Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
On Motzoai Shabbos Vayeishev, November 23, this year’s 69th annual 21st of Kislev celebration of the miraculous Holocaust rescue of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, zt’l (1886–1979), founding Satmar Rebbe and author of Divrei Yoel, will be celebrated all over the world, wherever chassidim are found. On that day in history, Thursday, December 4, 1944, the Satmar Rebbe was aboard a train that crossed over the border into Switzerland and to freedom. The deliverance was made possible by Dr. Rudolf Kastner, z’l (1906–1957), who risked his own life in bribing Nazis, thereby saving 1,685 Jewish souls.
Since then, the 21 Kislev event was always a unifying occasion where Satmar and other chassidim from around the globe sat, sang, and danced together. However, with Satmar being divided before the passing of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, zt’l (1914–2006), Satmar Rebbe and author of Beirach Moshe, two separate networks of celebrations are held. Each half of Satmar is led by a son of the Beirach Moshe, each of whom represents an independent huge network of communities, shuls, yeshivas, girl schools, butcher stores, matzah bakeries, bikur cholims, and cemeteries throughout the world.
The followers of Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe and oldest son of the Beirach Moshe, will be conducting their central 21 Kislev event at the New York State National Guard Armory on Bedford Avenue in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. The followers of Rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe and third son of the Beirach Moshe, will be marking the event at the Williamsburg Marcy Armory.
The National Guard–Troop C Armory, this year, represents a redesign of seating to accommodate the tens of thousands of Satmar Chassidim that will join Rabbi Aaron in the special celebration. In 2000, the event was held at the Pulaski Port Complex, near the Pulaski Bridge, not far from Williamsburg. The Pulaski Complex proved too small for the huge gathering, forcing the search and selection of a larger facility. The additional seating space at the National Guard Armory will give the occasion a little bit more room to breathe. The ingathering, which will nevertheless fill every corner and every square inch, will be memorable.
The booking of the Williamsburg Marcy Armory in 2011 by Rabbi Zalman Leib’s followers was considered a triumph. Many major Satmar events were held at the Marcy Armory, beginning with 21 Kislev 1978, when the celebration included the Divrei Yoel, and again in 1979, the last celebration that had the participation of the Divrei Yoel, before his passing on 26th of Av (August 19), 1979. The 1978 celebration included the establishment of Keren Hatzolah, the fundraising organization that finances yeshivas that do not accept any moneys from the Israeli government. During the 1980s and the 1990s, the Marcy Armory was the venue for many of Satmar’s major events. From 1987 through 1997, every 21 Kislev event was at the Marcy Armory. In addition, the 10th (1988) and the 20th (1998) anniversaries of Keren Hatzolah were also celebrated there. The last Satmar event at the Marcy Armory was the marriage of the granddaughter of the Beirach Moshe, daughter of Rabbi Zalman Leib, on Sunday, December 8, 2002.
The New York State National Guard Armory. Also known as the Troop C Armory, at 1579 Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, between Union and President Streets in Crown Heights South, the Crown Heights armory was built from 1903 until 1907. Its architectural style called “castellated armory,” the armory was designed by renowned architects Pilcher and Tachau, who also designed the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx as well as the Jewett House of Vassar College. Interestingly, the National Guard–Troop C Armory building is not yet landmarked. Presently, offices at the facility provide military support services, military food service, military customer service, military legal services, and military employment services.
The Troop C Armory in Crown Heights South is the last of the great castellated armories in Brooklyn. It was built for Squadron C, a cavalry unit. The special needs of a horse-and-equipment unit necessitated some of the important differences between the Troop C armory and many of the others in “Brownstone Brooklyn” neighborhoods. Troop C was established in 1895, saw action in the Spanish-American War in 1888, and became part of the 101st Cavalry in 1921.
Lewis Pilcher, one of the armory’s architects, was a Columbia University graduate. He became a professor of art at Vassar College, and later served as an architect for the state of New York. While at Vassar, he designed Jewett House in 1907, a large dormitory building that actually resembles an armory. It was highly unpopular, and was derogatorily called “Pilcher’s Crime.” Pilcher, with William Tachau, designed the Troop C armory as well as the Kingsbridge Armory, which is the largest in the world.
The Troop C Armory emphasized structural and engineering components as much as more decorative and stylistic features. The enormous space, used for drilling soldiers, towers over the administrative parts of the building. Compared to the nearby 23rd Regiment Armory, on Bedford and Atlantic Avenue, where that building’s tall fortress tower dominates the skyline, this armory’s design and space primarily served for drilling cavalry soldiers and their horses.
