(lubavitch.com/lns) It’s been a decade since Kew Gardens Anshe Sholom Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue, could justify opening its doors for Friday night services.
But on March 28th, the day a formal change took place with the renaming of the synagogue to Anshe Sholom Chabad, 100 locals showed up for a vibrant Kabbalat Shabbat service.
After years of a dwindling membership, the synagogue, a one-time affiliate of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, turned to Chabad in the area, with a proposal.
In the unique arrangement that developed, the synagogue agreed to change its constitution so that it now adheres to halakhah, while board members retain partial responsibility and purview over the synagogue’s finances.
“We worked on this for many long months,” Mr. Steven Sobelsohn, Executive Director of the synagogue, told Lubavitch.com.
The synagogue, a sprawling 7500 sq. foot two-story building with beautiful stained glass windows built in 1970, was once filled with activity. But with the changed demographics in Queens, it was steadily “losing membership to the point where there just wasn’t enough to continue a Conservative synagogue here,” says Sobelsohn, whose family was among its early members when Conservative Jews made up a majority of the Queens affiliated Jewish demographic.
Asked why a Conservative synagogue would choose to go with Chabad, Mr. Soblesohn said, “We found out that Chabad was willing to do a lot more than convert us to Orthodoxy and help us out a little. We knew that if Chabad will come in with someone dynamic, we’ll have a building that will be used again" as it was designed to be used.
Jerry Gaeta, President of the synagogue approached Rabbi Mordechai Z. Hecht, Director of Chabad of Forest Hills. After many meetings, over a period of eight months, a satisfactory arrangement was agreed upon.
“The institutional name has changed, the clergy has been replaced, and the services are being modified in accordance with halakhah and Orthodox tradition,” says Rabbi Hecht as he removed old Torah scrolls from the beautiful ark, for restoration.
The synagogue facilities will now serve as the local Chabad center, and, says Rabbi Hecht enthusiastically, “we could not have built a more suitable building.” With a sanctuary that seats 300, a social hall for 175, five classrooms, a commercial kitchen, a Beit Midrash which has already been outfitted as the Gutnick Jewish Library, “this is the most practical building for the activities we’ll be hosting here.”
Sobelsohn’s real concern, he admits, was about the synagogue’s core group. “Whenever you change rituals, there will always be some who won’t want it,” and they did lose some second tier members as a result. But the core group of officers and active members “have all remained steadfast," and many of them, he says with optimistim about the resulting agreement, have invested their time in working on this.
In the two weeks since its implementation the synagogue has already seen a revival, Sobelsohn observes. Indeed, the activity inside Anshe Sholom Chabad has gone from almost nil to a happily frenetic pace. “We’ve already received more than fifty reservations for the Passover Seder, we’re setting up classes and the excitement is tremendous,” Rabbi Hecht volunteers.
If the idea of a Conservative synagogue making the switch to Chabad seemed far-fetched at first, the will on the part of the synagogue’s board to see its building bubbling with Jewish activity, was strong enough to find a way and build a bridge across differences, for the benefit of this Jewish community.
Rabbi Hecht is gratified by the warm relationship he’s developed with the synagogue’s original leadership. “We both want the synagogue and Jewish Community Center to continue to serve as a comfortable home for all people in which to celebrate and explore all aspects of their Judaism—spiritually, intellectually and socially.”