Congregation B'nai Jeshurun: The Power of a Relevant Message
Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer
B'nai Jeshurun was the first Ashkenazic synagogue established in New York City and the third Conservative synagogue in the United States. It was founded in 1825 when a group of Ashkenazic Jews broke away from the Sephardic congregation of Shearith Israel, until then the only place of Jewish worship in New York City. The new congregation was housed in a series of buildings before it built, during World War I, a magnificent synagogue on its present site on West 88th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
In the early 1980s, this once-prestigious synagogue was in decline. The building was in shambles, and the congregation on the verge of extinction. There was no heat in the synagogue. Rooms were piled high with trash and broken furniture. The roof leaked and the vestry was flooded. The congregation, in bankruptcy, had sold one of its buildings. Only eight paying members remained, not even enough for a minyan (the 10 Jews required for prayer) without counting the rabbi and his wife.
In 1959, my own life took me to Argentina, where, for twenty-six years, I worked within the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. I founded a synagogue, Bet El, which grew from a handful of members who met in a private home to an institution with more than a thousand families and its own school system and summer camp. In 1984, the board of trustees of B'nai Jeshurun, hopeful the same congregational growth might be possible in New York, invited me to assume their vacant pulpit.
I was attracted to B'nai Jeshurun in part because there was not anyone or anything to fight against and, literally, the only way to go was up. There was no need for politicking because there were virtually no members of the congregation. There was a board, but it presided over virtually nothing. When I assumed the rabbinate in September 1985, there was no office and