Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Chanukah was often used by shuls and Jewish organizations for dedication dinners, fitting with the holiday’s celebration of the Beis HaMikdash being rededicated so many centuries ago. A groundbreaking, grand opening, sefer Torah dedications, and completion of mortgage payments, are documented in detail by Jewish and secular media, along with journals published by the shuls.
But when a synagogue cannot maintain a minyan and is forced to close, there is very little documentation on when the final prayers took place, who served as the last rabbi and president, and what happened to the sifrei Torah, siddurim, journals, newsletters, and memorial plaques.
At the Bronx Museum of the Arts, there is a ceremonial brass shovel with the date 11-15-59 inscribed on it. It commemorates the groundbreaking of an ambitious $750,000 shul. The ceremony was attended by Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr., and it was reported in The New York Times. Three years later, the reporter returned to witness Governor Nelson Rockefeller at the dedication of the grandiose synagogue and community center.
But as the Jewish population of the Bronx declined, there is no historical record of when the Young Israel of the Concourse had its last bar mitzvah, annual dinner, or minyan. The story picks up in 1982, when the city acquired the vacant shul for the art museum.
Closer to home, the former Utopia Jewish Center is now Ganeinu Academy, a preschool affiliated with the Jewish Institute of Queens.
“It closed in the spring of 2019. The demographics of the neighborhood was such that it was not possible to maintain neither a weekday minyan, nor on Shabbos,” said Rabbi Yonason Hirtz, who served as the last rav of the Utopia Jewish Center.
The story of this shul speaks of changes in the Jewish communal landscape of Fresh Meadows. It was built in 1954 as a Conservative congregation. By the turn of the millennium, many Conservative synagogues were closing or merging, as members moved to other places, and their children also either moved on, joined other synagogues, or assimilated. Recognizing the influx of Orthodox Jews in the neighborhood, the Utopia Jewish Center welcomed an Orthodox minyan around 2001, and within a decade, the microphone was removed and a mechitzah was installed in the sanctuary.
With the cost of housing in Queens rising beyond the means of many young Orthodox families, membership in shuls has been declining and aging, resulting in difficult decisions on their future. For the Utopia Jewish Center, the board sought to preserve its role as a place of Jewish learning while preserving elements of its history. “We paid the new owner to preserve the memorial boards in place,” said former shul president Jay Goldberg. “The board then met to decide how to distribute its assets and money, which were then sent to a judge for approval.”
Goldberg said that there was little acrimony at the meeting, but in other defunct synagogues, disagreements on whether to close down and how to disburse the proceeds have led to lawsuits between members.
“The sifrei Torah belonged to individuals and were returned to them. Many of the s’farim were very old and pasul, and one sefer Torah went to the IDF,” said Rabbi Hirtz, who now serves as the rav of the nearby Torah Center of Hillcrest. “It was decided that the shul should only be sold to a Torah institution. That’s how it became Ganeinu.”
Goldberg noted that Utopia Jewish Center could have received a higher price by selling its building to a public school, but the shul wanted the building to continue serving a Jewish purpose.
This story is similar to Canarsie, where former shuls were repurposed as chareidi yeshivos whose students are bused in from Boro Park. If Jews return to Canarsie, these schools can again welcome mispallelim on Shabbos.
Shimi Pelman spoke of the Old Broadway Synagogue in Manhattan as one such example, where students from Columbia University kept the minyan functioning when Harlem was at its nadir. As the neighborhood gentrified, young Jews who settled in Harlem had a shul waiting for them. He then spoke of his efforts to preserve a shul in downtown Flushing with staff from Union Plaza Care Center being counted, and his son Chananya leining the Megillah.
“B’nai Abraham began in the early sixties when Flushing was a mixed neighborhood,” said Pelman, who serves as the CEO of Union Plaza, which stands next to the former shul. “I davened there, and when the shul closed, the minyan moved inside Union Plaza. By 2010, the minyan was gone, and the rabbi moved to Boro Park.”
S’farim from this shul were donated to Kissena Jewish Center, the last Orthodox shul in Flushing. Pelman does not know if the shul had any journals at the time of its closing. “Its history was remembered by Rabbi Hersh Meir Lichtig. When he died two years ago, its history went with him.”
Pelman noted that as he drives through East New York, there are dozens of former shuls to be seen. Some have detailed histories while others do not appear in any books or newspapers. Looking at the Utopia Jewish Center, perhaps decades from now a passerby would ask about this former shul. Where can one find its history? What events took place there? While it is still possible to collect its written and oral history, it should be done.
By Sergey Kadinsky