New Jewish Community in Formation
A Conservative Center Catering to Present-Day Needs
To the continuing series in these pages on the patterns American Jews are evolving in their community living and religious expression, Israel Knox last month contributed his estimate of the current re-appraisal going on in Reform Judaism, in which a leading motif is that of return, in many aspects, to the practices of traditional Judaism. Here Morris Freedman essays a portrait of a community institution today typical (though of course not totally representative) of Conservative Judaism, a movement which began in large part as an effort to counter what many regarded as Reform’s “dilution” of traditional Judaism and excessive accommodation to the American environment. In Mr. Freedman’s sketch of the Hill-crest Jewish Center in Queens, New York City, it is hoped that readers may see concrete manifestations bearing on some of the widely mooted questions concerning American Jews today. Is Conservative Judaism, which has been called the Reform Judaism of East European Jews, following a course of adaptation of belief and practice to the scene around it—or to some aspects of it—similar to Reform? Are second-generation American Jews organizing community living patterns with an undue measure of separation from the general society?
In the current exodus from the Big City to suburbia, Queens, the most extensive of New York’s five boroughs, constitutes a midway spot. Sections near the East River, which divides it from Manhattan, look like Midwestern steel cities; others farther east are as rural as the commuters’ havens of Westchester and Connecticut. Flat stretches in the easternmost part of the borough, with their rows of half-finished small homes, resemble boom towns. However, the borough has all municipal facilities, although a few neighborhoods are still not joined into the sewer system; there are more than a few parklike streets within walking distance of the subway.
Unlike sections of Nassau and Suffolk counties, which lie to the east beyond the city’s limits, there is little of the frontier about Queens; except, perhaps, in one respect. For many” Jewish families, settling here seems to have involved a new adventure in Jewishness, expressing itself in formal affiliation, for the first time in their lives, with a Jewish community institution.
The most obvious manifestation of this phenomenon is the burgeoning of “community centers” throughout the borough, especially in the more recently developed areas. You cannot drive down a main street without seeing one. According to the Jewish Theological Seminary, more than fifty new Conservative establishments have gone up in Long Island since the end of the war.
On Queens Boulevard, the major thoroughfare leading from midtown Manhattan, one may see two impressive centers in quick succession: in Rego Park, one of the first fashionable sections of the apartment belt, is a great white building looking somewhat like a bank, with a huge Star of David on one blank wall and flanked by stores; a little farther east is a substantial building, recently completed, reminiscent of a modern college auditorium—plain, high, out-thrust front with rows of steps leading up—which houses the Forest Hills Jewish Center. On Union Turnpike, which begins near the middle of the borough and runs east, dividing it in half, are several centers, some within a few miles of each other. Merrick Boulevard, in the southern half, is similarly lined. Some centers near the Nassau County line consist of little more than the basement foundation and cement-block first floor, but they are already active. From time to time, signs are posted in front of the buildings announcing bazaars and dances; in late summer, billboards go up advertising High Holiday services and urging early purchase of tickets.
It is impossible for a Queens resident to remain long unaware of all this Jewish community activity. As a more than casually interested resident myself I recently decided to find out more about the center near my home.
The Hillcrest Jewish Center is on Union Turnpike, not far from Francis Lewis Boulevard, one of the main north-south roads in eastern Queens. The Center is a five-minute automobile ride from the last station on the Independent Subway. Of the thirteen hundred families who belong to Hillcrest, paying dues of $50 a year, the great majority live in one-family homes ranging in value from about $15,000 to over $50,000, with most falling between $25,000 and $30,000. (Single-family homes in the borough average around $12,000.) A small number of families live in two-family houses; almost none are apartment house tenants. Jamaica Estates, the main section of the Hillcrest community, is the largest area of wealth between Forest Hills and Great Neck. The majority of the houses here, though some are small mansions, are arrayed in neat rows, each exactly the same distance from the sidewalk, with very little space between, looking much alike: solid, squarish, of two stories, red brick with slate roofs, many built around the garage, a tree in front, all the lawns neatly barbered. Some heavily wooded and hilly streets are lined with sprawling Gothic castles and Southern mansions, cheek by jowl, looking like several college campuses squashed together. Most of the buildings were put up fifteen to twenty years ago. Jamaica Estates North, on the other side of Union Turnpike, has some homes as impressive as those in Jamaica Estates proper, but valued at several thousand dollars less because of the not-so-fashionable address and location; it also includes single-family homes joined together in block-long rows. But Holliswood Hills, a small area adjoining the Estates, is as woody and hilly as locations in Westchester, and the homes in it as individual and as elaborate. A few of those built since the war are reputed to have cost well over $100,000.
“It’s very important in understanding our character,” Dr. Israel Mowshowitz, the rabbi of the Center, said to me, “to realize that this is a congregation of home-owners. But even more important is the fact that these are their first homes—and probably their last. They don’t have the sense of being apartment dwellers who might move away any time. Our members feel that for the first time in their lives they have let roots down here.
“After Forest Hills, we are the biggest center in Long Island,” the rabbi went on. “We have, too, the reputation of being expensive, a ‘mink crowd’ we’ve been called. But this isn’t fair. I wouldn’t be rabbi of a community which discriminated against poor people. Not that we are underprivileged. We just don’t make a point of money here. We have strict rules that the public celebration following a Bar Mitzvah or Bas Mitzvah must limit itself to the barest essentials. Aside from the dues, all other payments are voluntary. We don’t even require a new member to help pay off for the building with an initiation fee of several hundred dollars, as many centers do.”
