|As the oldest liberal Reform synagogue in Queens, the Free Synagogue of Flushing has opened its doors on the corner of Kissena Boulevard and Sanford Avenue to the community for the past 96 years. Both of its buildings are listed on the New York State Register and the National Register of Historic Places. In 1917, the Hebrew Women's Aid Society founded the synagogue in keeping with the philosophy of the first Free Synagogue, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. These principles include freedom of the pulpit, freedom in religious philosophy, freedom in terms of seating, and the equality of men and women in participation and leadership. But the most important aspect of the Free Synagogue movement founded by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise is the principal of Social Justice, which we have always pursued. The Free Synagogue has been a bastion of liberal thought and social activism. The congregation continues to be welcoming to all people: interfaith couples, straight, gay, every ethnicity and heritage, spanning the generations with an elderly contingent as well as member families with young children. While the demographics in Flushing have radically changed since it was first established, the Free Synagogue remains loyal to the inscription above its magnificent neo-classical facade which reads, “For mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” – Isaiah 56:7.|
When the synagogue was established with the aid of Rabbi Wise's second-in-command, Rabbi Sidney Goldstein, it purchased the property at the then quiet intersection, began holding religious services and other meetings there, and opened a religious school. The original synagogue building was a stately pillared mansion which stood on the corner of the lot, designed by the noted architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White in a classical-revival style popular in the 1880s. This mansion was built around the bones of an old hunting lodge, which indicates the character of Flushing in the early nineteenth century. In 1925, the synagogue membership had grown so large that a new sanctuary had to be built. To make way for the larger sanctuary, the congregation decided to move the White building to the Sanford Avenue frontage of the synagogue and use it for offices and classrooms. The new neo-classical building, designed by architect Maurice Courland, features a massive portico supported by four Ionic pillars. Ascending the stately steps, one reaches the magnificent sanctuary, where dark green pilasters support brackets upon which rest the enormous dome. Stained glass windows on all four walls, with glass crafted in Czechoslovakia, bathe the sanctuary in rich, radiant colors.
The windows depict Noah's Ark, the lions of Judah, great swirls of leaves and vines and delicate flowers symbolizing Sukkot, and the two hands of the priestly blessing, which many know as Spock's "Live Long and Prosper" symbol from Star Trek. In the center of the domed ceiling that covers the entire sanctuary is a smaller stained-glass dome designed around a Star of David.
For the last several years, the synagogue has been undergoing an extensive renovation project. The new window frames, on the south side of the sanctuary on Sanford Avenue, are the latest part of the ongoing repairs. The New York Landmark Conservancy awarded their first-ever Historic Synagogue Fund award for the restoration of these monumental stained glass windows and wood sash, and in December 2011, the synagogue dedicated its newly-restored windows with prayers lead by Rabbi Michael Weisser and a Chanukkah concert featuring Handel's Judas Maccabaeus.
During its early years, three rabbis served the synagogue for relatively short periods. They included Rabbi Bernard Cantor, who left on a mission for the Joint Distribution Committee to help oppressed Jews in Eastern Europe. While Rabbi Cantor was doing humanitarian work in southern Russia, he was murdered by bandits. After the murder of Rabbi Cantor, Rabbi Abraham Feldman succeeded him. Rabbi Feldman later took a post in Hartford, Connecticut, and was followed by Rabbi Maxwell Silver, a brother of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, the famed Zionist leader and counselor to a number of American presidents. When Rabbi Silver left in 1922, the congregation again turned to Rabbi Wise for help, and he selected Rabbi Max Meyer to serve on a temporary basis. The temporary basis lasted 40 years, and Rabbi Meyer was the prime mover in the growth and development of the Free Synagogue of Flushing. He also was the chair of the North Shore branch of the Long Island division of the American Jewish Congress.
Rabbi Charles G. Agin came to Flushing in 1958 to assist Rabbi Meyer, and quickly gained the affection and confidence of the congregation. A year later, Rabbi Agin received an officer's commission and was inducted into the Armed Forces. When he returned, Rabbi Agin was named assistant rabbi and principal of the religious school, and at the retirement of Rabbi Meyer, he was named to succeed him and was granted life tenure. During his 50 years of service, Rabbi Agin presided over expansion of the synagogue, including a new administration building, the Rabbi Max Meyer Religious School.
Rabbi Weisser is the current rabbi in a line of distinguished teachers at the synagogue. A graduate of Hebrew Union College's cantorial program in the 1970s, he was ordained in 2001. Rabbi Weisser has served the congregation since 2008, and he continues the Free Synagogue’s tradition of “welcoming the stranger.” He is ordained as both rabbi and cantor, and certified as an educator. His focus on the Jewish value of “welcoming the stranger” continues Free Synagogue’s tradition of embracing freedom, diversity, and its surrounding community. Rabbi Weisser has also participated in the planning and execution of the Queens Unity Walk, which brings together people of various faiths for a day of learning. He is currently involved in the creation of an interfaith council that will serve the ethnically and religiously diverse borough of Queens. Recently, Rabbi Weisser was among those chosen to deliver an invocation at New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Interfaith Breakfast. When Rabbi Weisser was a cantor in Lincoln, Nebraska, Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, threatened him and his family. The rabbi’s response was to reach out to the one behind the threats. He ultimately befriended Trapp, and was instrumental in his evolution from being a life-long racist to renouncing hatred and speaking out publicly against bigotry. Three months before his death from diabetes-related kidney disease in 1992, Trapp converted to Judaism under Rabbi Weisser’s guidance in the very synagogue that he once plotted to blow up. Kathryn Watterson's book, Not By the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman, chronicles this story. The University of Nebraska Press reissued the book in 2012.
Steven Pearlston has been the synagogue's cantor and music director since 1973, and was principal of the religious school for twenty years. During the first 47 years of its existence, Free Synagogue followed the Classical Reform style of liturgy, with a professional choir and pipe organ (the only pipe organ in a synagogue in Queens), but no cantor. Frederick Piket, the synagogue's music director in the 1950s through the early 1970s, wrote a great amount of liturgical music which is still performed at synagogues throughout the country. When a return to tradition occurred in the Reform movement in the 1960s, a cantor was hired, but the professional choir and organ were retained. Today, services at Free Synagogue include a wide variety of musical forms. Also on offer are Sunday concerts, and a Jewish Composers' mini-concert series presented at special Onegs.
As the Free Synagogue of Flushing looks back at its first 96 years and ahead to its centenary, it can point to a tradition of an extensive youth and adult education programs, an active Brotherhood and Sisterhood, and a theatre group that has been producing Broadway musicals on our social hall stage for over forty years. The synagogue continues to meet the changing demographics in Flushing by providing space to such groups as the Flushing Jewish Community Council, Alcoholics Anonymous, various political and community organizations, and fledgling church groups. Every year, FSF tries to fulfill its mission of social action through programs commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, actively collecting food for City Harvest, and hosting interfaith events such as our Interreligious Choral Festivals. The synagogue continues to be open to the larger Flushing community, and welcomes that community to be part of Free Synagogue of Flushing.