When I was growing up there was a joke going around, attributed to the Satmar Rebbe, zt”l, that the driving distance between Williamsburg and Boro Park was 18 minutes—the exact time it takes for dough to become chametz. In those days, Williamsburg was a neighborhood where chasidim resided, while Boro Park was a place of relative religious laxity. Today, as far as Yiddishkeit goes, there is hardly any difference between the two Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Once a small hamlet, Boro Park has gradually become home to one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in the world. And in more recent times, most non-chasidic Jews have moved out of Boro Park, while its chasidic population continues to burgeon.
But nowhere is the demographic change more noticeable than in the neighborhood’s old-time shuls. As Boro Park has become more chasidic, these magnificent edifices have lost almost all their members. Chasidim prefer to daven in a shtiebel than in a formal synagogue, especially where the mechitzah may not be kosher l’mehadrin, and where an American and an Israeli flag might be displayed. But the winds of change have lately been blowing through Boro Park’s old-time shuls as well. Even in a holdout like Temple Beth El of Borough Park, which stands majestically on the corner of 15th Avenue and 48th Street, the flags have come down and mechitzahs are going up.
Built between 1920 and 1923 with Moorish and Egyptian architectural influences, the stunning three-story edifice was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010 and is certainly worthy of the designation. There are few shuls in existence today that are as magnificent. The synagogue is also renowned for the world-class chazanim who served there as cantors. Chazan Moshe Koussevitzky was its cantor from 1952 to 1966, and the acclaimed Benzion Miller has been there since 1981.
Perhaps less known, however, is the shul’s longtime rav, Rabbi Moshe Snow. A gifted speaker, noted talmid chacham and marbitz Torah, Rabbi Snow remains an enigma even to those who regularly come in contact with him. I meet him today in the synagogue’s magnificent sanctuary to discuss not only the changes taking place at Temple Beth El, but to glean some insights into its rabbi’s personality.