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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 99 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.

A Synagogue in Flushing

Though the city’s Jewish Population was enormous, the pre-World War 1 Jewish population of Queens was quite small. In 1913, just four years before the founding of the Free Synagogue of Flushing, New York City’s Jewish population was estimated at 1.33 million. Of that number, only 23,000 lived in Queens. Synagogues played a major role in the life of the New York’s Jewish population. New York’s 1918 Jewish population estimated at 1.5 million, was served by 700 synagogues. In that year, West Queens just one synagogue, in one building, while East Queens (east of Flushing Ave.) had 18 synagogues, only five had their own buildings.  Flushing’s first synagogue was most likely the Temple Gates of Prayer, established in 1902 on Locust street (now 38th Ave.) just opposite St. George’s Church. The Free Synagogue of Flushing was Second.

Inspired By Rabbi Stephen Wise

The Flushing synagogue took its name from the Free Synagogue founded by Rabbi Stephen Wise in Manhattan. In 1905, Rabbi Wise was approached to become the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, perhaps New York’s wealthiest and most prominent reform congregations, but had run afoul of the congregation’s leaders by giving trial sermons on social justice and various progressive causes that directly challenged the thinking and doings of several prominent members. In the negotiations that followed, Wise insisted that if he took the pulpit, he would be free to speak his mind. The answer he received, “…the pulpit of Emanu-el has always been and is subject to and under the control of the Board of Trustees,” meant that he could not accept the position, but he had already decided to create a new kind of synagogue, a “free synagogue.”

Rabbi Wise intended to reach out to unaffiliated Jews and envisioned his Free Synagogue as a place of moral instruction for Jews but also for Christians. His approach to services included significant changes, such as the elimination of Torah reading (central to traditional Jewish Shabbat services) and the scheduling of Shabbat services on Sunday to suppress those traditionally held on Friday evenings and Saturdays. But to Wise’s mind, the most important aspect of the Free Synagogue would be its devotion to the ethical teaching and social justice. Rabbi Wise’s first paid professional assistant, Rabbi Sidney E. Goldstein, developed the Free Synagogue’s “Social Services Department.”

Hebrew Women’s Aid Society

The Free Synagogue was Founded in 1917 with direct participation of the “mother synagogue.” A letter went out on October 31, 1917 from the Hebrew Woman’s Aid Society of Flushing, asking recipients to attend a meeting to discuss the creation of a new school:

Having in view the establishment of a Jewish Sabbath (or Sunday) School, we submitted our idea to Dr. Goldstein, the associate of Dr. Stephen Wise, of the Free Synagogue, N.Y., requesting his advice and cooperation, we are happy to say that he is willing to give us the benefit of his experience and able to counsel, so that we may start, even if in a small way, a school, in which it is hoped may develop into a Jewish center, of which all Jews can be proud.

The School is to be conducted on liberal line, to make bigger Jews and better Americans. Its purpose will be to teach not only the doctrines of our ancient religion, but the ideal creed and the history of a people who have withstood the persecution of the world for twenty centuries …

The Mann Mansion

The dedication booklet for the new building in 1927 recounted what followed:

We have the great fortune of the first meeting Dr. Sydney E. Goldstein as he delivered a talk on a religious theme (in which we are deeply interested) at the Congregational Church in Flushing. His subject was, “Why I Am a Jew.”

It was at the time when a small body of earnest Jewish women in Flushing decided to establish a religious school for children coming from homes of the liberal Jewish faith.

We have interviews with a number of gentlemen occupying advance Jewish pulpits., but as we saw and heard this kindly gentleman we were so impressed by his scholarly attainments, his sincerity of principles and honesty of purpose that we hesitatingly accepted Dr. Goldstein as our leader. We then requested his help.

At a meeting with Dr. Goldstein:

He told us we might require $500.00 to conduct a school for the first year. Then the plate (figuratively speaking) was passed around among our little group – with the result $1,500.00 was raised.

The congregation met at the Odd Fellow’s Hall in Flushing, in late 1917. In 1921, the congregation acquired the Samuel Vernon Mann property (the white building) on the northwest corner of Sanford and Jamaica avenues (Kisssena Ave). Immediate plans call for remodeling the first floor of the homestead, so the building can be used to temporarily as a place of worship. When the entire first floor is entirely cleared it will be transformed into a large auditorium with seating capacity for at least three hundred people.

The Mann property (the white building) included a large house, part of which date back to 1859.  Based on evidence from historical maps, a frame house with a mansard roof, two-and-one-half stories tall, was built in 1859-60 for Flushing merchant Robert B. Carter. It was purchased in 1870 by Mary M. Hoffman, the wife of attorney and jurist Murry Hoffman (1791-1878) who served as assistant vice chancellor for New York state, and was best known for the Hoffman rule, an 1866 decision that created a formula regarding lot values, still used today by real estate appraisers. In 1888 the house was bought by Harriet S. Mott Onderdonk, widow of attorney Will H. Onderdonk. Three years later, in 1891 it passed to Samuel Vernon Mann Husband of Onderdonk’s daughter Harriet Cogswell Mann, who died in 1881. 

Mann, a prominent currency broker, collected eighteenth century furniture, so it was probably at this time that the Colonial Revival style alterations to the house were made. These included the addition of a gabled portico supported by giant fluted columns, an Adamesque entrance, surrounded Palladian windows denticulated cornices and corner pilasters. In 1921 when Mann sold the house was sold the Free Synagogue, the New York times reported the sale, describing the house as “…the fifteen-room house at the northwest corner of Sanford and Jamaica Avenues, Flushing… The house is considered to be one of the best examples of southern colonial architecture on Long island.”

The Sanctuary Building

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.