A beautiful state-of-the-art pre-school has been opened in Maspeth this week and was named for Rebbetzin Pesha Leibowitz a”h of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim. The pre-school is in the Maspeth Jewish Center building, which was originally built in the 1920s. The original congregation dated back to 1910.
Rabbi Meir Glazer, Director of Operations of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim – Rabbinical Seminary of America, showed this writer an old shul ledger from the 1910s with the shul calendar and costs. The children and grandchildren of the congregation didn’t want the building torn down and a MacDonalds to take its place. They wanted the shul building to somehow live on, and now with the pre-school, the future is here, together with the past. The plaques and stained-glass windows of the shul adorn the hallway along with brand new bulletin boards awaiting the students’ amazing work.
A congregant of the former shul, Maxine Fisher, shared her memory. Her great-grandfather was the co-founder of the Maspeth Jewish Center, and her family was active in the shul for over 50 years, since 1926. “I have a very special memory of the Maspeth Jewish Center. We lived in the room above our family’s store – Fisher’s Men’s Shop – located directly next door to the shul. And I recall when I was still hardly more than a baby on a summer’s evening when the windows of both the shul and my bedroom were opened; I’d hear the men chanting the evening prayers. My first lullaby!”
Another former congregant shared her memories of the shul, Francine Van’t Slot:
Memories of the Maspeth Jewish Center…where do I even begin? I was named in the MJC, I had my bat Torah in the MJC – albeit on a Sunday and I wasn’t allowed on the bimah. I was, however, the first and, I believe, only girl to ever have a bat Torah there.
My brothers went to Talmud Torah there, had their bar mitzvahs there; I had my son’s pidyon ha’ben and bris milah there… There is so much of my life in those walls.
I have so many fond memories… The men dancing with the sifrei Torah up and down the aisle on Simchas Torah, with a joy that is indescribable. And me with my flag, marching proudly behind them.
Rabbi Schevelowitz zt”l, he was a mentch. There aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to describe how wonderful he was. He made everybody feel important. He always had time for everyone.
I went to yeshivah from kindergarten through eighth grade, and Rabbi Schevelowitz used to ask me what I was learning. Not just to be polite and make idle conversation, but because he really cared.
I remember one Yom Kippur when I was quite young. I must’ve been running up and down the aisles or wandering about. I was bored – the prayers were going on forever. Rabbi Schevelowitz handed me a machzor and asked me if I could find the Kiddush for Yom Kippur. Brilliant man – he kept me busy for quite some time. Eventually, I had to go up to him and tell him I couldn’t find it. And he smiled and asked me if I knew why that was. I didn’t. Still smiling, he reminded me that since Yom Kippur was a fast day, there was no Kiddush on Yom Kippur.
Then I just thought, “Ooh, he got me.” But now, as an adult, I can really appreciate that he didn’t reprimand me for wandering about; he simply preoccupied me.
Speaking of Yom Kippur, they used to auction off the aliyos as a way to raise funds for the synagogue. One woman, Henrietta Honig, used to always win N’ilah for my older brother.
Oh, that poor woman – there was a time that my dad used to smoke. My mother and brother, in an attempt to get him to quit, put something in one of his cigarettes that would cause it to explode. (I’m not sure what it was, I was too young.) There was an event in the synagogue, and Henrietta asked my dad for a cigarette. My dad held out his pack for her to take one. And wouldn’t you know, she grabbed the one that had been sabotaged. She took a few puffs, and then boom – it exploded. She was so angry, my dad was confused, and my mom and brother could barely contain their giggles.
Oh, but it was much more than just a synagogue. It was a community. My dad would go to shul every Saturday morning – and then of course there was the kiddush afterwards. The men would stay there a good hour. No one ever wanted to leave. My mom and I would look forward to when he came home. Over lunch, he would tell us about Rabbi Schevelowitz’s sermon, about who was there that day, and how they were doing, and what they were up to.
There was a Men’s Club, a Hadassah club, a Jewish War Veterans club. (The men were all war veterans.) And they would host breakfasts on Sunday mornings. I can’t remember the frequency – maybe it was once a month? And my friends and I would man the coat room. We weren’t paid, but we had a tips jar, and everyone would toss in a little something. And then afterwards, my friends and I would walk to Carvel and buy ourselves ice cream cones with our earnings.
They always had guest speakers at the breakfasts. Two stand out – it must’ve been shortly after the Nazi group wanted to march in Skokie, Illinois – there was a speaker explaining why it was important to allow the men the right to speak; and sometime after the Crown Heights riots, Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother Norman spoke to us about what had happened to Yankel, and how he (Norman) was trying to seek justice for him.