The largest group in the congregation consists of businessmen—manufacturers and wholesalers—although there are substantial numbers of lawyers, physicians (“over one hundred,” the rabbi estimated), accountants, and school administrators. U. S. Representative Samuel Rabin is a member of the Center, as is Sid Gordon, the former Giants and Braves star now with the Pirates. There are a good number of genuine millionaires, including a few Wall Street bankers. Most families came from Brooklyn and the Bronx; most had waited before leaving their apartments until they could afford to buy here; most have come since the war; most are American-born of immigrant parents.
The center was founded in 1939, in a store on Union Turnpike. That was the year the area was just beginning to be settled, the houses costing around $10,000, the equivalent then in the real estate market of perhaps $25,000 today. In 1942, with most of the homes occupied and the neighborhood already taking on its present overwhelmingly Jewish character, the Center moved to a new one-story building of red brick with a slate roof and a colonial façade on Kent Street This is still in use. It is around the comer from the present main building, separated from it by a row of stores. The main building, completed in 1950, is an edifice of two and a half stories whose massive squarishness is emphasized by the large blocks of white stone of which it is built. A wide expanse of steps leads up to a landing. This is covered by a projection jutting out from the flat roof, two stories up, and supported by four thin, square columns. The bronze-framed glass doors leading into the lobby have bronze handles in the shape of the tablets of the Ten Commandments, vertical rows of single Hebrew letters indicating the laws. Above the doors, set into the façade of the building and reaching up to the overhang, are five tile murals which, as one passes by in a car, present a pleasant blur of rich and soft colors accented by gold Hebrew lettering and flowing lines. A huge Star of David is raised up on the white stone of one wall, and a diagonal line runs out of the star to a lower corner. A bulletin board in front gives the names and addresses of the rabbi and cantor, and also the names of the next group of young men to be Bar Mitzvah. On one side of the building is a pork-products store, a cleaner, a dress shop with a canopy leading to the street, a bakery, and a candy store; none of these closes on the Sabbath. On the other block are a luncheonette, a store selling fruit, a fish market with displays of lobster and shrimp in the window, a Chinese restaurant, and a kosher butcher shop. On the other side of the building is an empty weed-covered lot on which the Center has been planning to begin an extension, and beyond the lot a lumberyard, a portion of whose land the Center owns. The main building cost three quarters of a million dollars, and it is estimated the new wing will cost about half a million. The money is being raised in a special drive.
Rabbi Mowshowitz, who came to the Center five years ago, is especially proud of its art. He took me outside to describe in detail the five murals, which were done by Anton Refregier.
“We chose Refregier, who is not Jewish, in a competition,” the rabbi said. “The architects of the main building, Glaberson and Klein, recommended him because of his experience as a muralist in public buildings, the Mayo Clinic, for example. The board here liked his work best. The choice was between him and an abstractionist. We heard some silly business about him and some trouble in San Francisco, but that didn’t bother us. His work has been in the best museums, and in Mexico City. We wanted only the best and were ready to pay as much as necessary to get it.”
The murals are vertical rectangles made up of individual small tiles. At the bottom of each is the Hebrew text in gold which inspired it. Each is a collection of symbols, the rabbi pointed out. In one, an array of the tools of common labor—a pickaxe, a shovel, a ball of thread, and the like—is topped by the ingredients of a Sabbath meal—roast chicken and challah, among other things. In another, a sword is being broken under a plowshare. In a third, a mailed fist is clutching a brutal-looking mace and ball next to a broken chain; above it a lamb is lying down with a lion, and above this are seen three plump doves of peace, floating in a tree.1
The central panel won a Hallmark Christmas card prize. It is entitled “The Fruitful Life” and consists of the Tablets of the Law underneath a prayer shawl, both at the foot of a stylized Persian Tree of Life bearing an abundance of fruit. The Long Island Press, in perhaps understandable confusion, announced that the Center had chosen its mural from a Christmas card.
“Notice how the themes all go upward,” the rabbi said to me as we stood on the steps. “My favorite panel is the last, on the eternity of the Jewish faith.” This one contains, in ascending order, a telescope; a cello; an open, triangular blank book; a burning temple; and fists reaching up. A brochure, issued on the occasion of the dedication of the murals, says it “symbolizes the indestructibility and the eternity of the Jewish faith and its divine precepts. It also represents the many contributions of the Jewish people to civilization despite the persecution which it was forced to endure throughout its history.” For all the rather special subject matter, the murals leave the impression of pretty, pleasant things, casually, almost naively graceful in line, undemanding, simple in coloring, rendered at a comfortable midpoint between extreme tradition and up-to-the-minute modernism.
Temple Israel, the Reform synagogue designed by Percival Goodman and recently completed nearby, has a mosaic mural on one side of its unusual pitched-roof building, the Tablets and a burning bush being represented in arresting colors—brilliant yellows and reds—and in a dynamic distortion of form. “What can you expect?” I heard a Hillcrest member remark about it. “You don’t spend money, you don’t get art. Their mural cost them only a few hundred dollars.”
