Rabbi Manfred Gans, 96, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Machane Chodosh, devoted shepherd to a diverse flock in Forest Hills, died on Sunday, leaving memories of a multifaceted life that touched thousands of people from many walks of life.
“There are countless stories of Rabbi Gans calling people to ask how they were. One of his gifts was to connect to people at their good times and sad times,” said Carmella Schwartz. “He had a great sense of humor; and even being German and somewhat formal, he could joke around with the best of them. He was a real people person.”
Strong German Roots
Rabbi Gans was born in 1924 in Leer, Germany, to Herman (HeChaver Chaim) and Alma Gans. He also had an older sister, Karla Schoen. His father was a talmid chacham and a popular watchmaker with family history in the town dating back to 1770. “The city you were born in always has a special place in the heart. My family lived here for a long time. We were East Frisians,” he said in a 1995 interview with a reporter in his hometown. “My grandfather, Jacob Nathan Gans, opened the business in 1864. It is in the Jewish cemetery on Groninger Strasse. My father built the clock that hangs on the Ostfriesische Volksbank on Mühlenstrasse today. Of course, my parents were very patriotic, and my father was in France for four years during World War I.”
But the patriotism and popularity quickly turned to indifference following the election of Adolf Hitler as chancellor in early 1933. “On the way to school, we were abused by other students. We emigrated because almost nobody wanted to buy from my father anymore. We were deprived of our livelihood,” he said. “Hatred hit us. It has always saddened me very much that a whole people became so numb.”
Like many German Jews, the Gans family did not expect the hateful slogans of young brownshirts marching past their shop to escalate into discriminatory laws followed by violence in broad daylight. With the support of family members in America, the Gans family set sail from Le Havre to New York in August 1938, three months before the Kristallnacht pogrom burned down the synagogue where he became a bar mitzvah. They were fortunate, as the Holocaust claimed two-thirds of Leer’s Jews. “I saw my name among the dead; Manfred Gans was a common name among German Jews,” he once told me. “It could have been me.”
That realization inspired Rabbi Gans to speak up for Holocaust survivors and made the anniversary of Kristallnacht an important event at Congregation Machane Chodosh, with displays in the basement auditorium made by children at its Talmud Torah, while upstairs in the shul, survivors lit candles, and spoke of their experiences in the presence of congregants, guests, and elected officials.
On the Kristallnacht anniversary in 1999, which was also the shul’s 60th anniversary year, Rabbi Gans stood next to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who signed City Council legislation to name the corner of 108th Street and 67th Road as Holocaust Memorial Corners. The ceremony on location had more than a thousand people in attendance.
As for his birthplace, after the war ended, he kept in touch with its mayors and made his last visit in 2012, when businessman Gunther Prahm renovated a historic building in Leer as the “Rabbi Manfred Gans Youth Hostel.” In the presence of a crowd, Rabbi Gans urged young Germans not to forget what their country did to the Jews during the Nazi period.
He Knew Culture
Like many German Jews, Rabbi Gans was well-versed in classical literature, music, and opera. “He was a giant of a man. When we were on a bus to Washington for a rally, he requested to put on classical music and he knew every note in the composition,” said Victor Saltiel.
While many Orthodox shuls have a chazan leading the services exclusively on the Yamim Nora’im, Rabbi Gans appreciated the cantorial voice performing every Shabbos, along with concerts throughout the year. Among his friends was Yoel Sharabi, who performed every year at Machane Chodosh. “He wanted me to play the Concierto de Aranjuez, second movement. He knew the exact guitar movement,” Sharabi said. “My son Benjamin had his bris milah here, and when my father visited his shul near the end of his life, they also became friends.”
One example of his love of music was in 1987, when the communist government of Poland was opening up to the West and invited the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to play in Warsaw. Rabbi Gans was part of an American Jewish delegation invited for the concert, and he snuck backstage to meet the musicians who had their first performance in the eastern bloc nation in 30 years.
On his retirement from the pulpit this week in 2010, I understood that the most ideal gift that I could give to Rabbi Gans was the digital remastering of Yossele Rosenblatt’s works, which was released that year.
From Brooklyn to Queens
German Jewish refugees founded Congregation Machane Chodosh in 1939, its name translating as “New Camp,” an appropriate description for its congregants, who were recent immigrants, having fled the Nazis on the eve of a world war. During the war, Rabbi Gans received his s’michah from Yeshiva Kol Torah and served as a chaplain in the military with the rank of corporal. Rabbi Gans was chosen to lead this congregation in 1950, at 26 years of age. In 1951, he married Liselotte Levor, a fellow German refugee.
