Building of the Day: 656 Willoughby Avenue

Photo: Christopher Bride for Property Shark

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Originally Tifereth Israel, soon to be Bais Ruchel Elementary School
Address: 656 Willoughby Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner Throop Avenue
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant
Year Built: Around 1927
Architectural Style: Vernacular 20th century Jewish temple architecture (not a category, I know)
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story: By the end of the 1920s, Willoughby Avenue and its environs, in far northeastern Bedford Stuyvesant, had gone from being a predominantly German-American neighborhood to a middle and working class Jewish neighborhood. Many of the old mansions on Willoughby became home for the wealthiest of this group, while others became Jewish community and youth centers or found new life as swanky catering halls. Somewhere around 1927, a new temple was built for the community on the corner of Throop and Willoughby Avenues. It was called Tifereth Israel.

The design was a familiar one to early 20th century Jewish Brooklyn: a plain and rather somber building, with a tall two story arched window in front. Variations on this design can be found abundantly in the former Jewish communities of East New York, Brownsville and parts of Flatbush and Coney Island. Like this building, almost all of these old temples are now churches, repurposed to nonreligious use, or torn down. This one is a survivor, just barely. You can see the Hebrew date on the cornerstone of the building, as well as the shadows of Hebrew lettering above the entryway.

I could find little to no information on Tifereth Israel. They must not have continued as a temple for very long, because by the early 1940s, the building was used as a yeshiva. It too might have also faded into obscurity except for one person. In the early 1940s, a school teacher named Emanuel Streisand picked up some extra money by teaching here. His wife Diana and son Sheldon had been joined by a new daughter named Barbara, and he needed some extra money. He taught part-time here between 1942 and 1943.

Sheldon Streisand died in the summer of ’43 from medical malpractice. His daughter Barbara (she changed the spelling of her name as a teenager) attended yeshiva here beginning in 1947. Barbra Streisand has since said that she drove the teachers crazy by shouting out “Christmas” at the most inappropriate times. This building is also the site of her first public singing performance, when she sang at a parent-teacher conference assembly program in 1949. She was all of seven.

Most of the Jewish population in this side of town moved to the suburbs of Long Island or to other neighborhoods beginning after World War II. Streisand’s mother remarried and the family moved to Flatbush, as did many others. This location was also a bit too far for the newly growing Hasidic population beginning to settle in nearby Williamsburg. It ceased operation as a yeshiva and became a series of daycare centers.

One was called the Robert F. Kennedy – St. Joseph Early Care/Day Care Center, followed by the Aquadilla Day Care Center, which was the last active tenant in the building. They left only recently. The building was recently purchased by Bais Ruchel High School for Girls in Williamsburg. They plan on putting their elementary school for girls here, although the project is reportedly stalled. GMAP

(Photo: Nicholas Strini for PropertyShark)

Photo: Christopher Bride for Property Shark

Photo: Christopher Bride for Property Shark

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