Inside again, the rabbi led me to the synagogue, called “the chapel,” which occupies a small corner of the building. It seats two hundred and fifty persons. The handsome benches are in a light wood cushioned with foam rubber upholstered in red plastic. The floor, carpeted wall to wall, slopes up to the platform on which are two big lecterns in the same light wood. In these, microphones and speakers are hidden. Between them and at the rear is the ark, in which are the Torah scrolls. The ark’s doors are covered with an abstract mosaic in dark colors.
“I want you to notice,” the rabbi said to me in the hushed room, urging me to sit in the front row to get a better view, “how the eye is led upward. The famous artist Raymond Katz did them; his work is in all the great museums. We worked out the design together. He has done much synagogue work, and has exhibited at the Jewish Museum. I wanted the congregation to have something non-specific to study while at services, so that their imagination and response wouldn’t be limited. Notice also how the lion in the middle pulls both panels together.”
A stylized lion toward the bottom had his rump and waving tail on one door and his mane on the other. Here and there in the mosaic I caught fragments of the Star of David and what looked like waving flags. Above the lion were abstract suggestions of the Tablet of the Laws, and of rolled-up Torah scrolls. In the clouds toward the top was the Hebrew for “Truth.” Over the doors, the “eternal light” hung in a sleek brass cage.
The walnut-paneled wall to the right had small Stars of David cut out in it; the ceiling consisted of a huge dropped Star of David outlined in walnut with the inserts of amber glass. A rounded clerestory skylight was above this. “We want one day to replace the plain glass with stained glass. Like that vertical row of windows.” He pointed to a side wall. “There are six panes and I’d like each one to represent a Jewish holiday.”
The opposite wall, paneled in dark walnut squares, folds open to take in the auditorium, which can seat an additional five hundred persons for services, or two hundred seventy-five at tables; the wall is opened weekly for the Sabbath. “When the Center was designed,” the rabbi told me, “the members didn’t expect a large attendance for services. I tell them they poured their lack of faith into concrete. When we build the extension, we will enlarge the chapel with a balcony.” Actually, the chapel is more than adequate for the daily morning service, which rarely gathers more than thirty persons; even the Sunday morning service, which is followed by a lox-and-bagel breakfast, draws no more than a hundred. Except for the major holidays in the fall and spring, there is never an overflow. Tisha B’Av this summer gathered about 160 persons. (But as such attendance goes throughout the country, these figures are substantially above average.)
On Friday nights and Saturday mornings, however, several hundred persons usually are present. At these times, the services include Bar or Bas Mitzvahs, of which there are almost always three or four. It is not unusual for each boy or girl, in traditional fashion, to gather a hundred or more guests, the remotest twigs of the family tree being represented, as well as friends of the family, and even Gentile business associates. The ceremonies are almost always followed by catered “affairs,” which being private may cost up to several thousand dollars without violating the “sumptuary” restriction on the public celebration.
Over the doors on the inside are rows of names on bronze memorial plaques, and next to a few of these, little bulbs burn, turned on by the sexton, to mark the anniversary of death. Except for scheduled services, the doors of the chapel are kept locked.
“We want our place to become an art center, a Sistine Chapel for people to visit from all over the world,” the rabbi said to me in the lobby, calling attention to his reference with a smile, “and we are ready to spend money for the finest work we can get. Here, over the staircase, we’re going to have a mural of Jacob dreaming of the ladder to heaven. Refregier—you know, the man who did our outside murals—is going to do it.”
I happened to be present the morning, several days later, when Refregier, a thin, dapper, alert man of about fifty, came with his small sketch of the mural to show to the rabbi and to the president of the center, Mr. Gilbert Kanter, an attorney. It was a wide painting, with a large flower-like fire in front of a rock taking up most of the left third. Stretched across the rest of the canvas was a rather angular Jacob dressed in a brown cloak, half hidden by a rock, one arm with the, by now, inevitable clenched fist twisted over his expressionless face, eyes closed, bared head resting on a pile of rocks. Behind him was a ladder reaching into the sky on the horizon; twelve six-pointed stars, representing the tribes of Israel, were joined by lines, “to show unity,” the artist pointed out—he was planning to designate the tribes with little coats of arms; to the right of Jacob’s head was a crescent moon; in front of him was a stone and, bordering the painting, a representation of water.
The rabbi was worried by Jacob’s sleep seeming to be troubled. “It should suggest peace,” he said. After some more close study and talk, during which Refregier emphasized that he was not an abstractionist, he agreed to make the moon look less like the Crescent of Islam, to hide Jacob’s face somewhat, to cover his head, and to show the water more clearly; he balked at more extensive revisions which would upset the total design of the painting, like changing the size of the ladder or of the fire. He pointed out that the deep coloring was intended to harmonize with the color scheme of the lobby, the browns fitting in with the wood railing of the staircase, the dark grays and blues blending with the deep slate blue of the walls. After Refregier left, I asked the rabbi about the problem of representing a human figure in the Center. “It’s in the lobby, after all,” he said to me, “not in the chapel, and there is a rock in front of Jacob; and, anyway, we’re not going to see his whole face, as the artist promised.”
Although the building is scarcely used during the summer, all activity being practically suspended except for daily services, it is completely air-conditioned. “If we didn’t have it air-conditioned,” the rabbi explained, “our facilities would not be acceptable. First thing people ask is do we have air-conditioning.”
