Sunday, March 28, 2010

☞ REMEMBER: The Baptist Temple Church

With the holiday of Passover at hand, we take a look back at the former Jewish temple at 18 West 116th Street that had a partial demolition back in October of last year. Currently the Baptist Temple Church, the former Congregation Oheb Zedek changed hands in the mid 20th century after Harlem's Jewish population dwindled and many of the old synagogues were converted into churches. The century-old building had needed repairs and, like many cash-strapped churches, the funds were not readily available. Looking at the two photos, one can see that the Jewish stars were removed long ago, along with the menorah at the entrance pediment. Major construction recently occurred next door, and some speculate that this is the cause of the structural weakness in the building. As of today, it is yet unclear what the future holds for this remnant of Harlem's Jewish past. The closest subway to this location is the 2,3 at 116th Street. Archival photo courtesy Jeffery S. Gurock. Current photo by Ulysses


  1. that poor building is toast. And I hope they have whacking great legal suits against the buildings on either side. I am sure there is going to be a hell of a lot of finger pointing.

  2. Anyone up for some extra info about this building? Congregation Ohab Zedek, started out on the Lower East Side and attracted many Hungarian Jews. They moved uptown in 1906, building a Gothic/Tudor structure at 18-20 West 116th Street, just west of Fifth Avenue, that was an effort to reproduce the look of their downtown home—which had originally been a church! Unlike some other uptown synagogues Ohab Zedek clung to orthodox ways, refusing to install an organ and rejecting mixed seating. Stricter observance practices clearly appealed to many uptown even after the turn of the century, and the synagogue flourished, in 1912 or 1913 hiring the most famous cantor in the world, the Ukrainian-born Josef (Yossele) Rosenblatt. He was so well-known that it is said that letters addressed to “Yossele Rosenblatt, America” reached him in Harlem (though to be fair, it was also said of Louis Armstrong). Rosenblatt’s voice was so magnificent that it attracted all sorts of tourists, including many non-believing Jews, to West 116th Street. He also became a star of the stage in the 1920s, singing not only Jewish music but folk songs and lieder from a variety of traditions at venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to vaudeville houses across the country, always in his black skullcap, though he turned down an offer to appear at the Chicago Opera, even though management promised him he wouldn’t have to appear on the sabbath, shave his beard, or perform with gentile co-stars. Rosenblatt left Ohab Zedek in 1926 and the next year he turned down an offer of $100,000 to play the role of Al Jolson’s father in The Jazz Singer because it would have required him to sing holy prayers in a non-holy setting, and he worked at a Brooklyn Congregation before returning to his old synagogue, Ohab Zedek, around 1930. He died in Israel in 1933 after he had a heart attack during the shooting of a film in which he sang works relevant to particular sites in the Holy Land. As for Ohab Zedek, it had moved to 18 West 95th Street, on the Upper West Side, in 1926. Since 1938 the building has been owned by the Baptist Temple Church, which had been started by a group that split off from Mount Olivet Baptist Church in 1899.