The border of West Hempstead and Franklin Square is marked by Dogwood Avenue, but it is certainly not the limit of the growing membership at Congregation Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park, which is undergoing an expansion campaign that will give this house-turned-shul a grand entrance with a lobby, classrooms, and a social hall. “There has been a lot of growth with more families moving into this part of town,” said Eric Bienenfeld, a member of Eitz Chayim’s expansion committee. “There is a need for the building to keep up with the growth.”
Eitz Chayim had its start more than 20 years ago to serve a section of West Hempstead that was inside the eruv but was a significant walk to the nearest Orthodox shul. “I joined in 2002, when it had only 50 families, with half of them davening at the shul. We’ve quadrupled in membership since then,” said Rabbi Efrem Schwalb, the rav of the shul. “We have many smachot, and this will allow for programs for all children – young and teenagers. What makes Eitz Chayim special are the children.”
Besides events such as olive oil pressing for Chanukah, a petting zoo for Parshas Noach, and concerts, children are encouraged to be involved in setting up seating for Yamim Tovim, delivering divrei Torah, and decorating boxes in food drives. “Our children take an active role in the shul,” Rabbi Schwalb said.
As the shul’s membership grew, it moved from its original house to a larger one, which was then expanded to have a sanctuary with stained glass windows. The current building campaign seeks to give Eitz Chayim a grand entrance with a lobby, social hall, beis midrash, and classrooms for youth programming. “The goal is to have a more cohesive synagogue. The renderings give the idea, and the design is determined by the budget,” Bienenfeld said. “We are actively pursuing the fundraising campaign.”
He said that while the pandemic resulted in uncertainty on the campaign’s timetable, the membership of Eitz Chayim continues to grow with an influx of young families. “We have a handful of families in Franklin Square and we want people to know that it’s in the eruv, a three-minute walk from shul. Families should consider homes on both sides of Dogwood Avenue.”
Rabbi Schwalb counted seven families living across Dogwood Avenue at this time, with more expected. As housing prices closer to Hempstead Avenue continue to rise, homes in Franklin Square are offered as an affordable alternative, many of them more spacious and newer than those in the older part of the community.
The cost estimate of the project is between $1.2 and $1.5 million, with construction expected to take nine to 12 months to complete. “It is important for the shul to be beautiful, just as people want to beautify their homes,” Rabbi Schwalb said. “There are a lot of people who are working to make sure that the shul experience is beautiful.”
By Sergey Kadinsky