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Irving J. Block Papers

 Collection
Identifier: P-867

Scope and Content Note

The collection reflects the trajectory of the Brotherhood Synagogue, Congregation Beth Achim, from its founding in 1954, when it shared a sanctuary and close relationship with the Village Presbyterian Church, to its move to the Friends Meeting House on Gramercy Park in 1974, and up to and beyond Rabbi Block’s 1994 retirement. Also documented in the collection are Rabbi Block’s relationships with congregation members, religious leaders and politicians, as well as his interests in interfaith and interracial relations, services for the disabled, addictions in the Jewish community, Ethiopian Jewry and African-American Jews.

Series I consists of Rabbi Block’s Synagogue files. The earliest years of the Brotherhood Synagogue are not strongly represented, aside from the minutes of Board of Trustees meetings in the late 1950s. Documentation of the synagogue starts to pick up in the 1960s and is strongest in the 1970s until Block’s retirement in 1994.

Series II through Series VI are comprised of materials that relate more to Block’s individual role as rabbi at the Synagogue and his activities outside the Synagogue.

Photographs, personal artifacts, audiovisual and oversized materials have been separated based on format and placed in Series VII-Series X.

Topics cut widely across the series. For example, researchers interested in Rabbi Block’s involvement with the African-American Jewish community or African-American and Jewish relations will need to look not only at relevant subject and organization files in Series IV, but also at the “Chapter 12, Black Jewish Communities” materials for his memoir in Series V, the photographs in Series VII, and the sermons in Series II, such as “Sermons -- On Brotherhood, 1964.”

Materials postdating Rabbi Block’s death were collected and added by Phyllis Block.

Dates

  • 1944-2008
  • Majority of material found within 1953 - 2002

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to all researchers, except items that may be restricted due to their fragility, or privacy.

Use Restrictions

No permission is required to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection, as long as the usage is scholarly, educational, and non-commercial. For inquiries about other usage, please contact the Director of Collections and Engagement at mmeyers@ajhs.org.

For reference questions, please email: inquiries@cjh.org

Biographical and Historical Note

Rabbi Irving J. Block was the founding rabbi of the Brotherhood Synagogue, Congregation Beth Achim, which he led from 1954 through his retirement in 1994. Rabbi Block was born to Orthodox parents from Poland and Lithuania, Philip and Mae Lena (Slotnick) Block, on March 17, 1923 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. After serving in Panama in the U.S. Army during WWII, he received his B.S. from the University of Connecticut in 1947, and then he studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and served in Haganah 1947-1948. Returning to the United States, he received a Master of Hebrew Letters and was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City in 1953. In 1978, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion awarded him the Doctor of Divinity.

Reverend Dr. Jesse W. Stitt (1904-1971), leader of the Village Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, from 1939 to 1971, encouraged Rabbi Block to establish the Brotherhood Synagogue and share his Church’s sanctuary on 13th Street. Block founded the Brotherhood Synagogue on five principles: a free pulpit, free pews, social service, community service, and brotherhood with the Village Presbyterian Church. Dr. Stitt said, “There have been examples going back to Colonial times of churches and synagogues sharing buildings, but only on a temporary basis…We believe that our liaison represents the first time a church and synagogue have ever established a permanent relationship as brothers and partners.”1

Both the Church and the Synagogue worked to translate their ideals of brotherhood into reality and into their local community. For example, they jointly sponsored and housed the Greenwich Mews Theatre (formerly the Lemonade Opera). The theater, which Stella Holt directed beginning in 1952, had racially integrated casts and showcased the work of Latino and African-American playwrights, such as Langston Hughes. In his retirement sermon, Dr. Stitt said of the theater company, “These actors and actresses have sought to interpret the great social and religious truths which the Rabbi and I have tried to interpret to you from this Pulpit.”2

Dr. Stitt retired from the Village Presbyterian Church in June 1971. The Presbytery of New York City assigned Reverend William Glenesk to the Church in September 1971. With Glenesk’s entrance, considerable discord arose. The tension came to a head with Glenesk and Block’s differing politics on the Yom Kippur War, following which the members of the Brotherhood Synagogue voted to separate from the Village Presbyterian Church. The congregation, numbering 600, officially moved out of the sanctuary in April 1974, and in the summer found a new home in a former Friends Meeting House on Gramercy Park, moving in in spring 1975.

The Brotherhood Synagogue continued to be open to and provide access and outreach across denominations and social divides. They opened a homeless shelter in 1983, their religious school developed programs for children with special needs, and they provided space for support groups of many types, such as for people suffering from Alzheimer’s, alcoholism or depression.