On the top floor, in addition to one or two offices and a storeroom housing office supplies and equipment, is a large, well-lit room. Originally intended as the library, it is now used by the nursery school and by the teen-age congregation, which numbers from twenty to fifty, for Saturday morning services. (The young people’s congregation was established, at least in part, to allow the older folks to conduct their own services with decorum.) Along one wall were miniature oak chairs and a bookcase with stacks of prayerbooks.
There is no library in the Center. A few books are in the rabbi’s study, and in a glass-enclosed case in the office of the educational director. The rabbi has his private collection at home.
On the main floor, in addition to the chapel, the lobby, and several offices, is the auditorium, which takes up most of the building. “This is the most active room in the building,” David I. Siegel, the executive director of the Center, a man with a somber air of efficiency, informed me while conducting me on a tour. “In addition to accommodating the overflow from services, we also do our catering here. Sometimes there may be four or five affairs on a weekend, Bas Mitzvahs Friday night, Bar Mitzvahs Saturday morning, a dinner, a wedding, a dance, a club meeting. We come close to resembling Madison Square Garden in making fast changes.” The room was perhaps the size of a basketball court, and two stories high. While I was there, long tables in two tiers were being prepared, with great lace cloths, and immense round tables with folded legs were being rolled out. “We have one official caterer,” M. Siegel said. “We get a percentage and we share the original cost of equipment.”
Mr. Siegel led me to the stage, which is an impressively professional-looking affair with balconies, a small grand piano, curving metal staircases, and an elaborate switchboard protected by a wire cage. “Nowadays,” Mr. Siegel said, “to run a synagogue you need much more than a shammes. Among other experts, you need an electrician, as you can see.” He pointed out various switches for the public-address and lighting systems. The Center also employs four porters, who help move tables and chairs; a superintendent, who has a two-room apartment on the premises; a handy man; and four office workers. The school has its own staff. Mr. Siegel’s job of executive director is a new post in center organization, designed to relieve the rabbi of administrative duties. Most large centers now have executive directors, and an association of them has recently been formed.
The level underneath the main one, half above and half below the ground, contains a cloak room for the catered affairs, a large reception room which may be partitioned by folding wooden doors, stainless steel kitchen facilities for the Center’s official caterer, a balcony overlooking the gymnasium below, and a bride’s room. “This is the room that often sells our facilities for a wedding,” Mr. Siegel said, pausing in front of a door in the dim, cavernous expanse. He opened it and switched on a fluorescent light. We were in a small room with thick, flower-embossed carpeting, pink-and-silver-papered walls, a pink brocade sofa, and a combined vanity and sink covered with pink formica and topped by a big, professional dressing-room mirror. A small closet held a toilet. “There’s a new center in Brooklyn in which corners have been cut on everything but the bride’s room. Theirs is probably the most elaborate bride’s room in the city. It’ll pay off, too.” Mr. Siegel explained that a substantial portion of any center’s income comes from fees for catered affairs, sometimes as much as $50,000 a year. (Next year’s budget to run Hillcrest will be $169,200; a deficit of up to $10,000 is expected.)
He led me to the kitchen, which had cavernous sinks reminiscent of those in army mess halls; arrays of the chrome accessories which have become indispensable at weddings, including several tiered punch bowls that work like those monumental water fountains in public parks, cascading liquid from upper to lower levels; a refrigerator, which had trays of chopped liver, giant strawberries, and ready-to-be-baked hors d’oeuvres; and another refrigerator, kept locked and containing meat, which could only be opened by the mashgiyach, the kashrut supervisor of the caterer.
The floor beneath this one had an actual basketball court, perhaps not as long as an official one, but seemingly wider; boys’ and girls’ shower and locker rooms; a workshop; several paint and lumber storage areas; a room for the heating and air-conditioning equipment, which was in the process of being made shipshape; and two classrooms. “We’ll be eliminating these classrooms, of course, when the new wing is finished,” he said. “We use the basketball court for the overflow on the High Holy Days, and for Oneg Shabbat on Friday nights. We have another rabbi and cantor for the Holy Days, alternating with our regular ones, here in the gym and upstairs.”
Seats sell for forty dollars in the chapel proper, twenty-five in the front of the auditorium, twenty in the rear, and fifteen downstairs. As many as seventeen hundred persons come during the High Holy Days, divided about equally between upstairs and downstairs. The rabbi told me that many more would probably attend but for the new custom of going up to the Catskill resorts for this period. Since tickets are sold only to congregation members, Hillcrest does not, like other centers, advertise its services. Last fall, for the first time, a separate service was held on the middle level, in the reception room, for teen-agers. Three hundred attended at three dollars a seat and many had to be turned away.
On the floor below the main one live the resident custodian and his wife. The kitchen of this apartment serves the whole Center for small meetings. “There’s no gathering,” Mr. Siegel said, “that can take place without Danish and coffee. The men’s club, the Hadassah chapter, all must have their refreshments, and they come from here. This is the only dairy kitchen in the Center.” The custodian’s family has separate arrangements for cooking and serving meat meals.
