Havurat Yisrael, the Forest Hills synagogue led by Rabbi David Algaze, celebrated its 40th anniversary at a Gala Dinner held on Sunday, December 12, at Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence. The Rabbi and his wife were honored for his founding of the synagogue and his long leadership. Honored also were four of the founding families, David & Ruth Better, Jack & Shulie Goldhaber, Bruce & Miriam Jacobs, and Stuart & Judy Rosen. These families were at the founding of the synagogue and continue to serve as leaders of the congregation.
The story of Havurat Yisrael is very exciting. On a cold night in the winter of 1981, a group of young people asked Rabbi Algaze to be their rabbi and declared the formation of a new synagogue in Forest Hills to be called Havurat Yisrael. The first service was on Purim and a gathering of over 400 people huddled together at the Forest Hills Jewish Center West to hear the Megillah read by their young treasurer, Jack Goldhaber. The group held services at the Sephardic synagogue on 108th Street until a young entrepreneur, Heskell Elias, invited the congregation to use the Continental Theatre on Austin Street. The aron kodesh was placed in front of the large movie screen, and the aroma of popcorn accompanied the singing of Adon Olam. It was comical that as the congregation exited the movie theater, people on line would ask them, “How was the movie?”
The first year had a nomadic existence until a visionary leader, Solomon Oliner a”h, saw the availability of the space previously occupied by a Buick car dealership on 70th Avenue. For many months, the synagogue advertised on top of its building: BUICK! Some called the synagogue Bene Buick. Havurat became the place to be in the area. Many innovative programs were introduced in Queens for the first time, including a Beginners’ Minyan, a Drop-In-and-Learn program in cooperation with Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, a successful singles program, and very creative programs such as a yearly Ski Shabbaton and a Summer Retreat at several camps. The Simchat Torah celebrations were a fixed feature in the area, attracting hundreds of people from many synagogues, and the dancing spilling out into the street and McDonald Park. On one occasion, the Mayor of the City joined the congregation dancing in the park.
The energetic leadership, the avid desire to learn, and the welcoming attitude of its members encouraged many people to join Havurat Yisrael. Important rabbis and political leaders would visit, and Rabbi Shlomo Goren zt”l would always pray in Havurat when he visited New York. A yeshivah and kollel with Rabbi Eliahu Ben Haim were started at the Bet Midrash of Havurat.
The synagogue remained a vibrant place until a building accident caused the city to order evacuation of the site, and the synagogue had a long exile over the next 15 years. In the summer of 2015, a new building was inaugurated on the original site, and Havurat Yisrael continues its innovative career of kiruv and learning under the dynamic leadership of its founding rabbi, Rav David Algaze.
At the dinner, speeches by the Journal co-chairs, Louis Ordentlich and Jerry Revich, highlighted the successful Journal campaign, while the honorees spoke about how the synagogue had affected their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren, some of whom were in attendance, as well. The joyous music and dancing capped a wonderful dinner that had been carefully planned by Rebbetzin Tamara Algaze.
Havurat has also become the center of a large group of Spanish-speaking people from Latin America who attend classes with the Rabbi, who is a native of Argentina himself. The site is called Portal al Judaismo, and it has a website and classes on YouTube.
Havurat Yisrael is located at 106-20 70th Avenue in Forest Hills. For information, call the office at 718-261-5500 or visit the website www.havurat.com.