By Ayala Ben-Yehuda
The demolition of a building full of memories is not usually cause for celebration, but on Sunday the Havurat Yisrael congregation of Forest Hills welcomed the razing of their old headquarters as an opportunity to build the synagogue of their dreams.
The diverse Orthodox congregation of about 150 members has been renting a house on 70th Road and using a nearby yeshiva for religious services since 1998, when its small brick building at 106-20 70th Ave. was badly damaged by construction on the site of a former Bukharian temple next door.
“We want to build here a place that will inspire people,” said Rabbi David Algaze, the synagogue's spiritual leader, at an outdoor ceremony in front of the old building attended by U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Kew Gardens), state Assemblyman Michael Cohen (D-Forest Hills), Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills) and Councilman Jim Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), all of whom represent heavily Jewish districts.
Plans for the two-story building, to be called the Center for Jewish Life, include rooms for prayer, Hebrew study, educational outreach and social events.
Havurat Yisrael received a settlement of several hundred thousand dollars for damage to its former building and has secured an additional $1 million in pledges from congregation members for the new construction, said Dr. David Sosnowik, fund-raising chairman for the synagogue.
Steve Katz, Havurat Yisrael's vice president of communications, said interior demolition and asbestos removal had already begun, with the exterior set to come down within a week.
Bids will go out as soon as plans are finalized, with a projected opening in the spring of 2004, said Sosnowik, who hoped to raise at least a half million dollars more in donations to build a centrally located facility just steps away from the Austin Street shopping strip.
“We are so excited for this spot to come alive again,” said 20-year congregation member Neva Goldstein.
Havurat Yisrael means “society of Israel” in Hebrew, but “havurat” is closely related to another Hebrew word for “friendship.”
The 21-year-old congregation prides itself on maintaining an open-door policy of accepting anyone who wishes to study Judaism regardless of ethnic background or level of observance.
“This has been the greatest formula for our success,” said Algaze, who is from Argentina.
The group at Sunday's ceremony was indeed diverse, with one woman dressed in a knee-length skirt and platform shoes and another man in a cowboy hat and boots, attire quite different from the modest dress of most Orthodox Jews.
The congregation serves Jews of both Arab and European descent, and includes among its members Russians, Israelis, at least one Latin American woman and a Korean-American convert.
“I had never been in a synagogue in my life before I came here,” said Susan Kim, whose Hebrew name is Rachel Bachar.
“With people's warmth and acceptance, it all came together in a beautiful way,” she said.
Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 146.