He campaigned aggressively for this k’hilah to build a permanent facility for the shul two blocks from Ebbets Field. “Any congregation that functions in rented facilities has the longevity of only one or two generations at best,” he said at the time. “After building our shul, it was filled to capacity, but then the danger came.” Soon after the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the borough’s fortunes began to decline. Crime picked up, and once-strong Jewish neighborhoods such as Brownsville, East New York, and Crown Heights experienced white flight. Membership declined and those who remained faced muggings on their walk to and from shul. Most of these members knew that under such conditions, the shul would slowly wither and close forever.
But Rabbi Gans had other plans and decided to move the shul to Forest Hills. In Queens, the renewed congregation went beyond its German base, reaching out to the broader community, including recent arrivals from the Soviet Union. In the midst of this decade-long transition, his fifth child, Chaim, was born in 1975 with Down Syndrome.
“The doctor who delivered Chaim told my mother to put him away in a home. But my mother said, ‘No, this is the situation, and we’re going to do everything possible to make the best of it,’” his brother Jerome said in an interview with the Orthodox Union a few years ago. “She worked tirelessly to make sure Chaim got whatever services were available.”
Rabbi Gans and his wife Liselotte put an ad in The Jewish Press inviting other parents with children who had Down syndrome to meet. The first meeting attracted 40 parents; the second drew 90. As the word spread, the parental support group became the nucleus of Otsar Family Services, where Rabbi Gans serves as chairman of the board of directors.
“Under his direction, the agency grew to be a respected provider of services to the special needs population, always innovating and being on the forefront of the field,” said Otsar Chevra Day Hab Director Mayer Kadoch. “Rabbi Gans also served as the first Principal for the Otsar Early Childhood Program. Rabbi Gans’ involvement with Otsar spanned over four decades and helped enrich the lives of hundreds of individuals and families.”
A few years later, when the OU launched Yachad, Chaim was among its first participants. In the kitchen of Rabbi Gans’ home is an old newspaper photograph of Chaim in Israel picking fruits from a tree. From a time when there were few services available for religious Jews with disabilities, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Gans provided unprecedented opportunities for their son and countless others to live a fully observant life, with employment, leisure, and a sense of independence.
New Home in Forest Hills
The Gans family moved to Forest Hills in 1977, with rented spaces used by the synagogue in its first four years. It opened in 1981 and has been welcoming new members ever since. “Rabbi Gans was collecting people for a minyan. First, second, then a third time, and then he said that here is my seat,” said David Aulov. “He was very warm and loved to help people.”
Until his last days, he called people who could not attend shul, wishing them Good Shabbos, answering their questions, and offering guidance. Bette Cyzner noted his dedication to the mitzvah of bikur cholim. “There was a woman in a hospital who did not have anyone. She was alone. Rabbi Gans personally fed her. Those who could not attend shul, he called them every Friday,” she said.
In his new home, Rabbi Gans renewed the spiritual lives of people. Converts learned with him and ate meals at his home, finding inspiration in his ways. Baalei t’shuvah were welcomed by Rabbi Gans with Machane Chodosh as their first steps on the path of observance. “We were the first couple married at Machane Chodosh,” said Naama Jacoby. “Rabbi Gans looked over every detail with such charm and a positive attitude.” At the time of their wedding, she attended Havurat Yisrael, and her husband Gary attended Queens Jewish Center. With their wedding venue located between their synagogues, they became members of Machane Chodosh. “We fell in love with him. He was like a father. I could talk openly with him without shame.”
Since their wedding in 1995, three more couples went under the chupah at Machane Chodosh – divorcees who found their new spouses at the shul and baalei t’shuvah who renewed their vows in a halachic ceremony.
When he saw distraught individuals, he ran to help them from beginning to end. “My mother died on Shabbat. I stood in the back of the men’s section to get the rabbi’s attention. He came down the aisle and I told him what happened,” said Schwartz. “He wanted me to stay in shul but I was too distraught. He then told me to come to him for lunch, which I did. After Shabbat, he called me. I didn’t even have a burial plot and was clueless. Rabbi Gans arranged everything.”