The Kent Street building, which was being painted during my visit, is devoted entirely to the educational and recreational program. It has a small lobby with several small offices to the left and right. The doors in the center open on the main room of the building, which runs its full width. There is a recessed stage at the other end, with an Ark and a permanently burning red light suspended over it, the Torah being used for services by the junior congregation (made up of those not yet in their teens). One blackboard had chalked on it a skull-and-bones. The floor was dusty bare wood; folding doors can divide the total area into five classrooms. A jukebox stands alongside the stage, and an upright piano is in a corner. Outside the building is the framework for a succah.
I talked about the educational program with Theodore Langbaum, who is the principal of a public elementary school in Bay-side, a section not far from the Center, and a former educational director of the Center.
“We have a variety of courses,” he told me. “Our most recent is the nursery class. Actually, though, most of the families have children in their teens, and don’t expect any more little ones. We have a strict rule in the center that no boy may be Bar Mitzvah unless he’s attended our school at least four years but, of course, this may be suspended in special cases. The same goes for girls. The full course is six years. We teach our students how to read Hebrew; some even learn to understand a little. We try to build Jewish self-esteem by giving accounts of the Jewish heroes of the past; we want them to feel positive and strong about their Jewish-ness, not weak. We teach no Yiddish. Our history concentrates on ancient rather than modern times, although we stress Zionist history.
“We teach Jewish customs and encourage the young people to run their own services. We want them to know the significance of their prayers, even if they don’t know the meaning of the words. The ethical values are important. We minimize the factual, emphasize the inspirational. Actually, we can’t do too much.” A brochure issued by the Center declares that the children will learn “to take part in the activities of the Jewish community; to contribute towards Jewish causes and institutions; to enjoy and appreciate Hebrew and Jewish literature, music and art; the harmony between Jewish and American ideals.” (Except for an informal stamp-selling campaign for trees in Israel, there are no organized children’s fund-raising drives.)
“Our teachers come to us from the Jewish Educational Committee,” Mr. Langbaum continued. “They must pass examinations for pedagogy and content. Our curriculum is established by the Committee. Our salary scale also follows the recommendation of the Committee. A beginning teacher will start at $2,100 for a maximum of twenty hours a week, and go up to $4,500. Rarely is the assignment more than fourteen hours. Most of our teachers hold down other teaching jobs. One of our best teachers is also at a yeshiva day school. We try to run like a public school, schedules, bells, tests, assemblies, diplomas. But some parents look on our function as exclusively preparation for Bar Mitzvah.” The pupils, a former teacher told me, actually do learn a good deal, and on a very high level for a congregational school.
The school has twelve full-time teachers in addition to the principal, and several part-time teachers, including one for music, and one for folk dancing. (One former Sunday school teacher said that Hillcrest was a good place to teach, the administration very decent, and the pupils “unusually nice kids.”) Some 800 students attend classes from two to four afternoons a week. The Center is now considering establishing a “Foundation School,” which would cover the first two years of the regular elementary curriculum and would be the first step toward an all-day parochial school. (Facilities would be provided in the new wing, which will have twelve class rooms, two nursery rooms, and a library, which, it is expected, will be run by a retired high school teacher.) A few students attend post-Bar Mitzvah classes in Hebrew. There is no Talmud study. A Sunday school is run only for those too young to attend regular weekly classes. The operation of the school costs the Center about $60,000 annually, a good portion of which comes from tuition fees. Children unable to pay, of whom there are a few, go free. Last year, the school finally joined the association run by the Jewish Education Committee, which supervises and maintains standards, but until the new classrooms are ready and a fulltime director appointed, it will not meet the Committee’s ideal requirements.
Outside the Kent Street building is a bulletin board that classifies the various groups for recreation purposes according to age. In each group the girls are younger than the boys.
“Our recreational program is fabulously successful,” the rabbi told me. “We have a Director of Youth Activities this year and more than ten group leaders. There is a Boy Scout troop, eleven Young Judea groups, an AZA, a BBG, a Junior Hadassah, a Senior League, and others, talent night, debates, a choir, and dances. We have an open-door policy; dues are nominal. Some youngsters belong here though their parents are members of other congregations. We draw young people from all over the borough and lately there has been some discussion about all of the boys and girls coming here whose families are not members.” I was told by a family in the community whom I happen to know that the issue has lately become somewhat acute with the girls and boys bringing to Center affairs their high school friends, some of whom are not Jewish. “We’re having some time trying to explain to them why they shouldn’t do this,” the father said to me. “They can’t see any point to becoming friendly with their classmates and then not being able to see them socially.”
There is a full-time athletic director, and extensive use is made of the huge gymnasium. The new wing is to have a swimming pool. Center softball and basketball teams have won championships in their leagues.
“We figure,” the rabbi told me, “that if we can get the young people here for one reason, the dances and the sports, they’ll start coming for religious reasons as well.”
The boys and girls seem to pick up traditional Jewish ritual enthusiastically. “We have mothers coming to us,” the rabbi said with pride, “asking for instruction on how to bless the candles Friday night. Their children have been bothering them.” The educational director told me that the teachers were instructed not to make any youngster feel embarrassed if his parents happen not to observe. “We try to let them know, if they feel anxious about their parents,” the rabbi told me, “that one can live as a Jew on many different levels.”
