The block of homes on Colony Street has the appearance of Fresh Meadows or Rego Park: nice homes with simple backyards. Valued at nearly half of the asking price of these Queens neighborhoods, these homes are in West Hempstead. It is where a new shul has opened and scheduled to move into its building by the end of this month, Bais Torah U’tefilah, led by Rabbi Uri Lesser and filled mainly with young congregants who had recently moved to the community.
“Our mission reflects the name of our shul, Bais Torah U’tefilah, a place for learning and davening within the community. Everyone who comes to daven with us all have the same mindset that Torah and t’filah are a priority.” While awaiting completion of its facility on Hempstead Avenue, congregants meet at Rabbi Lesser’s home. The minyan began two and a half years ago with ten families, and since then another 20 families have moved to West Hempstead, many coming from Queens, Far Rockaway, and the Five Towns.
Matt Saunders moved in a year ago and has become very involved with the shul. “The style of davening most closely resembles what I left in Queens. It’s a serious davening with a lot of ruach and without talking.”
The shul follows nusach S’fard and is the only shul in West Hempstead that davens this way. “One of the things that we were debating when we began was which nusach to use,” said Rabbi Lesser. “At the time, there were already two Sephardic minyanim in the existing shuls, but no nusach S’fard. We had people who have come just for that alone. The hashgachah pratis is that one of the shul’s sifrei Torah was given to us to use by the family of a longtime West Hempstead resident who always wanted a nusach S’fard shul. Nearly eight years after his passing, we are reading from his sefer Torah.”
While the new shul is under construction, the davening takes place in Rabbi Lesser’s house on Colony Street. The men pack into the basement while their wives and children play upstairs. “It’s a very welcoming, comfortable, and open community, non-judgmental,” said Roee Lax, a father of four-year-old twin boys who moved to West Hempstead shortly after their birth. He grew up in Kew Gardens Hills, while his wife Michali is from Midwood, Brooklyn. With a 15-minute walk from his house to the Young Israel of West Hempstead, the Laxes sometimes go to Rabbi Lesser’s house as an alternative. “The people came first and the new minyanim followed. What Rabbi Lesser brings wasn’t there before,” said Lax.
Lax and Saunders described the blocks around their homes as the more affordable part of town but also a distant walk from West Hempstead’s two largest shuls, the Young Israel and Anshei Shalom. With an eruv that stretches as far north as Hempstead Turnpike and west into Franklin Square, there is plenty of room for growth in Orthodox home ownership,
Rabbi Lesser is a third generation West Hempstead resident and has very long and strong ties to Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, the mara d’asra of the Young Israel of West Hempstead. “Having grown up in this community, it certainly brings a sense of satisfaction to be able to give back to this wonderful town,” stated Rabbi Lesser.
An alumnus of Yeshivas Ohr HaChaim in Kew Gardens Hills, Rabbi Lesser received his s’michah from Rabbi Doniel Lander as well as Rabbi Moshe Heinemann of Baltimore. Saunders praised Rabbi Lesser for his depth of knowledge and openness. “He’s a regular guy who knows a lot of Torah, very approachable and down to earth.”
Although an official opening date has not been provided, everyone is very excited about the new building. “The new building will give us an opportunity to expand our k’hilah. Not only will we have more space for Shabbos, but during the week we will finally have our own beis midrash open to the public as well. We hope to attract as many people as possible during the week to come and learn, regardless of where they daven on Shabbos. We want anyone and everyone who has an interest in learning to come by either for a chavrusa or shiur over the course of the week. Then on Shabbos, they can return to their regular shul and minyan in which they feel most comfortable.”
An exact date for the opening of the new building is in the near future, and could be as soon as Purim. For more information, visit www.btuwh.org.
By Sergey Kadinsky