Memory Lane: Yeshiva Etz Chaim/Hebrew Institute of Boro Park I
While the early residents of Boro Park sent their boys to afternoon Talmud Torah’s, in the 1920’s, the need for a full day yeshiva was evident, and Yeshiva Eitz Chaim was started in a home on 14th Avenue and 46th Street (photo below).
The first documented report of Etz Chaim’s existence comes from Morgen Zhournal, February 1918, in which it is noted: It is our pleasure to inform the Jewish public that our model school—Yeshiva Eitz Chaim of Boro Park—is now open to accept new children from five to eight years of age. The location given is 4521 14th Avenue.
Indeed, we find the following testimony from one Sylvia Cohen, whose father, a housepainter, could afford to bring his family here in 1913. Among her other vivid recollections of a very different Boro Park is this vignette about the original location: “Originally, Etz Chaim Yeshiva occupied a private house across the street from Anshe Sfard synagogue, 45th Street and 14th Avenue.
Indeed, when we look at the accompanying photograph of the location, we can indeed see the silhouette of Cong. Anshei Sfard, which stands to this day at the opposite corner of Fourteenth Avenue.
It goes on: “We have hired more teachers in both departments, for Jewish studies, as well as the public school curriculum. We do not ask for tuition (!), only that parents become members, and take a role in the well-being of the yeshiva.” This need to provide a robust secular education was a necessary selling point; most parents struggled with the idea of full-day yeshiva, and the fact that it was free did not hurt.
While we read about frequent fundraisers for the yeshiva, we do not know how they were able to afford to provide tuition-free enrollment. We do know that the founders of the yeshiva were philanthropists, a number whose fingerprints are seen on a number of other charitable endeavors in Boro Park, such as Israel Zion Hospital, and resided in the wealthier part of town (the 50’s rather than the 40’s), and davened at the upscale Shomrei Emunah.
Hannah Harris was the daughter of a Boro Park activist by the name of Chaim Harris. She related: I remember a country club on 13th Avenue. Together with its large garden, it extended from 50th Street to 51st Street on 13th Avenue. My father was one of a group of people who bought it and turned it into Etz Chaim Yeshiva. Many Jews moved to Boro Park so their children could attend Etz Chaim, whose Hebrew language and secular programs were equally excellent. Later, I myself taught kindergarten at Etz Chaim.”
Indeed, Hannah was being modest regarding her father’s role in this tremendous effort; for we read in Yiddishes Taggenblatt in the summer of 1919, “Boro Park Will Build a Large Yeshiva.” It goes on to chronicle the great strides that Etz Chaim had made in its three years of existence. Following the substantial sums donated by the generous men of Boro Park—including $250 by Mr. Harris—the announcement is signed “Chaim Harris, Committee President”
In the fall of 1920, they announced the imminent laying of the cornerstone at the newly purchased site for Yeshiva Etz Chaim on 13th Avenue in Boro Park of yesteryear.
To be continued.