One morning, about a week after my first tour through the Center, I sat down with the rabbi in his small study to ask him what the rationale for all this was. Outside his window, a tiny woodpecker tapped away at a tree; outside the door in the corridor, a young boy’s voice was rehearsing in an irregular thin chant the Haftarah, corrected every so often by the deeper voice of the cantor. I was especially interested in discovering what it was that motivated the members to join the Center and why they seemed so devoted to it.
“The majority of our members,” the rabbi said, “never felt the pull of the synagogue before they moved here. Many never even belonged to one; of those that did, few were active. Of course, it’s the style to belong now, you make social contacts here in a new community, but there’s much more to explain the joining.
“I think the main thing is that they felt they had to work out a new modus vivendi because of their children. Let me tell you a cute story. Last year I was speaking to the congregation about their belonging. You forged a community out of the wilderness, I told them. Although not one of you was born in Hillcrest, all of you were reborn here, I said. You may be citizens of the United States technically, but citizenship can be only conferred by yourself. You’re a citizen when you feel you are.
“Before they came here, they were living in a void. Their souls went searching; they wanted a reason for living. Now they could satisfy their loneliness of heart. Here their unselfishness is touched by greatness; they are creating; they are leaving their imprints on the sands of time; they are touched by eternal values. In spite of all their grumbling, this is what they want. They discover the beauty of the service, the charm of traditional customs. When they were children they asked no questions of their parents; they were rebelling. Now, they find they have to try to answer the questions of their children regarding Jewishness, and that’s part of the reason why they finally send their children to the Center. As it works out, it is their children who now answer their questions.”
I asked the rabbi what his hopes were for the Center. “I’m a Jewish survivalist,” he said. “I want to keep alive the culture, tradition, and ancient ways of life, and train a new generation of Jews in self-satisfying, self-fulfilling values. I want to raise Jews who will appreciate the Bible and Bialik and Maimonides, and who will live as Jews.”
The Center was at one time very pro-Zionist, enclosing a Zionist Organization of America bill for membership with the annual bill for regular dues. However, the percentage of those who pay the ZOA bill has been decreasing, and at the last survey came to 40 per cent. Also, the Yom Kippur collection, which has gone in the past entirely to ZOA and for local youth work, now is shared as well with such organizations as the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University. The last appeal brought close to $10,000. (Separate dinners are held for the United Jewish Appeal, the last one raising nearly a quarter of a million dollars, and for the New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, which collected nearly $50, 000. Occasional breakfasts are sponsored for special causes like Hebrew University and the Palestine Economic Corporation. These are all official congregation affairs. In addition, there are drives by independent internal groups like the Center’s Hadassah chapter, which has the best fund-raising record on Long Island, the local Red Cross, and the voluntary health organizations—cancer, heart disease, polio, mental hygiene, etc.)
The rabbi came to the attention of the Center in 1949 when it invited him to speak at a dinner celebrating the anniversary of Israel, since he had been a delegate to the World Zionist Congress in Basle in 1946. His previous post was in Omaha, where he had been for six years. “I was very happy there,” he told me. He taught psychology at the Municipal University of Omaha—he has a doctorate in psychology from Duke; was president of the Urban League; was a Unesco delegate for that area; and founded the Mayor’s Committee on Human Relations, a fair employment practices group.
“When I was interviewed in Omaha by the directors of the two main synagogues, one Lithuanian and the other Russian, they asked me what I was. I told them that if the Russians liked me after my probation year was up, they’d call me a Russian, and if the Lithuanians liked me, they’d call me a Litvak, and, of course, vice versa. In the meanwhile, I told them I was the guest of both and I wouldn’t identify myself.”
Today, he will answer such a question directly. “I’m a Litvak,” he told me. “Here it makes no difference, and I am proud to say that after the year it didn’t make any difference there either.” He came to this country as a boy; stands six feet two; was graduated and ordained by Yeshiva University, class of 1937, where he played first board on the chess team; and lives with his wife, fifteen-year-old daughter, and eleven-year-old son in Jamaica Estates, a few blocks from the Center, in a house that comes with his position. A few summers ago the congregation gave him and his wife a trip to Israel as a Chanukah gift. He is one of the dozen or two highest paid men in the Conservative rabbinate. “Being an Orthodox rabbi with a degree from Yeshiva,” he told me, “has great advantages in a Conservative center. You can introduce modern adaptations without being suspect.”
When I accompanied him to a luncheonette a block away on Union Turnpike for coffee, he was greeted warmly by every passerby, each of whom, including the children, he knew by name. “We really are too big,” he said. “How can I hope to visit every sick person in the congregation, or really get to know the people and their problems? Perhaps forty or fifty visits have to be made a week.”
The Center now publishes a weekly bulletin, which, among other things, welcomes new members and exhorts old ones to keep a recruiting eye open. During the week of my visit, the rabbi was called away twice for funerals, and once was invited to officiate at a wedding in the Center by a family which did not belong to it. He was happy to oblige, asking only that the young couple come in to see him before the ceremony so that he could talk to them about the meaning of marriage. (A family planning to use the Center must engage the official caterer, but it may, with the permission of the rabbi, bring in its own rabbi.) The rabbi has very few problems to settle on doctrine or ritual. Complaints that the forms are either too strict or too free are minor and never pressed. Like most of the new Jewish centers in Queens, Hillcrest is Conservative, “leaning toward the traditional,” the rabbi qualified; “toward the Orthodox,” the president had put it when I talked with him. In any case, religious services follow the established Conservative pattern.
