As the first Jewish congregation established in Brooklyn and Long Island, Union Temple has a long and proud history of service to the Jewish community, and to the Brooklyn community at large. Officially founded in 1848, the congregation originated in what was known as the Village of Williamsburgh, one of a number of principalities that at the time comprised what we now know as the Borough of Brooklyn. Other such municipalities included: the City of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, the Town of Flatbush, the Town of New Utrecht, the Town of Flatlands, the Town of New Lots, and others. Communication between the towns was difficult; in fact it was easier to cross the East River to Manhattan than to travel on land through the villages of Brooklyn.
Though Jews had been living in New York since 1654, the polls show that by 1848 the Jewish population was still relatively small. The census of 1859 showed about 50,000 Jews in the United States, out of a total population of about 23 million. The first Jewish inhabitant of Williamsburgh, one Adolph Baker, settled there in 1837. A handful of Jews followed in subsequent years, crossing over the East River from Manhattan, settling in the vicinity of lower Grand Street. According to the congregation's oral tradition, the more pious of these early Williamsburgh Jews would row across the river to spend Shabbat with their families in Lower Manhattan, then row back after dark on Saturday evening. However by 1846, these Jews had established themselves as a community, and took to holding Shabbat services in various private homes. They were of German and Alsatian descent.
The congregants designated as their first synagogue the home of Moses Kessel on North Second Avenue, now known as Marcy Avenue. They named the synagogue Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim and elected as their first officiating minister, David Barnard, who previously had been listed in the Village Directory as a Hebrew teacher. Nathan Klotz was elected the first president. At the time the congregation worshiped according to Orthodox ritual.
In 1860 the congregation purchased and remodeled a church building on South First Street, and subsequently opened a Day School. The Day School offered elementary education in English and German, and included both secular and religious subjects. The school closed when free public education was instituted in Brooklyn.
Soon K.K. Beth Elohim had outgrown its building, and a new synagogue was built on Keap Street in 1876. For many years it was the largest synagogue in Brooklyn, acquiring the nickname of The Keap Street Temple.
While K.K.Beth Elohim was growing, a number of Jews in central Brooklyn establish a congregation in keeping with the Reform Movement, brought to America by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. This congregation was founded in 1869, and incorporated in the following year as ATemple Israel.@ Services were held in the Y.M.C.A. building on the corner of Fulton Street and Galatin Place until 1872, when the congregation purchased a former church building on Greene Avenue. In 1891 the congregation consecrated its magnificent new building on the corner of Bedford and Lafayette Avenues, and several years later, added a second building for school and youth activities. Temple Israel built a reputation as one of the finest synagogues in the Eastern United States. It flourished under the rabbinic leadership of such giants as Rabbi Leon Harrison, later of St. Louis, and Rabbi Martin A. Meyer, later of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Also among the congregation=s rabbis were Rabbi Nathan Krass and Rabbi Judah Leon Magnes, each of whom subsequently was called to the pulpit of Congregation Emanu-El, in Manhattan. Dr. Magnes ultimately went on to become the founder and first president of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
As Temple Israel grew in size and stature, K.K. Beth Elohim continued to flourish as well, eventually adopting the reforms introduced into American Jewry by Isaac Mayer Wise. During the tenure of Rabbi Isaac Schwab in the mid-1870's, and in response to the wishes of many of the younger congregants, K.K. Beth Elohim adopted as its official prayer book, Minhag America, written by Dr. Wise, who by that time had established himself in Cincinnati as a giant in the building of the Reform Movement of Judaism. He became the founding rabbi of the Isaac Mayer Wise Temple on Plum Street, the founder and first president of the Hebrew Union College, for the training of Reform rabbis in America, and the founder of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the brain trust of the Reform Movement in North America, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.
Both congregations, Temple Israel and K.K. Beth Elohim, had prominent and active memberships. They were active in all areas of communal endeavor. They created various agencies of Jewish philanthropy in Brooklyn, such as: the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, the Jewish Hospital, the Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities (which later merged with the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies), the Hebrew Educational Society, the Hebrew Free Loan Society, and the Ladies' Hebrew Benevolent Society.
