Group puts together Jewish heritage trail

By Adam Kramer

What do Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Arlo Guthrie and Burt Bacharach have in common? They were musicians and Jews who lived in Queens.

Jews have played a major role in defining, shaping and influencing the character of Queens and now with the help of longtime borough resident and historian, Jeff Gottlieb, many of the important Jewish sites have been laid out in the Queens Jewish Heritage Trail.

Gottlieb, who is president of the Central Queens Historical Association, acting on a request by Howard Teich, of the Jewish Community Relations Council, has picked 30 sites of Jewish interest throughout the borough.

“We decided to do the tours because there is so much Jewish culture and history that could be lost as people pass away,” Gottlieb said. “It is good for the borough’s Jewish people to know that they have a history.”

Queens’ Jewish history, he said, did not start in the 1950s; Jews have been in Queens since the turn of the century. There once were thriving Jewish communities in Springfield Gardens, Jamaica, Richmond Hill and Astoria, not just in northeast Queens.

“At one time there were Jews in Laurelton,” he said. “They go back to the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s; we shouldn’t lose the traditions.”

A Jewish presence in the Rockaways — both Far Rockaway and the peninsula — began in the 1890s and continues today, he said. Recently site #26 on the trail, Derech Emunoh Synagogue, was gutted by a fire and then demolished by the city.

The congregation has put up trailers on the site so the members can pray. Even though it is a small congregation, Gottlieb pointed out, they are trying to rebuild. The temple “doesn’t give up,” and members are using “sweat equity to maintain a presence in the city.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council asked people in all of the five boroughs to put together a tour, and Queens was the only one to respond. In addition to the tours, Gottlieb wants to save the borough’s Jewish history by starting a repository for photos, pictures, correspondences and newspaper clippings that capture the Jews of Queens.

Getting historical status for some of the temples and synagogues in the borough is another goal of Gottlieb’s. He said he is in the final stages — about two months away — of having New York state give a Corona temple historical designation.

He also plans to build a web site of the trail and other important Jewish historical sites in Queens, which will capture the borough’s Jewish traditions and history.

In an effort to show a mix of Jewish history in the borough and not just temples or cemeteries, the 30 sites include Simon and Garfunkel’s family homes right across the street from each other in Kew Gardens and Guthrie’s home in Howard Beach.

The fans of the knock-down drag-out fun of Jerry Springer can visit his boyhood home at 97-07 63rd St. in Rego Park. His parents, who survived the Holocaust, immigrated to Queens from London.

Those who remember Yiddish Theater and the role it played in shaping New York City can visit graves of some of the Yiddish Theater greats buried at the Mount Hebron Cemetery in Flushing. Some of the more than 10 actors buried in the cemetery are Menasha Skulnik (1892-1970), Bertha Kalish Spachner (d. 1939) and Molly Picon Kalish (1898-1992).

Some of the many temples and synagogues throughout Queens on the trail are the Free Synagogue of Flushing, with its classical design and ornate windows; The Jamaica Jewish Center in Briarwood, which now is the Gateway to Health and Sciences High School; and The Rosedale Jewish Center, which is one of the only Jewish institutions left in southeast Queens.

“Jews didn’t just start in Forest Hills in 1951,” Gottlieb said. “They have been in Queens since the Civil War era. It is positive for the boroughs young Jewish population to know about their Jewish heritage.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at [email protected] or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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