The street-facing side of Congregation Anshei Shalom of West Hempstead has the appearance of a house, but behind it is a soaring sanctuary filled with artwork and ornate architecture. But then there are the trailers across Hempstead Avenue that also belong to this shul, in use for its Sephardic minyan, teen minyan, and youth groups.
“It will be nice to have everything under one roof again,” said Rabbi Elon Soniker, the rav of Anshei Shalom. “We had to create new spaces for them to accommodate the growth.”
The exterior appearance of a former house-turned-shul belies its tremendous growth to more than 300 households that cannot have all of their programs inside the current facility. “We are very proud of it; the sanctuary has the shape of the Magen David,” said shul president Eric Stern. “The acoustics of this room are special. The voices go towards the middle and then upwards towards the sky.”
Norman Kern, the construction manager in the previous and ongoing expansions of the shul, said that the shape, colors, and design of the shul came from Rabbi Yehuda Pearl, the Rabbi Emeritus of the shul. Under his leadership, details from defunct shuls were salvaged and given a new home at Anshei Shalom. “The aron kodesh has a unique story. A shul that was going out of business was selling its building to a church, but did not want the aron kodesh to go,” said Norman Kaish, the manager of the shul expansion project. “We competed for it; we were a growing shul where it would make a difference.”
The aron kodesh was brought in from Massachusetts, and the stained glass surrounding it was salvaged from the demolished Jewish chapel building at JFK Airport.
Since its most recent expansion, in 2003, Anshei Shalom purchased a gas station across the street, where trailers were installed to accommodate its Sephardic and teen minyanim and youth groups. “We are required to have a parking lot,” Stern said. In the current expansion, the small parking lot in front of the shul will be relocated across the street after the trailers are removed.
The programs located inside these trailers will then take place inside the expanded shul, along with a kiddush room, expanded space for the Sephardic minyan, classrooms, and an office. “The old house will come down within six months,” Kaish said. “Utility lines have been routed around it.”
That house dates to 1913, formerly a residence, rehabilitation home, and a doctor’s office. In 1985, Anshei Shalom’s members relocated from a crowded storefront to this house. Today, the davening takes place in the main sanctuary and congregants enter the shul through a side door. The old house is a storage space that seems tiny for a shul of nearly 300 families. As with its sanctuary, this expansion will also have colorful windows and an attractive appearance.
The expansion of Anshei Shalom comes as the Jewish population of West Hempstead continues to grow, as young families seek affordable homes in a diverse community that is within a half hour of Central Queens. At this time, Congregation Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park is also expanding, and Bais Torah U‘Tefilah is preparing to relocate into a former catering hall across from its present location. Likewise, there is a sizable tent minyan that formed on Maple Street during this pandemic, and a house minyan on Cleveland Street for new residents living more than a ten minutes’ walk from the nearest shul.
Rabbi Soniker said that while the artwork for his expanded shul has not yet been selected, Anshei Shalom already has its most valuable assets in its members. “What makes it beautiful are the people who fill up the space – smiling children and happy families.”
By Sergey Kadinsky