Keeping up with demographic changes in Forest Hills, Rabbi Gans welcomed numerous families from the former Soviet Union. “Rabbi Gans welcomed us and helped me have a bar mitzvah, he paid for my three sleepaway summer camps, helped me and my sister to get into yeshivah day schools, spend our gap years in Israel and attend Jewish universities,” said Roman Tsibulevskiy, whose family em
4igrated from Azerbaijan. His father, Dr. Leonid Tsibulevskiy, ran a Russian language parshah shiur in the auditorium, while Ricky Schneider ran the Talmud Torah for public school children, giving them bar mitzvah lessons free of charge.
“Out of all the people in my life outside of my family, there were only two people who had a huge impact on my life; one of two was Rabbi Gans,” Schneider said. “I soaked up his mannerism and demeanor and incorporated it in my life.”
One instance that Schneider remembers was more than a decade ago when Rabbi Gans spoke to his students. “Now, I hear there is someone here who lent money to someone. When Hamlet was prepared to leave his father’s house, his father gave the following advice: ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’” Of course, it is a mitzvah to lend money. “He was speaking to teenagers; he didn’t think that this was appropriate for this age group to do such a thing,” Schneider said, noting that it could cost a friendship between his young students.
Schneider also spoke of when he was helping a non-Jewish colleague to prepare for a job interview. “As we were walking down the street, we ran into Rabbi Gans. I introduced her and the rabbi made a few remarks. The next day at work, my colleague approached me and said, ‘I am converting to Judaism. Your rabbi is such an amazing, charming, sincere, real person.’”
“He worked with Jews from our community and all rabbis loved him. Many Bukharian Jews davened and learned at Machane Chodosh,” said Rabbi Imanuel Shimunov, Rabbi of the neighboring Congregation Beth Gavriel.
Rabbi Israel Itshakov of the Beth Gavriel Youth Minyan noted that Rabbi Gans lived up to Moshe, his Hebrew name, by planning for the synagogue’s future and stepping aside so that Rabbi Yossi Mendelson could grow into his role with his guidance. “He gave the community an opportunity for a new leader. It was proper leadership and I will miss him,” he said.
Rabbi Manny Behar, a former president of the Queens Jewish Community Council, noted his warm relationship with elected officials, giving the invocation at Borough President Claire Shulman’s inauguration and conducting her mother’s funeral. When the synagogue’s dinner took place, he made sure that there was cake for State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, whose birthday occurred in the same week.
On the communal level, he served as President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, member of the board of the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center, and a longtime supporter of Magen David Adom, Jewish National Fund, and Israel Bonds. The synagogue hosted ambulance dedications, fundraisers, and Israeli diplomats, and Rabbi Gans davened with fervor at the miracle that was the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty.
As an educator, he taught at the Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva, and served as elementary school principal at the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County and later at Yeshiva Dov Revel. “I was his student. He was a man of dignity, wit, and high standards,” said Yeshiva of Central Queens Principal Rabbi Mark Landsman. “He always had a modest demeanor and it left an impression on me.”
In his final decade on the pulpit, he continued to serve his flock while taking care of Liselotte, who had an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s in her final years. “I was a guest in his home for Friday night meals on occasion, and remember that even when she could no longer speak and didn’t seem aware, he looked at her, included her, and lovingly kissed her on the head,” Schwartz said. “The love and respect was palpable and heartbreaking due to the situation.” She died in 2008.
Amid the difficulty of losing his wife, he continued to tend to the shul’s members, conducting their births, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals. “We have been at many weddings and we have observed that none were done so beautifully as were the ones by Rabbi Gans,” said David Kraft, a nephew of synagogue founder Dr. Siegfried Krautkopf. “Similarly, at funerals, we found that he had a gift for discovering the soul of the departed and for expressing it in words that we do not forget.”
A Personal Note
I cannot fully express the impact of Rabbi Gans on my life as an observant Jew than to make the understatement that I would not be wearing a kipah were it not for Congregation Machane Chodosh. The elder members of the shul introduced me to ethics, history, and personal examples of humility and service. The rabbi was a man of culture and knowledge. “They do not make rabbis like him anymore” and “He’s a living national treasure” appropriately described my mentor and teacher.
The Queens Jewish Link extends its condolences to the children of Rabbi Gans: Brenda, Muriel, Jennifer, Jerome, and Chaim; his 15 grandchildren, 51 great-grandchildren, and countless congregants, students, friends, and individuals whose lives were impacted by HaRav Moshe ben HeChaver Chaim Gans.
By Sergey Kadinsky