One hundred years ago, the Washington Heights Congregation purchased the lot upon which the beautiful 161st Street Synagogue would be built. Five years earlier, 20 people started the congregation and elected their first president, Isidor Kottle. In 1914, the Washington Heights Congregation adopted its constitution. Then, in 1915, the newly erected Shul building that would serve as a home for the congregation for the next 56 years was dedicated.
During this period, the congregation reflected the traditions and tenor of its times. Always an Orthodox Shul, and for many years, the only Modern Orthodox Shul in Washington Heights, our congregation joined the Union of Orthodox Congregations after 1928. It started a Talmud Torah which, by 1916, could boast of having over 200 children. By 1918, a separate building was needed to house the growing school.
Many Rabbis served as its spiritual leaders during the early years, beginning with Rabbi Moses Rosenthal זצ"ל in 1914. In 1919, we engaged a dynamic Rabbi, Rabbi Max Drob זצ"ל. His sermons were so exciting, that on Shabbos he was able to draw 500 congregants and on Yom Tov, there were up to 700 people who attended services. Rabbi Sol Friedman זצ"ל, followed in 1932, until, in 1941, we enter the history of our Shul as many of us remember it, when Rabbi Irving Weinberg זצ"ל became our spiritual leader, and held that role memorably for the next 33 years.
Presidents during this early period included Emanuel Hertz ע"ה, Morris Morgenstern ע"ה, Sol Littenberg ע"ה, Herman Taub ע"ה, Abraham Metchick ע"ה, Morris Block ע"ה and David Gotthelf ע"ה. Saul Nyer ע"ה, was our next president. He, together with David Gotthelf ע"ה, are remembered as outstanding leaders, made for the times, as they helped integrate the new immigrants that were swept here by the catastrophic war that brought so many of our European brothers to our neighborhood and to our Shul. Again, with Saul Nyer ע"ה, we enter a part of the history of our Shul that touches the lives of so many of our members.
The 1950s brought both Chazan Shlomo Z. Schweid שליט"א (1950) and Mr. Joseph Schallamach ע"ה (1951) to our Shul. Each, in his own way, contributed to the unique character and make up of our Shul. In 1959, after serving as Vice President for ten years and as a trusted aide to Saul Nyer ע"ה, Julius Hirsch ע"ה became president of our congregation.
It should be noted that throughout the Shul’s history, this Congregation, with its many Rabbis and Presidents, has distinguished itself by its relationship with Israel and Religious Zionism.
Below is a brief synopsis of the lives of some of the Klei Kodesh who shaped the congregation in the last years of the congregation at the 161st Street location.
Rabbi Irving Weinberg זצ"ל, who served our congregation as its Rabbi for 33 years, was known far and wide for his oratory skills and intellectual approach to Judaism. With his inspiring sermons as well as his personal midos, he served as a role model for all. He used his many talents to help our shul become a citadel of Torah. He is also remembered for his service as principal of Yeshiva Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik.
Saul Nyer ע"ה was a longtime president of our congregation. He was a successful businessman, a good speaker, and an excellent writer. Many people remember that his good friend, Senator Jacob Javits, would come to daven and speak in the shul once a year on Yom Kippur. Mr. Nyer ע"ה was a real gentleman and friend to all. He was president during a transitional period in the shul’s history when the demographics were changing, and successfully navigated the politics of that era.
Julius Hirsch ע"ה, who filled the office of kehillah president with great distinction and devotion for many, many years until he and his eishes chayil ע"ה retired to Eretz Yisroel, is warmly remembered for the enthusiasm with which he was willing to undertake any job that would benefit the Shul, no matter how taxing or time-consuming. He was instrumental in the move made from 161st Street to our current address on Pinehurst and 179th Street. He thought “young,” and always encouraged the young people to participate and get involved in our Shul’s activities.
Mr. Schallamach ע"ה served as Shammash of our congregation with selfless devotion for 27 years. He is warmly remembered for his layning, serving as Baal Tefila, and teaching many boys their bar mitzvah parshios. He also ran the shul’s office.
For over five decades, Chazan Schweid שליט"א has been associated with our Shul. He has inspired us with his stirring and beautiful davening and niggunim. He now lives in Brooklyn, but comes in to lead us in our Slichos and High Holiday services. This way, many generations have had the opportunity to experience his memorable davening.
As the neighborhood changed and many young people grew up, married and moved from our area, the Jewish institutions in this neighborhood underwent a profound change. Many Shuls in the old neighborhood closed down and/or merged. Some, like The Washington Heights Congregation, moved further uptown and attempted to hold on to its next generation, while attracting the few young people that chose this neighborhood as their home. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw this whole city undergo a dramatic demographic shift, losing large portions of its middle class. Everyone worried that Washington Heights would go the way of the South Bronx.
During this somewhat dark period, Rabbi Weinberg זצ"ל was retiring, and our Klei Kodesh were getting older, our congregation was diminishing and Yeshiva Soleveichik, a school with very strong social and hashkafic ties to our Shul, was losing students to the pull of the suburbs and more “in” neighborhoods.
G-d blessed us with a core of dedicated Shul people, young and old, who stayed and helped bolster our Shul, allowing us to continue and even to flourish during these trying times. Under the leadership of Rabbi Gedalia Finkelstein, a new era began.
Rabbi Finkelstein was the spiritual leader of our congregation for eighteen years. He is well-remembered for his wonderful ability to capture an occasion and to pinpoint the characteristics of the Baalei HaSimcha. He and his wife Freda made Aliya several years ago, and today live in Jerusalem.
In 1989, Leon Kahn, became the full time Chazan of our congregation. Chazan Kahn dignifies our services with his uplifting and melodious tefilos. Over the years he has also enhanced our shul’s reputation by inviting many distinguished guests – Chazanim, singers, rebbeim and other lecturers – to appear in our synagogue. As emeritus President of the Cantorial Council of America, he has also participated in many community and city-wide events.
In 1989, Martin Gruenspecht ע"ה, one of our honorees tonight, became the President of our Shul, following in the footsteps of a retiring Julius Hirsch ע"ה. Martin was instrumental in ensuring the continuity of our shul by nurturing a new generation of leadership. Most notably, it was during his tenure that Rabbi Ellis Bloch became our spiritual leader in 1992.
Rabbi Bloch has been our Morah D’Asrah for 16 years. His involvement in all aspects of Kehillah life is deeply appreciated. His shiurim and sermons always impart important Torah concepts. He has enhanced the reputation of our congregation in the Washington Heights community and we hope that he will continue to do so for many years to come.
Our Shul has been lucky in that all three of our recent Rabbis have worked well and charismatically with young people. Each of these Rabbis has been extensively involved in the field of education. Because of their influence, the values learned in yeshivot have always been held in high esteem in our Shul. Young people, familiar with our Rabbis as educators, have always been drawn to our Shul. This has earned us the reputation as a “young people’s Shul.” As the neighborhood has undergone its demographic fluctuations, our congregation has held tenaciously to remaining an open and warm place.
In 1995, Martin Gruenspecht, after years of distinguished leadership, was succeeded as President by Aaron Bulman ע"ה. Aaron led the congregation into a period of growth and renewed hope; his untimely petirah on Pesach 2002 was a terrible loss not only to our kehila, but to the entire community. We were, however, fortunate in having Harry Epstein assume the leadership of our shul for the next five years and in having Harry followed by Yosef Rabinowitz just over a year ago, in 2007. With several years' experience on the Board, Yosef leads us into our second century with hopes of attaining the lofty but attainable goal of restoring the WHC to its former splendor.