Local Historian Discusses Jewish History Of Forest Hills And Rego Park

Local Historian Discusses Jewish History Of Forest Hills And Rego Park

Michael Perlman, author of Legendary Locals of Forest Hills and Rego Park, discussed the Jewish history of the area at the Young Israel of Forest Hills on Thursday, September 15.

Perlman is a fifth-generation Forest Hills resident who is founder and chairman of the Rego-Forest Preservation Council.  They seek to preserve and commemorate architectural and cultural historical sites.

Forest Hills was created in 1906.  Rego Park grew out of Forest Hills and was created in 1923.  Rego Park gets its name from Real Good Construction Company, which did work in the area.

By 1910, 20,000 Jews lived in the borough, 7% of the population.  By 1920, 75,000 Jews called the area home, 6.8% of the total population.

A group involved in charitable causes started Temple Isaiah, a Reform temple, in 1935.  They bought a house on Kessel Street for services.  By 1952, their temple on the Grand Central Parkway service road was completed.  Today it is the Yeshiva Sha’arei Zion.

With dwindling membership and expensive repairs needed, Temple Sinai and other Reform temples merged into The Reform Temple of Forest Hills in the early 1990s.

The activist for the Blind, Helen Keller, as well as her teacher, Anne Thompson, and Anne’s husband once lived there.  A plaque on the front of the temple commemorates the historical site.

Forest Hills Jewish Center started in a house on Kessel Street.  In 1949, Mayor William O’Dwyer and 5,000 attended the dedication of their current building.  The synagogue sanctuary’s capacity is for 1,400 people.

Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser was the Forest Hills Jewish Center’s rabbi from 1933-84.  He advocated for social justice, supported the Forest Hills housing project in the 1970s, and taught at Queens College and the Jewish Theological Seminary.  The corner in front of the synagogue is named the Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser Square.

The Rego Park Jewish Center building was completed in 1949.  The community formed during the 1939 World’s Fair, said Perlman.

The Solomon Schechter School in Flushing, built in the 1950s, was the first nationwide Conservative movement school created, he said.

The Young Israel of Forest Hills was created in 1951.  Their shul was originally located in a retail store at 71-51 Yellowstone Blvd.  Their current building was dedicated on April 20, 1958.  In 1964, the Young Israel of Forest Hills was the first in the United States to hold a synagogue-based Yom HaShoah program.

Families formed the Queens Jewish Center in 1943.  Their building was dedicated in 1955.

In 1981, families and Rabbi David Algaze broke away from the Forest Hills Jewish Center and formed Congregation Havurat Yisrael.

The Chofetz Chaim Rabbinical Seminary moved to Kessel Street in Forest Hills in 1955 where the Forest Hills Jewish Center once was.  In 2003, they moved to Kew Gardens Hills.  Today, it is a Chabad yeshivah and synagogue.

By 1960, 542,000 Jews lived in Queens, making it 30% of the total population.  In 2000, 186,000 Jews lived in Queens making it 8.5% of the total population.  Many Jews moved out to the suburbs during the 1970s and 1980s, but the Jewish population is buttressed by 50,000 Bukharin Jews living in the borough.

In 2001, the first public menorah lighting, in Station Square in Forest Hills Gardens, took place.  The Gardens did not let Jews and African-Americans live there until World War II.

The presidential buildings in Forest Hills:  the Kennedy, Washington, Grover Cleveland, Madison, Franklin, the Jackson, etc. were built by architect Philip Birnbaum and builder Alfred Kaskel of Carol Management.

“They wanted the lobbies to be somewhat grandiose for the newly arrived middle class,” said Perlman.  They made soundproof apartments and gardens in the center of their buildings.

Harry Lefrak started the Lefrak Company.  They own more than 400 middle-income buildings in the country, said Perlman.  They created Lefrak City in the 1960s and own buildings on Queens Boulevard and on 67th Avenue.  The Lefrak family is now one of the wealthiest families in America.

Federoff Triangle Park on Queens Boulevard and 67th Road was named for Barnett and his wife Gussie Federoff, who was active in Hadassah and the United Jewish Appeal.

The Ehrenreich Playground on Austin Street between 76th Avenue and 76th Drive is named for Leo Ehrenreich, “a one-man civic association and advocate,” said Perlman.  Ehrenreich advocated for city playgrounds, police, and traffic signals at the fifteen most dangerous intersections,” said Perlman.

The Queens Jewish Community Council was created in 1967 to advocate for the Jewish community and provide social services.  Originally at the Holliswood Jewish Center, they moved to the Hillcrest Jewish Center before their current site at 119-46 Union Turnpike.

Sidney Leviss became the first Jewish Queens Borough President in 1969, before resigning to take a seat on the New York State Supreme Court.

Jewish notables who lived in Forest Hills include Al Jolson who owned a house at 68-42 110th Street; Actor Sid Caesar, 98-10 64th Avenue; Joey Ramone, 66-36 Yellowstone Boulevard; Tommy Ramone, as well as comedian Alan King, former Mayor of Cincinnati and TV show celebrity Jerry Springer, columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Art Buchwald, musical composer George Gershwin, fashion designer Donna Karan, and Burt Bacharach (who wrote the 1969 song, “Rain Drops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” and the 1986 song “That’s What Friends Are For.”  Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel went to Forest Hills High School.

Michael Perlman wants his book, Legendary Locals of Forest Hills and Rego Park, to give people the ability to have a self-guided tour of their neighborhood.  His book is available on the Barnes & Noble website.

Perl- Philip Belkin, President of the Young Israel of Forest Hills and Michael Perlman, author of  Legendary Locals of Forest Hills and Rego Park

YI- The Young Israel of Forest Hills, shown here in a recent photo, started in a storefront at 71-51 Yellowstone Boulevard in 1951

Qjc- The Queens Jewish Center won honorable mention for best new building in 1955 by the Queens Chamber of Commerce

Fh- Forest Hills South circa 1941

No- At the Rego Park Jewish Center: Harris Herman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marcus Marks, Rabbi Derby

Gro,2 – An old brochure for the Grover Cleveland Apartments on 108th Street