The student body of the Yeshiva of Central Queens extends far beyond its namesake area, with dozens commuting from eastern Queens, Great Neck, and West Hempstead, among other neighborhoods. This past Sunday, one second grader from Howard Beach had a birthday party at her local Chabad, where I learned about the story of a Conservative temple that was transformed into a kiruv center.
“It began as a small minyan with four bachurim to complete it,” said Rabbi Avrohom Richter, the Chabad shaliach for Howard Beach. “That was approximately 18 years ago. Then, in 2016, we found out that this shul was struggling.”
On the walls of the Howard Beach Judea Center, decades of proclamations from elected officials tell the shul’s story. It was founded in 1934, when the rabbi of the Ozone Park Jewish Center felt there were enough families in Howard Beach to start a new k’hilah. In 1958, Rabbi Meir Kahane became its mara d’asra. It was a short tenure, as the Conservative families had no interest in becoming Orthodox. After two years, the board did not renew his contract.
In 1972, the shul’s modernist facility was completed. In this mostly Italian neighborhood, there were Jewish families who also relocated from denser places in favor of its suburban scenery within the city.
“On the High Holidays, the synagogues were packed. A lot of Jews attended public schools with Talmud Torah afterward,” said Michelle Lange. A native of Howard Beach, she attended Rockwood Park Jewish Center, an Orthodox shul with a sizable catering hall. But in recent years, the caterer left, and the synagogue was sold. Its congregations daven as tenants in a smaller space inside their building.
The Conservative synagogue on 90th Street made a different choice. “We had a meeting and we worked out a deal to turn it into an Orthodox shul. We merged our names and became Howard Beach Judea Chabad,” said Rabbi Richter. “We are there for the unaffiliated and we grow with the affiliated.”
This transformation has a precedent in Kew Gardens, where Anshe Sholom Chabad is thriving inside a former Conservative synagogue built in the same period. Both buildings have sanctuaries, offices, and classrooms with potential for events and programs. At Howard Beach Judea Center Chabad, a public preschool helps pay for the building’s expenses. “It supports the building,” Rabbi Richter said.
Rebbetzin Zeldi runs the Hebrew school, which is admittedly small, and it helps that their ten children provide company to the youngest members of this shul. “We’ve graduated many children, and every time that we think that it’s the last one, there are always more Jewish children signing up,” he said. At Chabad, it is never too late for a bar mitzvah. Among the accomplishments of the Richters was a celebration for Karl Birenbaum in 2014, who was 87 at the time. “As a 13-year-old boy, he so heroically fought to survive the Nazis,” Rabbi Ritter said. “He was robbed of the opportunity of having his bar mitzvah, as the war broke out just two months prior.”
Lange said that the Jewish community declined when children went away to college and did not return, while retirees moved to Florida, and many of the non-Orthodox assimilated and felt less connected to Howard Beach. “I found it convenient to stay. My mother still lives here, and I’ve always worked in Queens,” she said. When the time came for her to marry, her husband Fabian Fuchs joined her in Howard Beach, and they became members of the Chabad after attending a public Seder.
Being located within five minutes of JFK Airport means that when there are flight delays and arrivals too close to Shabbos, Jewish travelers can rely on Chabad of Howard Beach for meals and services.
Fuchs spoke of Howard Beach as a quiet suburban community that is connected to the rest of the city by the Belt Parkway, the subway, and bus lines. “We only need a kosher store here,” he said.
“I have hopes and they’re realistic. We want to build a mikvah,” Rabbi Richter said. “What used to take four bachurim is now 30 to 40 people on Shabbos. We have one Jew who lives in Broad Channel who walks an hour and 20 minutes to our shul.”
By Sergey Kadinsky