As for which branch of Judaism Block identified himself and his congregation with, he wrote in a memoir draft, “I feel as though I am an Orthodox rabbi serving a Conservative congregation, most of whose members are Reform.”3 On a survey in 1992, he checked Conservative off as his affiliation.4 A 1975 letter from then President William Cohen defines the congregation as follows, “Ours is not a Reform congregation, but rather an amalgam of all three groupings in Jewish life, veering to the traditional or conservative.”5 On its website, the Brotherhood Synagogue currently defines itself as “a progressive congregation in the Conservative Jewish tradition.”6

Over time Rabbi Block participated on the boards of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, New York Board of Rabbis (NYBR), Joint Passover Association, New York Association for New Americans, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, Open Congregation and Religion in American Life. Block served as chaplain for the 369th Veterans Association, the New York State Masonic Order and Jewish War Veterans, and as a prison chaplain for NYBR for one year in 1974. Block was also concerned with the issue of substance abuse in the Jewish community and served as Co-Chairman of the UJA-Federation Commission on Synagogue Relations’ Task Force on Addictions in the Jewish Community. Other organizations in which Rabbi Block was active include American Veterans of Israel, Jewish War Veterans and Life Services for the Handicapped. He lectured widely, appeared on numerous radio and television programs and received numerous awards for his work. Following his 1994 retirement, he worked on his memoir, which was published in 1999 as A Rabbi and His Dream: Building the Brotherhood Synagogue.

In 1964, Rabbi Block married Phyllis Susan Robinove, whom he first met during an evening social at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. Phyllis Block, an editor of foreign language textbooks, also edited the Synagogue Bulletin and the Memorial Book for thirty years, and she organized and expanded the Synagogue’s library after the move to the Gramercy location. They had one son, Herbert Block. Rabbi Block died on October 31, 2002 of complications due to Parkinson’s.

References

  1. 1 “Two Faiths Under One Roof.” Around the System. February 19, 1971, p. 14. Box 7; Folder 4.
  2. 2 Farewell Sermon. Village Presbyterian Church Newsletter. June 1971. Box 73; Folder 3.
  3. 3 Chapter 3 draft. Box 70; Folder 3.
  4. 4 “Survey of Americans and Canadians Who Volunteered to Serve in the Defense of Israel, 1947-1949” [filled in by Block]. Box 46; Folder 4.
  5. 5 Cohen, William. Letter to the Editor. Jewish Week-American Examiner. August 16, 1975, p. 16. Box 4; Folder 6.
  6. 6 Brotherhood Synagogue. Home Page. Accessed October 22, 2009 at: http://brotherhoodsynagogue.org/
References

Block, Irving J. A Rabbi and His Dream: Building the Brotherhood Synagogue: a Memoir. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 1999.

Extent

46.45 Linear Feet (83 manuscript boxes, 4 oversized boxes (3 OS4 and 1 OS1) and 1 half manuscript box)

Language of Materials

English

Hebrew

German

Polish

Russian

Yiddish

Abstract

The Irving J. Block Papers are a blend of personal papers and organizational records, documenting the evolution of the Brotherhood Synagogue (Congregation Beth Achim) in Manhattan and Block’s role as rabbi and his involvement in efforts outside of the congregation. The collection is primarily comprised of correspondence, sermons, minutes, notes, clippings, photographs, audiocassettes, and drafts of Rabbi Block’s memoir.

Acquisition Information

Rabbi Irving J. Block's wife, Phyllis (Robinove) Block, donated the papers (accessions # 2007.11 and 2008.58) on March 1, 2007 and December 29, 2008.

Related Material

Graenum Berger Papers; P-717; American Jewish Historical Society, Newton Centre, MA and New York, NY.

Stella Holt Papers, The New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

New York Association for New Americans Records [unprocessed as of October 2009]; YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York, NY.

New York Board of Rabbis Records [unprocessed as of October 2009]; American Jewish Historical Society, Newton Centre, MA and New York, NY.

Martin Warmbrand donated the Brotherhood Synagogue's papers on Black Jews in America and Ethiopian Jews to the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1988, but as of 1995, this collection seems to have been lost [Jerry Schwarzbard to Daniel Alder, October 3, 1995, Box 40, Folder 3].
Title
Guide to the Irving J. Block Papers, 1944-2008
Status
Completed
Author
Processed by Rachel Miller as part of the Leon Levy Archival Processing Initiative, made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation. Additional support provided by the Brotherhood Synagogue.
Date
© 2009.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
English
Script of description
Latin
Language of description note
Description is in English.
Edition statement
This version was derived from IrvingBlock.xml

Revision Statements

  • October 2020: RJohnstone: post-ASpace migration cleanup.

Repository Details

Part of the American Jewish Historical Society Repository

Contact:
15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States