The rabbi’s sermons, as he put it, are inspirational. “I try to give them a human interest tinge,” he told me. “I ask myself, will what I say be helpful to some one, will it be a guide, will it provide a lift?” He gave me two examples. When former Vice President Alben Barkley visited the Center to address a Queens County Israeli Bond dinner, young people lined up by the hundreds to get his autograph. “That week,” the rabbi said, “I spoke of people’s urge to be touched by fame. I tied in this theme with Jewish Book Month and urged everyone to read. For in reading, I pointed out, one makes friends of famous people who are also servants and can’t talk back. David, Hosea, Maimonides. And one can have non-Jewish friends, too, great men like Socrates.” On the occasion of the dedication of the lobby mural, the rabbi elaborated a Midrash text which recounted how Jacob’s face on high was radiant, quite different from what it was below. “I spoke of the difference between what people are and what they ought to be. A dream, I said, is the fulfillment of what one ought to be.” Other sermons often have to do with raising funds for the new building.
I had asked Rabbi Mowshowitz at one point how typical Hillcrest was. He felt that, aside possibly from running more extravagant affairs because its congregants were more affluent, it fell into the same pattern visible in all of the new centers in Queens and Long Island. There wasn’t a new one on Long Island, he insisted, that didn’t, for example, have elaborate catering facilities. “And you know,” he added, “our new building will have no such facilities at all, although some members wanted them.” An official of the Jewish Theological Seminary advising new congregations confirmed the rabbi’s feeling that Hillcrest fell into a widespread pattern.
I had occasion to talk with another rabbi not long after I visited Hillcrest, one who had considerable knowledge of the growth of centers throughout the country. “The people who are behind the mushrooming centers,” he told me, not talking of Hillcrest specifically, which he happened not to know, “are often very anxious to get up their building. Instead of waiting another year, when they’ll have the extra money to buy the land on the corner, say, they’ll build at once in the middle of the block. The corner gets filled up quickly with stores that do a vigorous business on Friday evenings and all day Saturday.
“Sometimes they don’t even have the money to put up the building in the middle of the block. They won’t settle simply for a modest house of worship, say. So they in effect hock themselves to a caterer, practically build the vast structure for his use, and are happy to have a section in it for their own activities. They pay off the mortgage with catering proceeds, and sometimes even have a little left over to run synagogue affairs. They think they’ve done right by their Jewishness, and everyone is happy, especially the caterer. But this pattern is pretty much limited to the new communities in and around New York, probably because the tradition of elaborately catered weddings and Bar Mitzvahs has so firmly been established in this area.”
When I mentioned these comments to Rabbi Mowshowitz, he shrugged philosophically. “First, there is nothing that requires excluding catering or athletics from a synagogue center,” he said. “Isn’t it better that we should control these things? A wedding at Hillcrest is free of theatrics or photograph-taking; it is dignified, solemn, religious. In many ways the catering is a burden. We tolerate it as an accommodation to our members.”
“If you look at the current phenomenon historically,” another rabbi told me, a mellow man who heads an old congregation in a large Eastern city, “you can find a lot to explain it. These new centers, by and large, are sponsored by persons whose main experience with Jewish tradition and observance, if they had any at all, was very likely to have been in the store cheders in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Sometimes I think that the square boxes they put up now commemorate their origins, so to speak. Having become wealthy, they enlarge and shine up the tiny, grubby cube in which they used to prepare for Bar Mitzvah. However that is, you’ve got to admit that these centers are an improvement. They represent a striving to arrive, in Rockefeller Center terms, all marble and bronze, that is really touching. The catering is certainly more dignified, less commercial, than the kind of thing that went on in the lofts of Tremont and Pitkin Avenues, or in the basements of the manors off Eastern Parkway. After all, you can’t expect them to build on the model of the Touro Synagogue, which itself had its own tradition.
“Let’s be a bit realistic—how can one be a purist in these matters? If you’re going to have Jewishness of any sort in this country, you’ve got to start somewhere, preferably with familiar, easy-to-swallow things, even the near-pagan spectacles of Bar and Bas Mitzvah and operetta-like weddings, the forms of male and female Rotarianism, and the athletic competitions. I don’t say that what goes on in many centers—the country-club atmosphere and so on—is better than no Jewishness at all. Nothing of the sort; it may be worse. But it is the beginning toward revitalizing Jewishness, and maybe some day, when the offspring of the present members grow up, Jewishness everywhere in America will return to something of its seriousness and solemnity. You’ve got to keep remembering that in their varying ways these centers are directed fundamentally to the young people.”
I had been hearing repeatedly that the ruling impulse behind Hillcrest was the desire of economically newly arrived second-generation Jews to make sure that their children “grew up Jewish” and identified themselves with the community. But I still wondered if this “child-centeredness” was the whole story, or even its chief part. After all, much energy is expended on adult affairs.
One evening I talked with the couple I know who belong to the Center. They have been members now some four years, live in one of the older and more modest sections of Jamaica Estates, and have an eighteen-year-old boy and a thirteen-year-old girl. “We joined because of the kids,” the father told me. “No sense kidding ourselves.
