By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BROOKLYN — As of today, hundreds of years of Brooklyn Jewish history are at your fingertips. And it’s not just Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen.
The website brooklynjewish.org, the culmination of three years of hard work by the Brooklyn Jewish Historical Initiative, went live last night during a special ceremony at Borough Hall.
Institutions such as the Center for Jewish History in lower Manhattan house some material on the borough's Jewish history, but until now there had been no place that's accepted the specific task of cataloging and documenting Brooklyn Jewish history, says Deborah Schwartz, president of the Brooklyn Historical Society.
And there's plenty of history.
Jewish roots in Brooklyn can be traced back to the Revolutionary War, when Jews fought with the Continental Army during the Battle of Brooklyn.
“I think some of the stories of the neighborhoods of Brooklyn that became particularly important to the Jewish community have everything to do with the larger history of New York City,” says Schwartz. “People moving from the Lower East Side to Williamsburg after the building of the Williamsburg Bridge — these are very significant moments."
Brownsville was also a teeming Jewish neighborhood during the middle of the last century.
“People come and go, immigrants come and go," Schwartz said. "We’re very eager to outline these histories, of which some are known better than others."
The initiative is co-chaired by Schwartz with philanthropist Howard Teich. Schwartz says the organization is independent from, but allied with, the Brooklyn Historical Society. The organization is housed at the Brooklyn Historical Society's building, which is located at Pierrepont and Clinton streets in Brooklyn Heights.
Jewish families from the borough, or with roots in the borough, will now have a place to give their oral histories facilitated by professionals, donate digital photos and more. The website also includes material about famous Brooklynites, sports figures, old neighborhoods and links to other resources.
The initiative has a diverse advisory council whose members stretch from representatives of Reform congregations to those of the ultra-Orthodox United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg. It includes Jewish communal professionals, history professors from local colleges, Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger, a representative of the New York Landmarks Conservancy and many more.
Oscar Israelowitz of Israelowitz Publishing, known for its photo history books about individual Brooklyn neighborhoods, is a member of the council. In addition to his neighborhood books, he has published “A Guide to Jewish New York City,” “The NYC Jewish Heritage Trail” and other Jewish-oriented volumes.
Israelowitz says, “Brooklyn is one of the largest Jewish areas in New York City, probably the entire USA. A lot of very notable historical figures came from here — Danny Kaye, Alan Dershowitz, Woody Allen.”
Ann-Isabel Friedman, director of the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program, said that Sacred Sites has begun a Jewish Heritage Fund Grants program to help congregations whose historic buildings are being renovated. This program and the Brooklyn Jewish Historical Initiative complement each other, she added.
Nancy Rosenberg, a member of the advisory council who started the history and archive program at Temple Beth Elohim in Park Slope, said, “I think the history of Jews in Brooklyn is usually treated as a coffee-table subject. This is an opportunity to move from this to something that interests people who have scholarly bona fides.”
The program, she added, “provides a place for different synagogues to talk to each other, focus on their own history and realize their shared experiences.
“I’m from the South, and my great-great grandfather fought in the Civil War. His diary was given to the Atlanta Historical Society, but no one knows it’s there, no one knows where to look for it.” A specifically Jewish historical society could have presented the diary more properly, she said.
Rabbi Daniel Bronstein, Beth Elohim's resident congregational scholar, said in a statement, “Brooklyn is home to one of the largest, most diverse and culturally rich Jewish populations in Jewish history. Finally the Jews of Brooklyn and scholars from the world over will have a central address for preserving and sharing the extraordinary history of the Jews of Brooklyn.”