A new decade and a new rav were the causes of celebration at the Torah Center of Hillcrest last Shabbos, as the shul marked its 40th year by installing Rabbi Shmuel Lemann as its new mara d’asra. “We look to Rabbi Lemann as our Shmuel Rabbeinu,” said shul president Howard Kohn.
The change in leadership follows the retirement of Rabbi Moshe Faskowitz, who has led the tight-knit congregation since 1995. “Before Rabbi Faskowitz, we were led by Rabbi Tzvi Flaum. We get the best of the best,” said shul treasurer Burt Blass. “We’ve had choices, and with Rabbi Lemann we’ve chosen to go in the direction of youth.” At 30, he is not only the youngest rabbi in the shul’s history, but also younger than most of its members.
Raised in St. Louis, Rabbi Lemann relocated to Queens to study at Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, where he received his s’michah. He remained in the Kew Gardens Hills neighborhood as the assistant rabbi at the Jewish Heritage Center, alongside teaching positions as a rebbe at the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County and a general studies teacher at Siach Yitzchok in Far Rockaway. His Rebbetzin Sarah grew up in Los Angeles and is currently pursuing her doctorate in clinical psychology at Hofstra University. They have one son, Mordechai, who is 18 months old.
Emceeing the melaveh malkah celebration for Rabbi Lemann, the shul’s first vice president, Menachem Rosenberg, said that there was a long search for a rabbi, with Rabbi Lemann’s youth, kiruv experience, and familiarity with Queens resulting in his selection. “We are looking to grow for many years to come,” said Rosenberg.
Alvin Warshaviak has been a member for 32 years. Although he made aliyah in 2016 after retiring as chairman of Community Board 8, he periodically visits his old neighborhood and shul. “There’s a lot of positive energy here,” said Warshaviak. “We’re hoping to have a bright future with Rabbi Lemann. His success will be our success.”
The key speaker at the melaveh malkah was Rabbi Dovid Harris, Rosh HaYeshiva at Chofetz Chaim, who has known Rabbi Lemann for many years. He spoke of a famous gemara in Maseches N’darim relating to Rabbeinu HaKadosh (Rabbi) and his student Rav Chiya. With the sage’s memory failing, he could only remember seven of the 13 explanations he was teaching to Rav Chiya. It was a laundryman who was working at the yeshivah who remembered the rest, to which Rabbeinu joyfully said, “You’ve made me!”
Rabbi Harris said that this unusual praise has its source in a gemara in Maseches Sanhedrin. “A person who teaches Torah is as if he has made him. Rabbi understood the gadlus ha’nefesh of every n’shamah,” said Rabbi Harris. “This is the transformative effect of Torah and the relationship with a rav. It’s in reality every meaningful relationship.”
At the time of the shul’s founding, some observers from outside Hillcrest asked whether this was a breakaway congregation, but its members insisted that its creation did not take away from the overall sense of unity among the Jews of Fresh Meadows/Hillcrest and Queens. The inauguration was attended by Councilman Rory Lancman and the three rabbis of the three synagogues closest to Torah Center of Hillcrest: Rabbi Richard Weiss of the Young Israel of Hillcrest, Rabbi Asher Schechter of Congregation Ohr Moshe, and Rabbi Yonason Hirtz of Utopia Jewish Center. They each recited a perek of T’hilim and welcomed Rabbi Lemann as their new colleague in teaching and inspiring the Jews of Fresh Meadows and Hillcrest.
By Sergey Kadinsky