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Oldest temple in Queens gets $1.6M facelift

The wooden edifice stuck out like a sore thumb.
With its crumbling white paint, the synagogue – where a small group of Russian congregants continue to pray week after week – towers over a small block of row houses in Queens.
But few would know it’s the oldest active synagogue in Queens.
This year, the Congregation Tifereth Israel synagogue in Corona celebrated its 100th year as a welcoming space for devoted Jewish congregants. Fighting off decay and wear and tear, the wooden religious relic stands today as one of New York City’s historical landmarks.
And with that designation, there’s a guarantee that the synagogue will be around for years to come.
“Our city does treasure our buildings. This one is full of history,” said Helen Marshall, Queens Borough President.
With a total of $1.6 million in funding from city and state agencies and philanthropic organizations, the building will be restored close to its original state when it first opened in 1911.
A group of Bukharian Jews from the former Soviet Union began to worship at the synagogue in 1996 and began efforts to save the city relic from demolition. Rabbi Amnum Khaimov used to hold a congregation out of a basement in Brooklyn, but one of his members suggested they take their worship to the synagogue in Corona.
“When we entered for the first time in the synagogue – you feel the sprit, you feel the holiness,” remembered Esther Khaimov with a smile.
From then on, the new congregants aggressively looked to rejuvenate the synagogue’s religious and historical aesthetics.
In 1999, the Queens Historical Society granted the synagogue with Queensmark status for its architectural and historical significance, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.
The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission sealed the building’s fate in 2008 when it granted it landmark status, “which basically saved the building from being torn down,” said Jim Driscoll, vice president of history at the Queens Historical Society.
The first patrons of the synagogue were Jewish immigrants who worked in sweatshops in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As transportation developed in the early twentieth century, the immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia looked to escape the overcrowded tenements of the Lower East Side for one of the suburbs that developed in Queens, according to the synagogue’s designation report from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The working class immigrants came to Corona to settle there and work in one of the many factories that were brought from Manhattan. The synagogue’s architectural style was modeled from their former homes in the Lower East Side, according to the report.
“It looks more like a Lower East Side building than a Corona building,” Driscoll said.
Estee Lauder, the famous cosmetics pioneer who grew up in Corona, used to patronize the synagogue with her parents. The family owned a small hardware store about two blocks away from the synagogue, according to the report.
But as the demographics of the community changed and Corona’s Jewish congregation began to dwindle in the 1960’s, the synagogue lost many of its worshippers. Throughout the latter half of the century, only a small group of the synagogue’s original patrons continued to worship there. Soon, the building fell into a state of disrepair.
Rabbi Khaimov and his congregation moved into the building in the mid-1990’s and helped save it from being ignored.
The New York Landmarks Conservancy also aided the small congregation with grants to begin the synagogue’s restoration efforts, which are now guaranteed with its designation as a New York City landmark.
Khaimov remembered when her husband and his congregants from Russia saw the synagogue for the first time – they had never seen a synagogue like it.
“It was just treasure,” she said.

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