I had my bar mitzvah in a shul that asked little from its members. It could afford to pay for its expenses with the Hindu temple across the street renting its parking lot and a Chinese daycare renting out the former Hebrew school. My grandfather was a member and his brother-in-law was a gabbai, and the only Levi in a minyan that echoed in a sanctuary designed for at least a hundred worshippers. On paper, Kissena Jewish Center is an active synagogue but it is a shadow of its former self.
In the course of my day job inspecting parks across the city, I have opportunities to see recently closed shuls. A year ago, I stumbled upon the Becky and Isidor Jacobson Building, better known as the Young Israel of Mosholu Parkway. On the Orthodox Union website, it is still listed as active, but the building was sold in 2015, and its mara d’asra, Rav Zevulun Charlop, 91, has outlived the shul where he assumed the pulpit in 1954.
The names of the building’s sponsors today appear above canvas posters for Faith in Action Deliverance Ministries, the present occupant of this former shul. I could not enter to see the 1950s-theme stained glass windows designed by this longtime RIETS rosh yeshivah and I wondered whether there is a repository containing more than six decades of shul journals, announcements, sermons, and other literature. In the 1980s, Rabbi Charlop shlita welcomed Soviet Jewish refugees to this corner of the Bronx, but unlike Brighton Beach and Forest Hills, their presence in Mosholu was brief.
In Brooklyn, the former Young Israel of Bensonhurst-Bath Beach has a sizable Russian Jewish population around it, and letters on the building’s facade in Russian welcome potential congregants. These words were the work of Rabbi Elias Schwartz zt”l, who stood at the pulpit here until his death in 2016. The building is still under Jewish ownership as Mesivta Bevet Chazon Ish. The yeshivah’s namesake was born in Belarus, geographically related to the mostly secular neighbors of this former shul, but separated by nearly a century and so much more.
Near Brooklyn College, the Young Israel of Vanderveer Park still appears on the OU list but there is only a phone number, no rabbi or president. The shul also appears in the book Sacred Havens of Brooklyn, published in 2013. In reality, this shul was sold in 2011 and is today a preschool serving a mostly Caribbean clientele. When one isn’t sure of the neighborhood’s name, this shul’s namesake reaches further back to a Dutch colonial family that owned much of the land around this former shul, giving it a sense of history much older than the congregation.
These three shuls still welcomed their tenth man only a decade ago, and there are more than a dozen former Young Israel buildings across the city that once boasted multiple services on the High Holidays, promoted an attractive American Orthodoxy for young observant Jews, and supported religious Zionism at a time when other Orthodox communities were ambivalent about Zionism.
“For the future of Judaism in this country, the Young Israel movement is indispensable,” wrote Samuel Philip Abelow in 1933, in his book History of Brooklyn Jewry. “It is stressing the importance of religious practices among the youth of America. It is developing men and women who are imbued with the spirit of Phineas and Judas Maccabeus and the wisdom of the rabbis of old.”
For these three shuls, the youth have moved out and no one took their place. And wherever they moved, new shuls were built and they did not find value in attaching the Young Israel name to them. Perhaps the future of American Orthodoxy is in the suburbs, where there is room to build a sukkah and raise a large family.
Queens is fortunate to have Young Israel congregations with sizable memberships and distinguished rabbis that built up the community. We are also fortunate that the political and social forces that resulted in the dissolution of once-large Young Israel branches in other parts of this city have not impacted central and eastern Queens.
My friend Avraham Engelson was zocheh to have spent many Shabbasos at Mosholu when he was a student at YU. Every week, he took in Rabbi Charlop’s stories and they contributed to his knowledge of how Orthodoxy survived and rebounded in this country. Closer to home, my Queens Jewish Link colleague Rebecca Wittert recorded her interviews with Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l, preserving the story of the founding of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills.
I begin each day at the Young Israel of Queens Valley, whose membership represents the entire range of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. It has a proud history and an equally dynamic present that makes it a second home for its members. My day continues on routes that pass by former outposts of Young Israel in the inner city, where our people once lived in sizable numbers, and passing by smaller Young Israel branches such as Sunnyside that serves young professionals living within minutes of Manhattan and seniors who never left the neighborhood. On the other side of Queens is the Young Israel of New Hyde Park, which hosts family members of patients at LIJ Hospital, but also has its own eruv, mikvah, and Yeshiva Har Torah nearby.
Since the turn of the millennium on the secular calendar, the national Young Israel movement [National Council of Young Israel] has lost a few urban shuls to shrinking membership, its Manhattan headquarters was sold in favor of an office in Paramus, and another two outside New York renamed themselves after disagreements relating to hashkafah and politics. Nevertheless, it also has sizable congregations on Long Island, in Florida, Texas, California, and a few in Israel established by American olim.
Whether it is the past of Young Israel shuls in Mosholu and Bensonhurst, or the ongoing stories of its active branches, I hope that the National Council of Young Israel is keeping stock of all the newsletters, dinner journals, and announcements, so that the story of this important movement within American Orthodoxy can be told to future generations.
By Sergey Kadinsky