In 1921 Temple Israel and K.K. Beth Elohim decided to merge into single Reform congregation, and incorporated into what is now known as Union Temple of Brooklyn. By that time, the center of Brooklyn Jewry had shifted away from Williamsburgh, and moved westward toward Flatbush. The newly-merged congregation decided to build a new home at 17 Eastern Parkway. The newly-built eleven-story community house was dedicated on the eve of Sukkot in 1929. It was also in 1929 that Dr. Sidney S. Tedesche began his long and distinguished ministry as rabbi of Union Temple. Once the community house was dedicated, a grand-scale sanctuary had been planned for the corner of Eastern Parkway and Plaza Street. Unfortunately the stock market crash in 1929 scuttled those plans, and a parking lot for use by temple members was built instead. Worship took place within the Community House, and during the High Holy Days the congregation worshiped at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In 1942, a theater on the lobby level of the Community House was converted into a sanctuary, modeled after the synagogue in Essen, Germany, which had been burned by the Nazis.
The temple is situated in a prime location in Brooklyn. Across the street is the Brooklyn Library, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. The Grand Army Plaza is a large traffic circle, built around an impressive arch, branching off into numerous boulevards and Prospect Park from its various directions. The planners of the entire area intended for the scheme to be reminiscent of the Champs Elysées in Paris. They succeeded.
Union Temple's membership always has engaged in pursuits of tzedakah, justice, and gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness. During the Second World War, the Sisterhood Sewing Group was turned into a Red Cross Workshop, which produced thousands of surgical dressings for our servicemen and women. The temple also ran a Red Cross Blood Bank Station, and held itself in a state of readiness as an Emergency Disaster Relief Center. In addition, a number of congregants served in the armed forces, nine of whom made the supreme sacrifice. A notable highlight during the post-War years was the connection with the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose home, Ebbets Field, was located nearby the temple. Each year on Thanksgiving, the entire Brooklyn Dodgers team would come to the temple to share Thanksgiving with hundreds of Jewish orphans that the Brotherhood would bring to the temple for the day. That tradition of tzedakah and gemilut chasadim continues to this very day, through the exemplary devotion of the members of our Social Action Committee, and indeed, through all the members of our remarkable congregational family, in such programs as: contributions to Argentinean Jewry through our Dinner-and-a-Dollar program; the semi-annual food drives at Key Food and the Co-op, Pantry Collections during the High Holy Days and Sukkot, clothing drives, volunteering at the Hebrew Union College Soup Kitchen. The congregation also contributes generously to the annual Passover Appeals conducted by the Federation Joint Passover Association and the New York Board of Rabbis.
Union Temple's rabbinate has included some of the most distinguished scholars of our time. The following is a record of those who served the congregation from the time of its merger.
Rabbi Simon R. Cohen, 1921-29 (Emeritus 1929-42)
Rabbi Sidney S. Tedesche, 1929-54 (Emeritus 1954-62)
Rabbi Alfred L. Friedman, 1954-64
Rabbi Jay H. Kaufman, High Holy Day Rabbi, 1950-1970
Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, High Holy Day Rabbi, 1971-1996
Rabbi Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus, 1964-1979 (Emeritus 1979 - 2008)
Rabbi Charles Mintz, 1979-81
Rabbi Jay J. Sangerman, 1981-83
Rabbi Neal Borovetz, 1983-88
Rabbi Dr. Selig Salkowitz, 1988-92
Rabbi Dr. Linda Henry Goodman, 1992-present
Rabbis Kaufman and Schindler served the congregation in their capacities as Acting President and President respectively of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) during the High Holy Days in order to accommodate the large overflow crowd at that time of year. Even when the overflow service was no longer needed, Rabbi Schindler continued to lend his wisdom and expertise to the High Holy Day services as he shared the pulpit with the congregation's rabbis each year until his retirement from the Union in 1996.
Our late Rabbi Emeritus, Rabbi Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus, was truly one of the giants of the Reform Movement. As Instructor of Rabbinics at the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Dr. Dreyfus had helped to educate several generations of rabbis. The former chair of the Liturgy Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, he had authored and edited many of the Reform Movement=s prayer books and Torah commentaries. As the expression would have it, he was a gentleman and a scholar, and we were blessed by his presence.
Our current spiritual leader, Rabbi Dr. Linda Henry Goodman, was called to our pulpit in 1992 as the first woman to serve as Rabbi of our congregation. Rabbi Goodman is a musician, a social activist, a teacher to our children and adults alike, and works with great devotion to nurture our congregation, imparting her own love of our Jewish heritage, and her commitment to social justice.