With its distinctive three gables, the red-brick synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y., is one of the most iconic Jewish buildings in the world. Today, replicas of the synagogue, known simply as “770,” can be found in Israel and Italy, California and Melbourne.

But it is to the original one that countless Jews and non-Jews have made pilgrimages to since 1940, when it became the new world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidic movement.

In March of 1940, the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, arrived in New York City after miraculously escaping from Nazi-occupied Poland. His followers in America and around the world had worked tirelessly to rescue the Rebbe and Chabad’s Chassidic court from Hitler’s death grip. When they finally succeeded in bringing him over, they set about finding a suitable new synagogue and home for the Rebbe.

The Sixth Rebbe used a wheelchair due to health problems, some stemming from his harsh treatment at the hands of the Soviet Union in 1927, where he’d been arrested by the Communist regime for his religious activism, and so required an elevator in particular. A suitable structure was found at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, and Lubavitch closed on the neo-Jacobean structure on Aug. 16, 1940. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak moved in a few weeks later, just prior to the High Holidays.

Crown Heights was at the time an upper-middle-class Jewish neighborhood, and its inhabitants were at first unsure of what to make of their new Chassidic neighbors, but very soon they recognized Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s saintliness and stature. It was here, in the heart of modern American Jewry, that the Sixth Rebbe headquartered his newly-established umbrella organizations—Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Chabad’s educational arm; Machane Yisrael, its social services organization; and Kehot, the publication wing—and set about implementing his ambitious plan to make North America into the next center of Judaism in the Diaspora.

A Mesibos Shabbos-organized march in support of Shabbat observance forms outside of Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., circa 1940s.
A Mesibos Shabbos-organized march in support of Shabbat observance forms outside of Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., circa 1940s.

In the winter of January 1950 Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak passed away at the age of 69 and was succeeded by his son-in-law the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Building on the foundations laid by his predecessor, over the next nearly half-century the Rebbe would transform the Chabad movement into a global organization with branches on all continents, engineer the post-Holocaust renaissance of Jewish life, and become known as the “most influential rabbi in modern history.”

All his life, the Rebbe worked out of a simple, book-lined office on the first floor of the building, directing the worldwide activities of Chabad and providing wisdom and guidance to the countless men and women who sought his counsel. They included world leaders and statesmen like President Zalman Shazar and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel; Sens. Robert F. Kennedy and Henry “Scoop” Jackson; Mayors John Lindsay and David Dinkins. In private audiences that, due to the Rebbe’s heavy work schedule—during the 44 years until his passing in 1994 the Rebbe never took a vacation—were usually scheduled late at night and lasted into the early morning, ambassadors and generals, scientists and artists, leaders and laymen would seek out the Rebbe’s advice in both their personal and professional affairs.

The Rebbe also received extensive correspondences—which he insisted on opening and reading personally, responding with the help of a team of secretaries—mounds of mail appearing at 770 every single day.

A Hasid in introspective prayer in an annex off the main sanctuary in 770 Eastern Parkway. - Courtesy Mordechai Lightstone
A Hasid in introspective prayer in an annex off the main sanctuary in 770 Eastern Parkway.
Courtesy Mordechai Lightstone

When the structure of 770 was initially purchased, the upper floors served as the home of the Sixth Rebbe and his family, while the first floor contained offices and the Chabad’s central synagogue. It was in this relatively small space that the Rebbe accepted leadership in 1950. Even then, however, when Chabad in America was still in its early stages, it proved too small for special events, and throughout the decade various function halls were rented for the Rebbe’s large and growing farbrengen gatherings.

Beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the ‘70s, 770 turned into a complex that was enlarged in several stages. It eventually grew to encompass the neighboring apartment building at 784-788 Eastern Parkway.

While a smaller synagogue remained, and is still in use, in the actual tri-gabled 770, the central synagogue was moved into the reconstructed basement and first floor of the apartment building next door (the first floor was removed to raise the ceiling height). This was where the Rebbe prayed and led his legendary farbrengen gatherings, inspiring the world.

During holidays and significant celebrations, the synagogue would hold thousands of worshippers, some seated at humble wooden pews but even more crammed into bleachers or areas designated for standing room, which never seemed quite large enough but always had room for one more.

Starting in the 1970s, the Rebbe’s public addresses in the synagogue were broadcast around the world, first via telephone hookup and then satellite TV.

As the Chabad infrastructure grew, the upper levels of 784-788 Eastern Parkway have become offices for many central Chabad organizations, including Chabad.org. Connected to the original 770 on its other side sits 766 Eastern Parkway, the Library of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, which is home to 250,000 mostly rare books; 50,000 letters, artifacts and pictures; and 8,000 manuscripts.

As the seat of the Rebbe’s activities and the place where he spent the majority of his 40 years of leadership, 770 is more than just a synagogue. It is a source of spiritual sustenance and inspiration, the hub from which Chabad has grown into an international presence, and the iconic center of Jewish growth worldwide.

The 770 complex on a clear winter day.
The 770 complex on a clear winter day.