The Shul My Great-Grandfather Founded

The Shul My Great-Grandfather Founded

Yesterday I was listening to a class on Tisha b’Av, when my heart jumped. The rabbi, Rabbi Fischel Schachter, mentioned that he was speaking at Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway Jewish Center, and starting reminiscing about its founding in 1907 and its long history.

My great-grandfather, John L. Bernstein, was one of the founding members of the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center, as well as president of the board of trustees. He had grown up in a Lubavitch family, but later on, considered himself an agnostic. When he was asked to become president of the shul, which was then Conservative, he declined, explaining that he thought it was important that the president of a shul should, at the very least, be observant, which he wasn’t.

But, according to his daughter, my grandmother, “My father felt that anything that could preserve Jewish life was worthwhile. More than anything, he wanted Judaism to survive.”

John L. had a great (though sharp) sense of humor.

When my grandmother was newly married, she and my grandfather lived in an apartment above her parents. One time, when my grandmother overcooked the dinner, my grandfather called up, “Florence, you can worship your husband without offering him burnt offerings!”

Regarding inheritances, he was known to advise his legal clients, “Make sure you divide it and that it doesn’t divide you.”

At one point, the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center was struggling financially. The trustees decided that to save money they would fire the rabbi. And my great-grandfather, who had remained silent until that point, finally spoke up, “As you all were talking, I was thinking of all the professions we Jews in America have entered: law, medicine, business. But we Jews never got into railroads. And that’s a good thing too. Because if the railroad was losing money, we Jews would fire the motorman!”

Needless to say, the rabbi kept his job.

I got chills when Rabbi Schachter mentioned that today Ocean Parkway Jewish Center is a bustling yeshiva, bursting at the seams with over 700 young students.

“This is,” he said, “certainly bringing a tremendous zchus to the people who founded the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center over a century ago.”

Including, I hope, my great-grandfather, who did what he could, in his own way, to help Judaism to survive.

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