The service ends with Gafni’s bold voice benching Havdalah. Congregants prepare for a new week filled with pride in this unique shul that has a history like few others.
Yes, it is your father’s synagogue, and it had just observed its 70th anniversary.
The liturgy, prayer books, and services at Congregation Machane Chodosh in Forest Hills, Queens, hearken to the Orthodoxy of an earlier generation. A professional cantor leads the services every Shabbat, as the congregants follow using their Birnbaum siddurim.
In the women’s section, doilies and hats still outnumber wigs. On the other side of the mechitza, one sees only a handful of the black hats that have become standard in many Orthodox circles.
“You learn a lot from these people,” said Shoshana Glass, 32, a young face in a mostly elderly population. Glass considers the median age of the congregants a plus. “I am there for a purpose, helping and visiting them.”
“They’re accepting of people,” said congregant Barry Schnall. “They don’t judge.” At 49, he is also on the younger side of the age average. “You can be friends with older people. They have more character.”
Rabbi Manfred Gans
Any member over age 80 has a story of survival to tell. “Many of our members are survivors,” said Rabbi Manfred Gans. The city, in fact, commemorated them with a street corner sign pointing directly at the shul.
Founded in late 1939 as a landsmanshaft of recent German Jewish immigrants in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, the synagogue took the name Machane Chodosh, or “New Camp,” reflecting its new American home.
The congregation spent its first 19 years renting out space within existing local synagogues. Like any teenager, the maturing shul eventually moved into its own home, two blocks from Ebbets Field.
By the time the shul opened its new building, however, the longtime Dodgers ballpark was in the process of being demolished, and that section of Brooklyn was facing a gradual slide into urban decay.
Some of the members moved to Forest Hills, and Rabbi Gans proposed relocating the shul in Queens. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, the membership was reduced to a hardy handful as the crime rate skyrocketed.
By 1977 it had become clear that Machane Chodosh had no future in its Brooklyn neighborhood. The aron kodesh, stained glass windows, and memorial plaques were removed for safekeeping, and the sanctuary became a Haitian church.
“We were a kehillah without a synagogue,” said Rabbi Gans.
They had seen it before. Many members of the congregation had experienced Kristallnacht, concentration camps, and the battlefield. They were determined to keep the synagogue alive in a more stable neighborhood. Ground was broken in Forest Hills in March 1979.
“Our shul did something which only a few shuls could accomplish,” said Gans.
The home was new, but the services remained true to tradition.
While many Orthodox synagogues feature chazzanut during the high holidays, cantor Joel Gafni, 34, leads the congregation every Shabbat at Machane Chodosh.
“My first time, I was surprised,” said Gafni. “Such a small shul.”
It took three auditions before Gafni was selected. It may not look like a “choral synagogue,” but the cantor’s schedule is a busy one. “It was the best of possibilities,” he said. “A full-time position in New York, the center of the world.”
Rabbi Gans, the mora d’asra of the synagogue for 50 years, is an integral part of its storied history. He observed his 85th birthday in April, and there are no signs of retiring.
As the shul’s founders aged and passed on, Rabbi Gans took measures to welcome new immigrants to the synagogue. In some ways, the new membership hearkens to an earlier period. Most of the students in the synagogue’s Talmud Torah attend public school while taking Sunday classes at the synagogue.
“They are on the fringes of Jewish society,” said Talmud Torah director Richard Schneider. “If they don’t get a love of Judaism now, they’ll assimilate.” Schneider reactivated the Talmud Torah in 1997, with a class of two boys. It has since ballooned to over 100 students.
(On a personal note, it was at Machane Chodosh that I learned to read Hebrew and lain the weekly parsha. It was also where I learned to appreciate a timeless Orthodoxy personified by a rabbi who reads several newspapers a day, is well-versed in classical music, diligently calls any member who is ill, and delivers memorable sermons.)
Each week as Shabbat comes to a close, congregants recite Psalm 144 in a melody that member Gary Jacoby calls the “Yekkie national anthem.” The congregation slowly whispers through the last pages of the motzei Shabbat Maariv. Nobody dares to whisper about sports, business, or politics. It is an inspiring sight.