idea of donating any more money to the project. They wanted to sell the land and build a smaller kinees on Kings Highway.”

A Communal Rescue Mission

But not everyone was ready to give up. In early 1957, Ralph Shamah a.h., Joe Sitt a.h., Abe M. Cohen a.h. and David E. Cohen y.l.t. convinced Eli Haddad a.h. and his brothers Mersh a.h., Sam a.h. and Abe a.h. to hold a fundraiser at Eli’s home to help revive interest in the new Shaare Zion building. The event was a success as over $63,000 was pledged.

The next morning, Eli Haddad and Mr. D.E. Cohen opened a bank account under the name Shaare Zion Building Committee, and they deposited $13,000 donated by the Haddad brothers. Although $63,000 had been pledged, some community members did not want to sign any checks until they saw measurable progress on the building.

“We had to get people to feel that the synagogue was definitely going to be built,” Mr. D.E. Cohen recalls. “We had to create action again.”

That same week, Abe Cohen and David E. Cohen (who are not related), co-chairmen of the building committee, took on the job of general contractors. They hired a full-time civil engineer to work at the job site, and obtain permits and insurance, among other tasks.

Then, the building committee met individually with each subcontractor to try and persuade them to come back. They went to the plumber first, who claimed he was owed $40,000 by the bankrupt contractor, but agreed to take $20,000. “We offered him $5,000 to start,” Mr. D.E. Cohen says, “and we promised he would get full payment in two weeks.” The building committee asked that the plumber park all his trucks on the lot to show that there was activity.

“We put up a new sign, ‘Under Construction,’ but we left out the words, ‘we hope,’” he adds with a chuckle.

The committee then went to the electrical subcontractor. “He had a contract for $35,000. When he saw that the plumbing work was going forward, he agreed to $5,000 and started working,” Mr. D.E. Cohen says. They negotiated similar deals with the brickwork, concrete, air conditioning and heating companies. Within a short time, all the subcontractors dropped their lawsuits and removed the liens on the building – and the Shaare Zion building project was back on track.

“We went on like this through 1957 and the beginning of 1958, continuing on a wing and a prayer,” he says.

A Pitch for Lifetime Seats

Next, members of the building committee went to American Seating Co. “They drew a layout and pictures of a seating plan, as if it were going to be built tomorrow.”

Armed with the seating plan, Abe Cohen a.h., Ralph Shamah a.h., Marc Benun a.h., Bert Dweck a.h.and David E. Cohen would take off from work in their various businessesand go to congregants’ offices and stores with the plan and a sales pitch: “We’re building a beautiful new synagogue. Become a lifetime member by buying a seat.”

The members weren’t exactly running to sign on. “Buying specific seats was a first in our community, and it was a hard sell,” Mr. D.E. Cohen says. “Half the seats were priced at $500 per couple, which was a lot of money at a time when houses in the synagogue’s area were priced at around $35,000.”

The team collected small checks, along with some post-dated checks, which amounted to a total of $20,000. “They approached Eli Haddad and showed him $20,000 worth of checks,” Mr. D.E. Cohen says, adding, “but we ‘forgot’ to tell Eli that the original pledges made at his home were still in the wings, waiting to see the building’s progress. Eli went with me to the Irving Trust Bank in the Empire State Building and told the bank, ‘Give Shaare Zion $20,000; I’ll guarantee payment.’”

But $20,000 wasn’t enough to keep the project going and though the committee would continue selling lifetime seats, the donations couldn’t keep pace with the mounting costs. The committee decided that the only solution was to try to sell the private house it had been using as a kinees and apply that money towards the new building.

“We held a general meeting and it was accepted, on condition that we move into the new building for the High Holy Days, 1958. The house quickly sold for $90,000 to a commercial realtor (eventually becoming part of an apartment complex) and we were able to draw on the funds to continue construction on the dome and synagogue.” In September 1958, Congregation Shaare Zion moved into the unfinished social hall for holiday prayers, while construction continued through 1960. “With Gd’s help, we made it.”

