Remember when it all began...

Planting Roots In The Gardens
Jodi Bodner DuBow - Jewish Week

February 1st 2002

Rabbinical student works to establish first synagogue in Forest Hills enclave with Waspy image.

Pass under the train station on 71st Street/Continental Avenue toward Burns Street and you enter another world. Stone and Tudor homes sit behind pebbled sidewalks and brick streets. This is a neighborhood with a private patrol, sloping lawns, old-fashioned lampposts. You could be in the English countryside.

Welcome to Forest Hills Gardens, a stately, suburban community within the greater bustle of Forest Hills. The posh neighborhood is home to several thousand residents, two schools, three churches.

And no synagogues.

Not yet anyway. But there will be one there soon if rabbi-in-training Mordechai Hecht has his druthers.

Hecht, who is 21 and barely bearded, is studying for his ordination at Yeshivat Chabad in Kew Gardens. He is also on a mission: to establish a Jewish presence in the Gardens. While many Jews actually live inside this enclave, and a handful of synagogues are within walking distance, the shuls are at least 15 to 20 minutes away, and are outside the Garden’s parameters. “We need a shul that’s a five-minute walk for a majority of these people, ” said Hecht. There are at least 200 Jewish families within this 20 to 30 square block radius, yet there’s no Jewish force. It’s time to change that.”

Rabbi Sholem Hecht, (Mordechai’s father), and a Gardens resident for 27 years, says the establishment of a synagogue would be both legendary and logical.

“The handed down oral tradition was that when the Gardens was founded, it was a purely Waspish community where Jews were not welcome,” says the rabbi, who has a pulpit at the Sephardic Jewish Congregation of Central Queens.

“But,” he continues, “by the early ’60s, Jews, mostly Middle Eastern immigrants, began to move in and by the time we came there were plenty of Jewish families.

“It does appear that it’s time for a synagogue within the Gardens.”

Already there are signs that Mordechai Hecht’s vision is more than a pipe dream. Hecht recently established a Friday and Saturday evening minyan in someone’s home, attracting 20 to 30 people regularly and, for the first time ever, this year on Chanukah a menorah was put up in Station Square with eight nights of candle lighting — a feat Hecht sees as a coup.

Walking through the Gardens, pointing out the sites, Hecht ticks off the keys to his future success. “Many of the people who live here are getting older and it’s important that we establish a shul closer so they can still walk to it. Also, there is a large amount of Jews who live here but are unaffiliated. I want to assist in bringing them closer to Judaism. As a Chabad rabbi, that is what we do. If we establish a Torah center here — not just a shul — then we can reach out to people, give them the opportunity to pray and learn more and attach themselves more deeply to their Jewish roots. And, more Jews have moved in over time and there is simply a need now to have a Forest Hills Gardens Torah Center.”

Hecht also points out that the Chofetz Chaim Rabbinical Assembly of America, which runs an affiliated Orthodox synagogue, is moving to Kew Gardens Hills so there may be “a void to fill.” While a spokesperson at the seminary says that synagogue is most likely staying in the area, it is still a 15 to 20 minute walk for most Gardens residents.

“I see young people moving out,” said Avi Behar, a resident of the Gardens for the past 15 years, “because there’s no vibrancy.” The Egyptian-born, French-bred Behar moved to the neighborhood to be near his wife’s family and because they thought the area was beautiful. He davens at Chofetz Chaim, making the 15-minute trek; she goes to the Conservative Forest Hills Jewish Center. “I know there are people who don’t even go at all though,” he said, “because there’s nothing right here and I’m sure if we had our own shul, they would go.”

The immediate area surrounding the Gardens is also devoid of Jewish life. On the famous Austin Street, a shopping mecca, there is not one kosher or Judaica store. The nearest kosher pizza store is a 5-10 minute drive away on 108th Street; the same goes for a kosher grocery. Hecht believes this commercial district as well needs a Jewish shot in the arm. The problem, both commercially and residentially, is lack of available real estate.

“We meet for a minyan now in someone’s house,” said Hecht. “While that is extremely generous of the homeowner, it’s hard to attract the unaffiliated to daven in a house that on weekends is a shul and during the week is a living room. We need a permanent location that we can set up to accommodate people in all aspects of Jewish life every day of the week.”

Hecht has been combing the area eager to make a deal on anything — an apartment, a storefront, a basement — anything. Apartments, though affordable at $1,500 to $2,000 a month, are rarely available; neither are workable storefronts. Homes range from $750,000 to $2 million, before renovation costs that would turn it into a functioning shul. The vacating Chofetz Chaim building was considered, then dropped as too large. Money would be forthcoming from a group of about 25 families interested in seeing this to fruition, but the project has to make sense.

While the underlying sense among the Jewish residents was that when the Gardens was founded in 1913 and incorporated in 1923, it was done as a “Wasp only” neighborhood, the menorah lighting made evident to them that times have changed. A little persistence, some red tape cutting and a refusal to hear “no,” gave Hecht the victory of a 10-foot menorah standing proudly in Station Square for eight days in December. “It gave a sense of Jewish pride, a Jewish public life and it served to unite the community,” said Hecht.

Elizabeth Murphy, Corporation president, thought the menorah lighting was wonderful. “I loved the music and the dancing and only wished that I could have danced with them, but I know it was men only in that circle. The only reason this hasn’t been done before is simply because no one asked. Ask and you get as long as it’s safe and secure and adheres to our maintenance regulations.”

Hecht is now concentrating on the next step—“finding a piece of real estate that works and opening up shop, while being out there meeting more people,” he said. “I want a place where we can have a minyan, a beginner’s minyan, outreach classes and adult-ed classes.”

Said Behar: “It doesn’t have to start out huge to get the ball rolling but I think it would catch on very quickly. I know many people, myself included, who would use it all the time.”