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The nearly 100-year-old sanctuary of the Free Synagogue of Flushing, a New York City landmark, was a featured stop on the May 21 Queens Sacred Sites Tour.

Visitors were invited to view the structure and its extraordinary stained-glass windows. A detailed history of the priceless artifacts was offered by the synagogue’s director of community affairs and archivist Souksavat Soukhaseum. The synagogue’s history was told in a timeline display placed in its lobby. This is the first year in the tour’s seven-year history that the synagogue has been included in the annual event.

The sanctuary of the Free Synagogue of Flushing houses 12 stained-glass windows representing each of the 12 tribes of Israel. It is topped by a huge glass dome designed in the pattern of the Mogen David—the Star of David.

“The dome,” Executive Director Alan J. Brava told New York Jewish Life (NYJL), “was once so brightly lit, pilots approaching LaGuardia Airport used it as a guide star.”

The Free Synagogue of Flushing, a liberal, progressive congregation, was founded in 1917 by five women. Its philosophy and practice were modeled on the teachings of Rabbi Stephen Wise, a leader in the Reform movement and founder of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. From its earliest days, the Flushing synagogue was known for its social action and community outreach activities, traditions it continues as it approaches its 100th anniversary.

The Free Synagogue of Flushing, a liberal, progressive congregation, was founded in 1917 by five women. Its philosophy and practice were modeled on the teachings of Rabbi Stephen Wise, a leader in the Reform movement and founder of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. From its earliest days, the Flushing synagogue was known for its social action and community outreach activities, traditions it continues as it approaches its 100th anniversary.

The 700-seat sanctuary has not been fully utilized for decades. Brava, who grew up as a Conservative, traditional Jew, told NYJL, “My entire life has revolved around the synagogue.”

At the Flushing congregation, he is diligently working to revive the once-vibrant congregation, and making plans to restore the historic building. The synagogue, which opened in 1923, was built at a cost of $250,000. Today, the building and its irreplaceable stained glass are insured for many, many multiples of that amount.

“Maintaining the building,” said Brava, “is extremely expensive. Just repairing the defunct pipe organ would cost more than $100,000.”

Brava has astutely used the resources of the Free Synagogue of Flushing to ensure its solvent financial future. His challenge now is to rebuild and reestablish a fully functional congregation. The religious school, which had no students, now has 35. The school attracts young families from the areas surrounding Flushing, including Jackson Heights and some towns to the east.

“The younger people want their children to have a Jewish education, to understand the culture. The parents are not equipped to teach. At the Free Synagogue they can come and join their children,” Brava said.

He continued, “All of our Jews ran away and left this gorgeous edifice. We have the responsibility to make sure it is revived and exists for another 100 years. I looked at rebuilding this congregation as my professional mission—the final chapter of my career.”

To provide an endowment for the congregation and cover the upkeep costs of the sanctuary, an unused classroom building, dormant since the demise of the religious school, was recently sold. The revenue from the sale “will guarantee the existence of this congregation and its sanctuary for another hundred years!” said Brava. He noted that the congregation plans to codevelop a building now used for administrative offices.

Brava emphasized the need to reach out to all Jews “to show them Jewish values for their children. I want to find a way to bring them back—to show them it’s fun to be Jewish! Not just the unaffiliated; we are welcoming to the whole family, providing an environment that is nonjudgmental. Some are intermarried, some nontraditional. Membership in the Free Synagogue of Flushing is based on the desire to enhance your observance. Everyone is welcome. At the Free Synagogue of Flushing, prejudice and xenophobia are not on our agenda. The challenge is to figure out where people are Jewishly and help them get to where they want to be.”

Ever the teacher, Brava continued, “The Torah is a commentary on contemporary issues. The ancient texts are applicable to our lives today….If you have any desire to live an ethical, moral life—whether your concerns are social action, humanitarian causes or simply a good, moral life—the Torah is a guidebook on how to take care of all individuals.”

Classes are held twice a month; topics vary. One class may be on Shabbat and the concept of rest, another on Kosher practice and a third on basic Jewish concepts. There is history and information, “but no political discussion. I teach basic tradition to those who want to know,” said Brava.

Some who want to know are not even Jews. Members of the surrounding community, largely Chinese, are welcome to join the learning sessions.

“There is a difference between teaching and instruction,” said Brava. “My job is to transmit—to be like a salad bar with five different types of tomatoes. I attempt to bring contemporary values to contemporary lives, both to the people of the Torah and the wider community.”

He added, “Whether it’s a 60-year-old rediscovering or a 6-year-old just beginning the Jewish journey, the synagogue is an amazing place for liberal Jews.”

Jews want to understand their culture, according to Brava. He teaches family education because the synagogue does not currently have a rabbi. As children grow, he prepares them for bar or bat mitzvah as a cantor. (He is a trained cantor.)

Brava told NYJL, “I wear many yarmulkes….My job is to transmit. Parents can learn together with their children. My students decide what part of Judaism they want to bring into their lives….I want to be a Jewish role model—a Jewish role model who’s relevant today.”


During the fall and early winter, the congregation will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

“We will celebrate with the congregation, our neighbors and the people of Queens,” said the multifunctioning executive director. “It is important for the synagogue to have the ability to serve the needs of the Jewish people in Queens and to be available to our neighbors, especially the Chinese community.”

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