Of Pipes and Pianos: A Brief History of the Schottenstein Center, Home of Shenk Shul
Those who have davened in the Shenk Shul are certainly aware of its imposing presence over 185th St. From the dramatic white columns contrasting with its red brick facade to the colorful stained glass window forming the backdrop of the impressive marble pediment of the aron kodesh, the story of this old synagogue has largely remained untold.
The story begins in a time before the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) was even planning on moving uptown. In 1914, the young middle-class Jews of Washington Heights formed a new congregation they named Temple Israel of Washington Heights. Their mode of observance fell mostly in line with the Reform movement at that time. They held services in both English and German accompanied by an organ and a choir. The congregation also ran a Sunday school for the children of its members to educate them in German and in Hebrew.
For the first five years of its existence, the congregation didn’t have a permanent home. It was first located at 523 West 173rd St. By 1918, the congregation was renting space in the subway building at 587 West 181st St., the building that sits above the entrance to the 1 train’s 181st St. station. In 1919 they began planning to build a permanent home. They purchased the property on 560-566 West 185th St. (back when land was cheaper than construction) and began a $100,000 fundraising campaign to finance the construction. The building committee planned to construct a building that would house a large sanctuary to accommodate the rapidly growing congregation, and ample classroom space to accommodate a growing Sunday school.
Construction of the building began in 1921, but by then the estimated cost had risen to $165,000. Despite this increase in cost, construction and fundraising proceeded smoothly. The 1922 high holiday season brought in new members and more money. Unfortunately, the project began to go significantly overtime and over budget. The exact causes remain obscure, but by 1925, tensions over delays in construction caused a schism in the congregation, leading a significant portion of the congregation to take their money elsewhere.
The building was eventually finished in 1927, costing a total of $400,000. The Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank financed the entire cost of construction through a mortgage made out to Temple Israel of Washington Heights, but the waning congregation was unable to make any payments on their $400,000 loan. They defaulted and the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank assumed ownership of the property. The congregation still wanted to use their fancy brand-new building, equipped with such amenities as an electric pipe organ and large classroom space, so they reincorporated under the name Congregation Gates of Israel in 1931. Then this “new” Congregation Gates of Israel somehow convinced the bank to sell the building back to them.
The communities’ woes were not over. The electric pipe organ was not covered by the $400,000 mortgage. The congregation had negotiated directly with the manufacturer, M.P. Moller, to pay the $9,500 cost of the organ in four installments over the course of one year. Temple Israel of Washington Heights was able to pay the down payment of $2,000, but failed to make any more payments.
By 1934, Moller was frustrated that they hadn’t received any money for their organ. The $7,500 loan had accumulated interest since 1926 when the congregation purchased the organ and was now worth $13,000. Temple Israel of Washington Heights had no money, and basically no longer existed. The Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank was not interested in paying for the organ, as in their eyes it was Temple Israel’s responsibility. Congregation Gates of Israel claimed that the organ belonged to the bank, so when they purchased the building from the bank, they didn’t have to pay for it. Naturally, Moller sued all three. The trial was held in May of 1935 and at first the jury ruled in favor of the defendants. Moller appealed, and the circumstantial evidence suggests that they won the rights to resume ownership of the organ.
This particular episode seems to have shaken up the congregation significantly, because in a 1939 survey, the congregation strikingly reported that they were Orthodox, just four years after regularly playing the organ during Friday night services. The congregation doesn’t seem to have ever gotten their finances in order, but they were saved from losing the building by another up-and-coming local Jewish organization.
When RIETS moved uptown to the corner of Amsterdam and 186th, they began to foster an Orthodox community in Washington Heights. As this small, young community grew, Jewish parents started trying to organize a Jewish elementary school in the neighborhood. A number of local community leaders advocated for the establishment of such a school. The most famous among them was Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, then rosh yeshiva of RIETS. The first class was opened in 1937 and probably met on the premises of one of the synagogues in the area. The school was initially called the Yeshiva of Washington Heights, but when Rabbi Soloveichik passed away in 1941, it was renamed in his memory.
Irving Weinberg (RIETS ‘33) was appointed as the Rabbi of Congregation Gates of Israel around 1941. He seems to have been active in pairing the destitute Congregation Gates of Israel with the growing Yeshiva Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik (YRMS). In 1945, YRMS officially moved into the building on 185th St. and assumed ownership of the property in 1948. Irving Weinberg became the religious studies principal. The other administrative staff at the time, Norman Abrams, chairman of the board, and Joseph Lichtenberg, secular studies principal, worked down the street in Yeshiva University High School (now MTA). The congregation seemed to have been very pleased with this arrangement. One of the more senior members of the congregation, Harold Pescovitz, a plumber by trade, volunteered around the school in his retirement.
YRMS followed the Mizrachi religious Zionist curriculum. They taught religious subjects in Hebrew and educated both their male and female students in Tanach and Talmud. The school operated up into the mid 1980s, when it began having serious financial issues. YRMS permanently shut its doors in 1988. Jerome Schottenstein purchased the building for YU in 1985 and it opened for YU operations in 1989 after some restoration work. The upper stories of the building were outfitted to house the Cantorial Institute (now the Belz School of Jewish Music), and the WYUR student radio station, which, throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, broadcasted popular music and a variety of student-hosted radio shows. The basement was renovated to be a theater, still used today by the student dramatic societies.
Congregation Gates of Israel continued using the synagogue for some number of years after YU purchased the building. The current Shenk Shul congregation was formed about a decade ago. So, dear reader, as you climb the front stairs and awkwardly reach up and out to open the door, think about the joy that the faithful congregants must have felt when the building was finally ready for use after six long years of construction. And as you gaze upon the majestic marble staircases that flank the entrance, think about all the grumpy little children trudging up those stairs every morning to be on time for class, carefully gripping the green banisters. And as you sit down this Friday night, spacing out during Rabbi LeVee's 30-second drasha, remark to yourself, "How pleasant are your tents O Jacob, your dwellings O Israel."
Photo Caption: Street view of the Schottenstein Center, home of the Shenk Shul.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons