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Jews & Judaism In Queens

Oct 25, 2010 at 08:53 pm by mikewood

Judaism in Queens

The Free Synagogue Of Flushing - Judaism In Queens

rabbi michael weisserContinued / Flushing / Queens Buzz. Rabbi Michael Weisser grew up in Connecticut, spent most of his adulthood in Nebraska, and in the fall of 2008 he returned to the East Coast and became the rabbi of the Free Synagogue Of Flushing.

This is an aside, but Rabbi Weisser has shown considerable interest throughout his career in interfaith councils and forums. While I was interviewing Michael, he told me about the upcoming Queens Unity Walk which is an interfaith sidewalk parade and event. Rabbi Weisser is shown in the photo to your right standing at the head of the Free Synagogue of Flushing in Queens.

Queens Unity Walk – Interfaith Parade In Queens

Rabbi Weisser is one of the founders of the Queens Unity Walk, which is in its second year. This year the walk was held on Sunday, October 24th in Flushing and began at 1 pm. The walk started at the Sikh Temple and then traveled to the following places of worship in Flushing: the AME Macedonia Church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation Of Queens, the Syed Jamaluddin Afghan Mosque, the Swami Narayan Temple, the Won Buddhist Temple and the Free Synagogue of Flushing.

Different Faiths – One Planet, One Power & One People

ark of the covenant judaismThe intent of the parade is to make people more aware of the tenets of other faiths, as well as to provide people of differing religions an opportunity to mingle and get to know one another. I have interviewed quite a number of people of faith in the borough over the past year. During this time I was struck by the deep respect shared by religious persons for one another’s faiths, even though their belief systems differ from one another. Many, if not most, of the faithful people in Queens that I have met, ventured to say that we are likely all worshipping the same god, even though the approaches taken toward worship are different. But I digress …

free synagogue of flushingFree Synagogue In Flushing – Landmark Building

The Free Synagogue in Flushing was established in 1927 by Rabbi Stephen Wise who had immigrated from Budapest, Hungary. Rabbi Weisser and I didn’t have time to cover a lot of the intervening history of the synagogue, except for the recent past. In October 2009 the Free Synagogue Of Flushing became landmarked and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The front of the Free Synagogue of Flushing is shown in the photo to your right.

Free Synagogue Of Flushing - Neighborhood Demographics

Flushing was an Italian and Jewish neighborhood throughout the middle of the 20th century. In the period from the late 1970’s to the early 1990’s, a wave of South Korean immigrants began settling here. As the Koreans began buying homes, the Italians and Jews migrated out to Long Island.

In the 1990’s and into the 21st century, the Chinese began immigrating into Flushing. Like the Koreans had done earlier, they started buying homes as the Koreans began migrating north and east of the Flushing neighborhood, while remaining in Queens County. It is believed [but not yet confirmed], that in the last census the Chinese population in Flushing surpassed the Chinese population in Chinatown in Manhattan. This would make Flushing the largest Chinese community outside of China.

Judaism In Queens – The Free Synagogue Of Flushing

synagogues in queensAs a result of these demographic changes the Jewish community in Flushing has dwindled. The synagogue membership has fallen to about 120 families, some of whom come from nearby neighborhoods. The photo to your left shows the main altar of the Free Synagogue of Flushing.

Creating Programs To Develop Community

When Rabbi Weisser assumed the rabbi role here, he set about to develop programs to help attract and build up the Jewish community at the Free Synagogue in Flushing. Today the synagogue offers a selection of programs covering topics such as Tai Chi, the Bible as history, the Jews role in shaping Hollywood and meditation classes. The rabbi informed me that not all programs take root, but over time many of them have begun to attract a following. He was also quick to inform me that these classes are also open to the general public [some are free and some have a suggested donation].

Judaism In Queens – The Jewish Faith

ten commandments synagogues in queensJudaism relies on four bodies of sacred texts: 1) the ten commandments as delivered by Moses, 2) the Torah which are the scrolls containing additional information passed down by Moses, 3) the Mishnah which is an early interpretation and commentary of the Torah and 4) the Talmud which is a combination of Misha and Gemara [Gemara is a second set of interpretations and commentaries of the Torah]. In the photo to your right are the ten commandments which are built into the back of the main altar of the Free Synagogue in Flushing.

torahs in queens nyBased on my understanding, encompassed in the above works there is a mix of religion, law, folklore, poetry, mythology, culture and festivals. I was informed that over the years the Judaism has survived, because the interpretations and commentary enabled subsequent generations to apply the ethics inherent in the texts to new situations. In the photo to your left is the encased Torah which is on a number of scrolls.


Judaism In Queens – Organizational Structure

Judaism does not have any central governing authority like most Christian religions [for example the Pope in Catholicism or the Archbishop in Greek Orthodox Christianity]. One becomes a rabbi by studying at an accredited seminary and completing years of practice and training. Then, through a network of synagogues and rabbis, one finds an opening for work within a community.

Judaism In Queens – Marriage & Divorce

Rabbis, like Episcopal ministers, are allowed to marry and have families. And like Episcopal priests they are also allowed to divorce. In the Orthodox line of the Judaic tradition there are strict guidelines regarding the process for divorce, but therein it is also allowed. Judaism, like most faiths, has a conservative or orthdox branch of the faith. The Free Synagogue of Flushing is a reformed synagogue.

Worshipping Icons – Judaism In Queens

stained glass windows synagogue flushing queensWith respect to worshipping icons Judaism is similar to Islam, but differs from Christianity and Hinduism. In Judaism members are admonished against worshipping icons. This directive was handed down from Moses and as mentioned, also adopted by Islam. Hence in Islamic mosques one only sees elaborate geometrical patterns and designs. While in the Free Synagogue Of Flushing I did notice human figures, animals and other representations, but these were in the stained glass windows to tell a story, but not to worship.

stained glass window of noah's arkIn Christianity icons are used in many situations. The crucifix of Jesus Christ hanging from the cross is the predominant symbol, but there are representations of the Mother Mary, the apostles and saints. Iconic symbolism is important in Christianity, and is representational of a wide range of stories [as in Judaism] but also through saints, can be used to summon divine help. For example one prays to St Anthony for help in finding something.

Like Christianity, Hinduism uses icons as representations of divine figures and also uses them to summon divine help. For example the statue with the elephant head is Ganesh, who symbolizes the removal of all obstacles. Hence one prays to Ganesh when they want to remove an obstacle.

ark of the covenant free synagogue in flushingSymbols Not Icons In Judaism

That said, while the Jews don't worship icons, they do incorporate symbols in their practice. The Torah is presented in its original scroll form and enclosed in a casing behind the ark on the main stand at the head of the synagogue [see photo above]. The ark of the covenant stands at the front of the synagogue and is used in a fashion similar to the altar in Christian churches [see photo to right]. The shofar is generally a ram’s horn which used to announce all holidays and a ‘call to conscience’ [in photo below at end of story Rabbi Weisser is holding the shofar].

Judaism In Queens – Jewish Holidays

Sulikot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur & Sukkot In Queens

star of david judaism jackson heights queensThere are many holidays in Judaism. The most holy ones center around the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which occurs in September. There’s a period just before Rosh Hashanah, called Sulikot wherein the faithful ask to be pardoned for their wrong behaviors. Following the Rosh Hashanah [the new year] there is Yom Kippur which is a day of fasting and atonement. And this is then followed by Sukkot, which is a celebration of thanksgiving. All of this occurs within menorahs in queensa month long period and appears to have a number of parallels with the Islamic period of Ramadan.

Hannukah Celebrations In Queens

The other two most significant religious periods in Judaism are Hannukah and Passover. Hannukah is the Festival Of Lights, wherein Jews re-dedicate their temples through an eight day lighting of the candles in the Menorah [see photo to left]. This bears some similarity / relevance to the Festival Of Lights in Hinduism, wherein the light is used to expel evil forces.

Passover Celebration & Shauvot In Queens

And then there is Passover, which celebrates the freeing of the Jews as slaves in Egypt. During Passover unleavened bread is used as those who fled could not wait for the bread to rise. This bears some similarity to Christian Easter, where Christians are freed of their sins by Jesus Christ’s sacrifice of his life on the cross.

The fourth major holy period in Judaism is Shauvot which commemorates the handing rabbi michael weisser queensover of the Torah to Moses. This is celebrated in the May / June time period.

Free Synagogue In Flushing - Rabbi Michael Weisser & Location

Many thanks to Rabbi Michael Weisser for taking the time to educate me on some of the tenets of Judaism as well as to allow me to photograph the Free Synagogue of Flushing. Rabbi Weisser is shown in the photo to your right holding the shofar which is a ram's horn used during the holy days.

The Free Synagogue in Flushing is located at 41-60 Kissena Blvd in Flushing.

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