Rabbi Schevelowitz’s true reach and true goodness will never fully be known. In the 1960s, one of the congregant’s sons got lost in the rampant drugs and free love of that era. Fast forward 30 years to Rabbi Schevelowitz’s retirement party. This same guy, almost unrecognizable, walked in. No one had seen or heard from him in all that time. He shared how it was Rabbi Schevelowitz who had helped get him back on the right path.
We learned much later that, in the 1970s, Rabbi Schevelowitz would invite at-risk teens and young adults to his house for Shabbos. He would talk to them and coach them, and he successfully kept many of them on the straight and narrow.
After Rabbi Schevelowitz retired, his son took over as our rabbi. But he had a young family, and Maspeth was an aging community. He and his family moved to New Jersey, and we got a new rabbi – Rabbi Richtman. Rabbi Richtman tried valiantly to keep the MJC open. When there were no longer enough men for a minyan on Shabbos, he recruited in two yeshivah boys from Kew Gardens to stay over and help make the minyan. He tried and tried to keep the doors open, but unfortunately it was an aging community, and even with the two yeshivah bachurim, there came a time when they could not make a minyan any longer.
It was a very sad day when we had to close the doors at MJC. But now, baruch Hashem, RSA has infused new life into the building – and if buildings could smile, I know this one is.
As an aside, Rabbi Schevelowitz’s dad was one of the rabbis who marched up to the White House on Erev Yom Kippur in 1943 (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/when-the-rabbis-marched-on-washington).
In 2017, Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim took over the building, and in 2021 they were awarded a city contract to establish a 3-K pre-school. Until the pre-school took over, the building had been very quiet for quite a few years, awaiting its rebirth.
Baruch Hashem, there is new life in the building now. Mrs. Yosefa Glazer, Pre-school Director, brings ten years of experience running day care, and Mrs. Aviva Baumser, 3-K morah, also brings ten years of pre-school experience.
“We hired a dream team of experienced early-childhood professionals, and the design of the school was with the children in mind,” Rabbi Meir Glazer shared. This shul was part of the history of the Jewish community, and we wanted to integrate the old with the new. Most of the students come from families of the Chofetz Chaim kollel. We decided to name the pre-school after Rebbetzin Pesha Leibowitz a”h, who was always concerned about the kids in the kollel. The program includes a two-year-old program and a three-year-old program.
Mrs. Glazer shared that they create individualized goals for each child according to his or her level and needs. Goals include teaching social skills such as taking turns, having good manners, and learning how to interact with peers. “Every moment is a teaching moment, “Mrs. Glazer said. Today at lunch, she cut the cheese pieces into rectangles and triangles, and children learned the shape names as they chose the piece they wanted. She explained that it’s a very hands-on program. When a child reaches a level in puzzle-making, then we move them to the next level.
“We teach them to appreciate Hashem’s world.” The students notice things in nature. She noted that they also help children conquer fears like fear of bugs or bumble bees. Of course, there is emphasis on yamim tovim and Jewish values. There is positive reinforcement when a child chooses a higher-level choice. We praise him, so he wants to strive for that result. Teachers name positive acts and find adjectives to promote those behaviors. “You are responsible” or “you are independent” or “you know how to share” or “you did that with such z’rizus” are all examples of this naming. They use vocabulary that the children will then learn to use.
Also, they stress naming feelings and teaching about emotions. Children’s feelings are validated. “Our biggest nachas, “Mrs. Glazer shared, “is when children use the words about peers or teachers.“ For example, “Morah, you are so independent.”
Safety is a priority, and we want parents to have peace of mind when they send their children to us, she said. The pre-school is a state-of-the-art facility with every kind of toy teaching every skill. There is a wide, grassy, open, outdoor play area with lots of fun play equipment. There is also a lovely park nearby.
Music, movement, and exercise are emphasized. They also do arts and crafts every day.
Morah Baumser explained the three-year-old curriculum, which is based on the newest “3-K Creative Curriculum.” Every unit of study incorporates children’s interests, and daily living skills are included. There is a focus question each day, and the whole day’s lessons are geared to that question.
They run a center-based classroom with a block area, library, dramatic lay, science, manipulatives, art center, and writing center – the goal is to engage the children. They learn through play.
The school day is 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. School provides breakfast, lunch, and snacks.
When asked to describe the pre-school, Rabbi Glazer shared, “Warmth, love, and attention – and peace of mind for the parents.”
Mrs. Glazer shared how she had worked as a court stenographer for over 20 years until she heard yet another story of children mistreated by a charming but duplicitous babysitter. She resolved to create an institution where children could be nurtured and cared for in a professional manner, by people who love them as their own. The community wishes them much brachah and success with Ateres Pesha.
By Susie Garber