By Maxine Dovere
A hundred years ago, five members of the Hebrew Women’s Aid Society of Flushing recognized the need for a new synagogue to serve the neighborhood’s rapidly growing modern Jewish community. They formed a new congregation modeled after the Free Synagogue in Manhattan: the Free Synagogue of Flushing.
The congregation quickly moved from meetings in homes to rented space in a pre-Civil War mansion—now known as the “White Building”—to construction of the now-landmarked east-facing sanctuary, replete with Tiffany-style stained-glass windows.
In 2017-2018, the synagogue celebrates its hundredth anniversary. Reaching its centennial was not always a given.
In the post-World War I years, the Jewish population of Flushing grew by 700 percent. The magnificent sanctuary was built to meet the needs of the blossoming community. To enable the sanctuary to face east, the White Building was moved.
“They put it on logs and turned it around,” explained synagogue archivist and historian “Souks” Soukhaseum. The sanctuary building, designed by Maurice Cortland, was completed in two years and dedicated in 1928.
By the mid-1980s through the early ’90s, the Jewish population of Flushing declined dramatically. A mostly older generation—the “bubbies” and “zadies”—remained. Membership dropped.
“It was the synagogue’s lowest point,” Executive Director Alan Brava told NYJL. “The Hebrew school building was rented to a local private school. Once the Hebrew school had 700 children.”
By 2000, the congregation numbered less than 200.
In 2014, under the direction of synagogue Executive Director Alan Brava, the future of the Free Synagogue of Flushing began to change The synagogue board’s president, Edward Schauder, senior attorney for Steiner Sports, used his legal and financial expertise to assure that the synagogue was able to sustain itself for the immediate future. The board of trustees agreed to his proposal that a bond to provide operating capital be issued. A contract to sell the religious school building recently closed.
“The sale of the building will ensure the synagogue’s existence in perpetuity,” said Brava.
The synagogue and its congregation are experiencing a renaissance. Young families from Jackson Heights, Forest Hills and Sunnyside are rejuvenating the membership. A new rabbi, Yossi Zilberberg, began leading the synagogue in August 2017. A graduate of Hebrew Union College, he is an ordained Reform rabbi who wears a tallit (traditional prayer shawl) and kippa (skullcap). Brava calls the synagogue “nondenominational,” noting that while the synagogue is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism, “the rabbi is meeting the needs of the membership, which covers a range of Jewish practice.” The Hebrew school once again has students; currently, about 40 children attend.
To learn about the synagogue—listed on both the national and New York State’s Register of Historic Places—NYJL spoke with Soukhaseum. A Laotian-born Jew-by-choice, he initially came to the synagogue as a volunteer. He is now very much the shomar (guardian) of its history, with knowledge of every aspect of the congregation and its structures.
Referencing the sanctuary, he said that “many repairs are needed. It’s an old building that needs great care.”
Asked about the Free Synagogue’s future, Brava told NYJL: “We look forward to making this place a central hub for the Jewish population of Queens to explore and enhance the Jewish experience. We want to make this place relevant.”
Board President Schauder sees the synagogue as a “replication of the 92Y, making the FSF a central hub for the Jewish population of Queens—where everyone can explore and enhance their Judaism—and a cultural resource for the entire community. We want to make this place relevant.”
“I’m excited to be part of this,” Brava told NYJL. “I’m happy that the place is flourishing….It’s a team effort.”