Memory Lane: Vignettes of the Sfardishe Shul History
As we endeavor to tell the story of old Boro Park, we relate some of the vignettes from the Sfardishe Shul’s rich history:
On June 28, 1915, the Yiddishes Taggenblatt reports; “With great fanfare a cornerstone was places yesterday afternoon for the First Sfardishe shul, at 14th Avenue and 45th Street. A great crowd of the most prominent families of Boro Park came to witness the inspiring ceremony, and over $2000 was raised on that day.
Rav Moshe Chaim Rabinowitz
A great guest at the event was Rav Rabinowitz, one of the greatest Rabbanim and poskim ever to live in America—having come over as early as 1888 (!)—and was known as “the Ga’on of Brownsville” where he served as the Rav of Eitz Chaim Machzikei Harav until his passing in 1934.
The great chronicler of early American Jewry, Benzion Eiszenstadt tells his genius was famed back in Russia, and he had corresponded in Torah with Rav Yaakov Yozef. When he became New York’s chief Rabbi, Rav Rabinowitz followed him, and they along with Rav Hillel Hakohen Klein formed a great bond, serving as the foremost Torah authorities of the time.
The Tolna Rebbbe
We read further, “Mr. Wolf Nadler, president of the congregation introduced the Tolna Rebbe.” Harav Dovid Mordehchai of Tolna was one of America’s earliest chassidishe rebbes—arriving in 1913 to avoid conscription to the Russian army (!)—and was niftar in 1956. His tenure was marked by much activism on behalf of many yidden who were arriving from Russia during those years, and the yiddish newspapers are filled with advertisements about the many happenings in the rebbe’s hoif on Attorney Street on the Lower East Side. His home was open to meshulachim from all over the world.
He was the son of Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Tolna, who was a grandson of Rebbe Aharon Of Chernobyl, zy”a. His son was Rebbe Yochanan Twersky of Tolna in Yerushalayim, and his descendant’s server as Tolna Rebbe’s today.
What brought the Rebbe to Boro Park for this event, we cannot say for certain. We can speculate, however, that it may have had something to do with the following personality, an important presence in Boro Park of yesteryear—and one who is known to have been linked to the tzaddikim of the Tolna dynasty.
In the Morgen Zhournal in 1922 we learn of a Chassidishe Shabbos in Boro Park, centred in the Sfardishe Shul, wherene Rebbe Motele Chodorov, the Tolna-Viznitzer Rebbe spent Shabbos parashas Shelach here. His achsanya was by none other than the “illustrious gevir Dovid Pankin.”
The Pankins were an entire clan, who were also married into the Tartikoff family, also founders of the shul. A Pankin grandchild married the daughter of a Israel Friedman, a great philanthropist and vice president of Israel Zion Hospital. They all lived on the block of 48th Street, between 12th and 13th Avenues.
Indeed, we took a trip to the Sfardishe Shul. Possibly, the aron kodesh could have been remodeled in the ensuing years, leaving no trace of its original donors. Lo and behold, on the top right side, we read clearly, nidvas Dovid b”r Tzvi Pankin (!).
Pomegranates on the Cornerstone
Two months later, a sculptor was engraving the lettering on the cornerstone, which is still today a most conspicuous presence right at one of Boro Park’s most frequented intersections. Yet, despite the thousands of people who pass this stone so frequently at all hours of the day, it is doubtful that they are aware of a most historic and humorous anecdote to which it bears witness.
We read in the Yiddishes Taggenblatt on August 9, 1915: “In Boro Park they are now building a chassidishe shul Anshei Sfard. The engraver mistakenly engraved word Sfard to include an aleph.
“When they noticed this mistake—which had already been (literally) etched in stone—the engraver came up with this solution; he would weave the lettering into pomegranates and other fruits with which Eretz Yisroel is blessed.
Anyone who finds themselves in Boro Park can come and see this piece of history: The words Ershte Kongregation on the first line. Flowers and fruits below that, and when one looks closely, they can make out the lettering. Anshei Sfard on the third line. 15 Tammuz 5765 below that.
More than a century has passed since those days in the year 1915 when these men stood at the corner of 14th and 45th, as this mikdash me’at was being prepared for the hundred years of uninterrupted Torah and tefillah that would come forth. Those illustrious men have since left this world, but to this day their investments bear witness to their efforts all those many years ago in Boro Park of yesteryear.