Battle of the Balcony

In contrast to the simpler design of the social hall, the striking design of Shaare Zion’s main sanctuary presented a unique challenge. The engineering of the magnificent curved balcony, which blends so harmoniously with the dome, drew an objection from the Building Department. The Department demanded that 20 supporting columns be installed to hold up the balcony, Mr. Cohen recalls. With assurances from their own engineers, the committee resisted the order since it would mar the structure’s beauty. The balcony had been carefully designed with no visible supports because it was to be cantilevered off the main structure, which was engineered to be strong enough to maintain the balcony’s fully loaded weight.

The engineers on the project decided to prove to the Building Department that their design – which was formed of steel encased in concrete that extends into the balcony – was more than adequate to hold congregants’ weight. To that end, the engineers placed dozens of bags of cement – collectively weighing several tons, all over the partially constructed balcony. The Building Department agreed that if the structure could hold that weight over a week or so, the design would be considered safe.

“Then it rained for three days,” recalls D.E. Cohen, “and this was before the roof was put on, so some of the cement bags which weren’t sealed well absorbed lots of water and became solid boulders.”

Even with the increased weight of the cement mixed water – which amounted to several times more than the anticipated maximum load for the balcony, the structure held. “The Building Department agreed that the design was indeed safe. It is still structurally sound to this day, some 50 years later.”

“The main sanctuary of Shaare Zion opened for 2,100 congregants on the High Holy Days in 1960. The dome, banquet room, terrace room in the basement, and midrash upstairs were all utilized. Twelve security guards were hired to handle all the congregants and sightseers. There was still an outstanding debt of $400,000, but with the successful launch of thekinees, that too was paid off eventually.”

Mr. D.E. Cohen continues to marvel at the success of this ambitious endeavor. “It was a fairy tale, but thanks to Hashem’s help and the hard work and generosity of so many dedicated people, Shaare Zion went from being a dream to a reality. It is such a beautiful synagogue, an Israeli magazine Olomenu compared it to the Bet Hamikdash on its October, 1963 cover.”

The immense efforts exerted by Shaare Zion’s founders continue to yield invaluable dividends. The synagogue has served for decades as a vibrant center of Torah learning and prayer that has produced generations of outstanding and devoted Jewish men and women. The success of Shaare Zion and the incalculable impact it has had on the community is a tribute to the hard work and generous support of its members both past and present, whose selfless dedication continues to serve as a great source of inspiration for us all.

Development of Shaare Zion Over the Years

Completed in 1960, Shaare Zion was designed by the renowned architect Morris Lapidus. The main sanctuary beneath its distinctive dome seats over 400 worshippers. 

Over 2,000 congregants attend services at Shaare Zion, making it one of the largest Sephardic synagogues in America.

The building has been renovated and expanded since its completion half a century ago.

The dome was spruced up in 1993, when the seats were reupholstered, their wood trims renewed and carpeting replaced. The carpeting is regularly replaced every few years, whenever it appears worn, according to the office staff.

The roof of the dome — made of concrete reinforced with steel rods — is extremely strong and has remained intact since its completion. The roof received a coat of white paint in 1993.

“There were never any leaks in the roof or in the structure,” notes David Eliahu Cohen, co-chairman of the Shaare Zion Building Committee in the 1950s, and who has remained active in synagogue matters ever since.

In 1990, 30 years after the building was completed, two panes of the glass wall in the dome had become weathered. “We replaced two glass panes. That's it,” Mr. D.E. Cohen says.

The stone-studded wall covering that was put up in the synagogue in 1985 remains in good condition to this day.

In January 1990, the congregation bought the house next door, on the north side of Shaare Zion. Renovations were completed a year later, in 1991. Known as the Annex Building, it is used for daily prayers and Torah study. The building also contains office space.

In 1996, the social hall in the rear of Shaare Zion, used for weddings, bar missvas, engagement parties and other occasions, was demolished and replaced by a new, larger, more modern banquet hall, utilizing space from a former parking lot. In addition, a new synagogue known as Bnei Shaare Zion, seating some 250 worshippers was completed. The Bet Midrash on the upper level was enlarged.  On the lower level, a synagogue and several meeting rooms were built as well.