A cavalry unit needs space to train men and horses for war, so the drill shed had practical purpose. Its multistoried roof design provided plenty of air circulation for the men and their horses. The armory, in addition to the usual components for administration and dormitory space, also had room for stabling hundreds of horses, as well as heavy equipment such as cannon and wagons. As the military modernized in the 20th century, horse-drawn equipment was replaced by tanks and trucks. The tanks became familiar sights at parades and training exercises when tanks actually rolled down Bedford Avenue often. There is still a National Guard unit here, and now Humvees have replaced tanks.
In addition to the National Guard, the building has been used for many other functions. The building’s facilities have served as community rooms used by local communities, including Lubavitch. In February 2001, the International Conference of Shluchim held their 23rd International Kinus–Conference Gala Banquet at the Armory, attended by more than 3,000 Lubavitcher women.
Hurricane Sandy Interferes. Having used the Williamsburg Armory in 2011, the followers of Rabbi Zalman Leib were to use the Crown Heights Armory for 2012. Official military use of the Crown Heights Armory ended in 2011, with the 130 soldiers assigned there having been transferred to Fort Hamilton. Abruptly, in the midst of planning and preparation, on October 29, the whole Northeastern seaboard was slammed by Hurricane Sandy. The Crown Heights Armory was mustered into service as an emergency shelter for victims of Hurricane Sandy. In addition, emergency equipment being used to help in the post-storm cleanup was parked there in off-hours. Every square inch of space was being used. The Crown Heights Armory seemed to be unavailable for use by Rabbi Zalman Leib’s followers for that year’s celebration. The Jacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan would have been their secondary choice.
On Thursday, November 15, officials advised that the Crown Heights Armory’s use as an emergency shelter was ending and that it would be available for that year’s December 4 Satmar celebration and its preparations. Bright and early on Monday morning, November 19, planners and laborers descended upon the armory in order to outfit its 60,000 square feet of empty space into comfortable accommodations for the thousands that were to participate in the celebration. Curtains decorated the walls and extra lighting as well a sophisticated sound system was installed. A temporary kitchen, bathrooms, and enough sinks for all to wash their hands was brought into place. Hanging space for thousands of coats was fitted in, together with maximum seating space, all within the rules and regulations of city building and fire departments. Work continued daily, from early morning until late at night, in order to have everything in place for the night of the celebration.
The Williamsburg Marcy Armory. The Armory in Williamsburg is known as the 47th Regiment Armory and as the Marcy Avenue Armory. It is located at 355 Marcy Avenue, occupying the entire block bounded by Harrison and Marcy Avenues and Heyward and Lynch Streets. The site was formerly called Union Grounds and served as a professional baseball field. It is also the site where many chassidishe weddings and formal affairs were held regularly.
The Marcy Avenue Armory was designed by William Mundell and its front part was completed in 1883. The Armory resembles late medieval/early Renaissance military architecture in its symmetry and almost classical design and decoration. The original use for the armory was for the National Guard. Its present use, almost 120 years later, remains the same.
The facility consists of a three-story administration building with an attached two-story drill shed, both of which were designed by William Mundell and completed in 1883 and 1899 respectively. The 1883 armory, similar to the 7th Regiment Armory in Manhattan at 643 Park Avenue between East 66th and East 67th Streets, is in a rectangular, castellated style with crenellated parapets, a corbelled brick cornice, and square (canted) battlemented corner towers. It is built of load-bearing brick walls (with limestone trim) resting on a raised, rusticated stone foundation, all of which enabled fighting enemies that might be attacking the Armory.
Symmetrical in form and fenestration (which means the design and positioning of windows and other exterior openings of a building), the 1883 administration building is distinguished by a four-story entrance tower and two four-story corner towers. The 1899 drill shed is fortress-like in character with round entrance and corner towers with machicolated cornices, from which there is an ability to drop heavy items on enemies underneath, and crenellated parapets, wide brick buttresses, battered brick walls with very few windows, and massive rusticated sally ports.
The focal point of the second story of the administration building is the Colonel’s Suite, which features elaborate stained-glass doors, sidelights and transom lights, paneled mahogany wainscoting, pressed tin ceilings and paired Ionic columns framing a large display case.
The Armory has several underground levels and was built for use in battle. Underground, the Armory is attached to the Brooklyn Navy Yard by a 1.3-mile tunnel. Ships docked at the Navy Yard and unloaded their cargo directly into the tunnel. Large cargo included tanks, which were driven through the large tunnel to the armory. Through the years, the tunnel has weakened because of disuse. However, an underground level immediately above the tunnel is in excellent, usable condition and contains many military historical artifacts, some more than one hundred years old. The tunnel, with minimal renovation, could be brought back into use if necessary.
After World War II, many armories were demolished or sold. Currently, only ten remain as active headquarters for various units of the National Guard within New York City limits. The last armory constructed in the city was a 1971 replacement of the 42nd Division’s headquarters on 14th Street in Manhattan. The Marcy Avenue Armory was determined to be eligible for addition to the Historical Register in June 1991. Formal application has not yet been made. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the Rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.