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Subject: Irving Block, Ecumenical Rabbi

Dies at 79
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Date Posted: November 06, 2002 1:17:35 EDT

Rabbi Irving J. Block, an ecumenical-minded religious leader who founded the Brotherhood Synagogue in Manhattan and delighted in sharing the sanctuary with Christians of all denominations, died Thursday. He was 79.

The cause was complications from Parkinson's disease, synagogue officials said.

In 1954, a year after his ordination, Rabbi Block formed his congregation with an initial membership of 23, writing in a journal at the time: "The idea of brotherhood is as ancient an idea as the Bible. What we are aiming for is the realization of these values in the daily lives of men and women."

For the next 20 years, the Brotherhood Synagogue shared quarters at 139 West 13th Street with the Village Presbyterian Church, led by the Rev. Dr. Jesse W. Stitt. The two congregations prayed and shared many services while their pastors carried their message of ecumenical harmony all over the United States as well as to Germany and Israel.

The relationship began to sour in 1971, after the Rev. William Glenesk succeeded Dr. Stitt and disputes arose over freedom of expression and the sharing of expenses.

Matters came to a head during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, when Rabbi Block posted a big sign outside the building saying, "May there be victory for Israel." Mr. Glenesk put up another notice apologizing for "the arrogant, self-righteous sign posted outside our sanctuary."

On March 19 the following year, the partnership formally ended when Rabbi Block and members of the Brotherhood Synagogue walked in procession down the sanctuary steps into the street carrying away their Torah scrolls.

In August 1974, the Brotherhood Synagogue purchased the Friends Meeting House at 29 Gramercy Park South, which dates to 1857, and it is there still.

Once again Rabbi Block set out to realize his dream of an interfaith community of Christians and Jews, working closely with Thomas J. Pike of Calvary/St. George's Episcopal Parish, Msgr. Harry Byrne of the Epiphany Roman Catholic Parish and other Christian leaders.

He kept the synagogue open for anyone who wished to pray throughout the year, including the Jewish High Holy Days. He also worked to strengthen ties with black Jews in America.

Despite his ecumenical enthusiasms which included wearing a green skullcap on the Sabbath closest to St. Patrick's Day Rabbi Block's personal religious practices put him in the Orthodox camp, even though he kept the roughly 750-member Brotherhood Synagogue unaffiliated with any mainstream Jewish group.

He retired in 1994.

Irving Block his middle initial was adopted was born on March 17, 1923, in Bridgeport, Conn., to parents who had immigrated from Poland and Lithuania.

After service in the Army during World War II, he graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1947 and then studied for the rabbinate at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

He joined the Haganah, a defense force, and fought in Israel's war of independence.

He is survived by his wife, Phyllis, and his son, Herbert, of White Plains.

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