The shul with a heart in the center of Forest Hills, through its overall membership, is the story of Jews in New York exemplifying the successive Jewish immigration waves and economic conditions. Through the decades, the constants were its German minhagim and the warmth of its rabbis that reflected in the membership. “It is with great thanks to G-d Almighty, and to our dedicated community, that we celebrate our 80th anniversary,” said Rabbi Yossi Mendelson, mara d’asra of Congregation Machane Chodosh.
At the gala dinner this past Motza’ei Shabbos in Rego Park, Rabbi Mendelson spoke of his pulpit predecessors and lay leaders who enabled the shul to relocate three times across the city. “In 1939, a group of recently arrived German Jewish refugees founded Juedische Kultusgemeinde in Brooklyn. The shul started in a rented property with the Rev. Isidore Neuhaus as its first spiritual leader,” Rabbi Mendelson said. Within a year, it was renamed Machane Chodosh, as a tribute to the new American home of its members.
Its Senior Rabbi Manfred Gans ascended to the pulpit at age 26 and campaigned for Machane Chodosh to secure a “brick and mortar” facility. In 1958, the shul moved to Carroll Street, a couple of blocks from a new middle-class apartment complex that replaced Ebbets Field. A decade later, rising crime and white flight across the inner city resulted in the closing of dozens of synagogues. Rabbi Gans did not give up, and together with Leo Zentman and Sisterhood President Ilse Loewenberg, the decision was made to relocate Machane Chodosh to Forest Hills.
Since the retirement of Rabbi Gans in 2010, his 60th year on the pulpit, the synagogue has struggled with a different demographic problem. While the Jewish population of Crown Heights declined in the 1960s due to urban decay, the Forest Hills of today has become too expensive for young Jewish families to afford, resulting in an aging population and short-term stays for younger professionals. Rabbi Mendelson and his rebbetzin, Mushky, are confronting this challenge by maintaining a busy calendar of events and learning programs for all ages, encouraging new members to be involved.
Although Rabbi Gans was not able to attend the dinner due to his health, all members present credited him for their membership at Machane Chodosh. “It was 15 years ago, and I did not attend any services. I thought highly of Rabbi Gans. He was very sincere and gentlemanly, and I thought, ‘I’d like to be like that guy,’” said Mark Plaine. “I’ve also known Rabbi Mendelson and he is very personable. He keeps the legacy of Rabbi Gans going.”
Prof. Yehoshua Perl is a gabbai who initially did not think of himself as fit for the role. “I’m an introvert, but I could not say no to Rabbi Gans,” he said. His peer, longtime president Herbert Jaffe, was present at the dinner with his daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons. Born in Aachen, Germany, he spent the war as a refugee in Peru before immigrating to New York where he worked as an engineer. He was among the handful of older German-born members who are the living link to the founders of Machane Chodosh.
Leopold Bratman, 96, was born in Breslau, Germany, and witnessed the Kristallnacht pogrom. “We were among the last Jews to leave Germany. The year was 1939 and the war had already started,” he said. Until 1980, Bratman lived in Elmhurst, which had its own German Jewish shul, but as that neighborhood became less Jewish, he relocated to Forest Hills where he joined Congregation Machane Chodosh.
At its Forest Hills location, the once solidly Yekke membership became more diverse, with Russian-speaking Ashkenazim, Bukharians, Israelis, baalei t’shuvah, and converts. Dinner honoree Ernst Agichtein, 87, was raised in Siberia during the war, an orphan whose father was executed in a Stalinist purge. His wife Lyudmila had parents with a strong sense of Jewish identity. The couple immigrated to New York in 1990, devoting their resources towards the success of Machane Chodosh.
Bronx-born Honoree Arnold Chase, 94, fought in the European and Pacific Theaters, and then had a career in another sort of theater – representing advertisers who sponsored television shows. He admired the “affection” of Rabbi Gans and the “fascinating sermonizing and Talmudic enlightenment” of Rabbi Mendelson.
Then there’s Irish-born carpenter Finbar Power and his wife Maureen, who live next door to Rabbi Gans. They are not Jewish but enjoy a 35-year friendship with their neighbor. “They don’t make people like him anymore.” Out of this friendship, Power expanded the aron kodesh and built a wheelchair ramp for the bimah with Izidor Schuster z”l, who also lived on their block.
On another table, a much younger couple, Shmuel and Devora Botwinick, joined Machane Chodosh simply because they live across the street. Shmuel was pleasantly surprised by Rabbi Mendelson’s welcome on his first visit to the shul. “Very warm and friendly, so unlike New York. The rabbi does a great job,” he said.
This is the first synagogue that I attended, where I became observant, learned the alef-beis, and how to lein. My parents asked why I was going to this “old-age home” rather than the Manhattan singles scene. It was because Machane Chodosh has older members with stories to tell of survival, old-world values, and culture. I wanted to know their Judaism that is solid in its faith and knowledge while participating in the world around them. Rabbi Gans could speak about opera and classical music with as much detail as the Rashi commentary on the weekly parshah.
It also has younger individuals like Ricky Schneider, who organized the Talmud Torah with its cost-free bar mitzvah lessons. The Sunday program is now in the capable hands of Jasmine Larian. It is a solidly Zionist shul that hosts AIPAC speakers, donates ambulances to Magen David Adom, and invests in Israel Bonds.
It is a non-judgmental space, where an older single, divorcee, convert, or baal t’shuvah feels welcomed without being asked too many questions. With demographic changes in Forest Hills resulting in fewer pews being filled, I am concerned about the future of Machane Chodosh. But the synagogue has been bouncing back for 80 years. With his background as a Chabad shaliach, Rabbi Mendelson has the experience and know-how in finding unaffiliated Jews and giving them a role in this synagogue’s continuing story.
By Sergey Kadinsky