“Our boy didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah: somehow it didn’t matter much to us or to him when we lived in Brooklyn. But the girl was Bas Mitzvah just a month ago. She wanted it very much. I guess she thought of it as a grand birthday party. All her friends were having it. My father, a real patriarch with stooped shoulders and a white beard, said he guessed it was a good thing for girls, too, to know they are Jewish. The Center here, you know, was one of the first to institute the Bas Mitzvah ceremony.
“This is all part of their social life. All their friends belong. Instead of meeting at the neighborhood movies, or ice-cream parlor, hanging out on the corner, or even in the basement playrooms of one another’s homes, they go to the Center.”
“Social life is the key for the grownups, too,” his wife broke in. “We ourselves don’t go to most of the affairs, the dinners and dances. For one thing, they’re quite expensive, on occasion as much as a hundred dollars a ticket, and they seem to attract the kind of people who gather prestige from being active in large organizations or attending fancy affairs. We were invited to be guests at one such dinner. I was the only woman there without a mink. Hadassah meetings are preceded by a fabulous fashion parade.” (When I asked the rabbi about this, he replied testily that neither his wife nor the president’s had minks, that women’s dressing up was a common habit, and that the Center’s Hadassah had been cited time and again for its efficient work.)
“There isn’t much of an adult education program,” she went on, “a speech now and then by some one like Max Lerner or Maurice Samuel, or maybe by a psychiatrist on mental health, or by the rabbi. But the Center is always crowded, the Jewish War Veterans, the men’s club, the Knights of Pythias, and the like.” Dr. Mordecai Kaplan was a more recent speaker, I learned. (The rabbi had expressed to me his great dissatisfaction with the adult education program. He hoped some day to improve it, but he was not very specific.)
“The fifty-dollar dues,” said the husband, “sort of forces you to feel part of the Center. Less, you’d forget; more, you mightn’t give. There are families who, with membership in several clubs, donations in drives, and so on, wind up contributing several thousand dollars a year. Sometimes neither they nor their kids have anything to do with the place except for occasions like Bar Mitzvahs. They just want to feel the Center is there. There are several families who obviously find great satisfaction, even fulfillment, at the religious services and in helping plan and carry out elaborate projects. All of their friends have the same interests; their real life seems rooted in the Center.
“And then there are the professional big wheels; of course you can’t do without their energy and money. They kid themselves by finding all sorts of reasons for their work, and these—like youth education, maintenance of Jewish life—are no doubt true; but the truest are their private needs for self-expression. Finding fulfillment in Center affairs, I suppose, is not unlike the activity in fraternal orders. It’s a matter of ‘belonging’ in a new setting geared to our times and the more American, the more modern way of doing things.
“I have one motivation for belonging to the Center, very vague, which I can’t put my finger on. Somehow, being a member is an expression of my Jewishness. For some reason, I feel it necessary to make this expression right now. Maybe it has something to do with wanting the kids to marry properly. But even when they’ll be on their own, I feel we’d continue to belong. Maybe it’s something as vague as owning a home in a community and wanting to feel it. We have occasional routine meetings of the civic association, but that’s all. Except for catered Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, the civic group is the only place where Jews and Gentiles meet, by the way.
“The Center is a handsome, modern building; it’s clean-cut, American, if you know what I mean; the place is efficient, and rather dignified. Why shouldn’t I belong? I can afford the $50. So it’s $50 more a year I pay in taxes for the privilege of living out here. And I’ll probably be contributing a good sum to the new building fund. After all, a swimming pool.
“Why did we join a Conservative center? Well, I’d feel as strange in an Orthodox synagogue as in a Catholic church. I think the kids get a better sense at a Conservative center of what it used to mean to me to be Jewish; it’s more homey. Anyway, their choice of belonging to something like this is a happier one than mine was.”
There is no doubt that American Jewish life will be shaped by the reaction of younger couples like these and their children to what places like Hillcrest have to offer. At the moment, the parents, the youngsters, and the rabbi seem well satisfied with the program there, whatever its makeshift character. Almost the chief impression I carried away with me was of its air of improvisation and its great fluidity. Educational and youth directors seem to come and go; organization and content of class and group work do not always conform to the spit-and-polish standards the national organizations are trying to set. But perhaps this is just what the Hillcrest public is buying right now—grandeur in the externals, undemanding informality and trial and error in substance.
It is clear, as one observes Hillcrest making its way, that the patterns for the future have by no means been fixed; and what will finally emerge may show only the thinnest connection with what we see today. At any rate, a close and sober look now may offer an opportunity for those deeply concerned to help shape those patterns before the mold hardens.
1 Refregier had been charged as late as 1953 in the U.S. House of Representatives with introducing “subversive” political implications into murals he had finished in 1949 in a San Francisco post office. He was an editor of the Communist New Masses, has continued as a contributor to Masses and Mainstream, its successor, and was listed by a Congressional committee as having been associated with numerous other front enterprises. Hillcrest was his first synagogue job. When I later mentioned some of this to the rabbi, he looked thoughtful for a moment. “Actually,” he said, “do you think it makes any difference?” A concerned observer of Jewish religious art in the United States remarked to me that the defiant tone of the murals seemed to him too much in the style of WPA art projects, and the lingering “liberal-progressive” tradition that too many have come to confuse with Jewish prophetism, the roots and emphasis of which are, of course, quite different.