Forest Hills rabbi calls it a career


Issue of August 6, 2010/ 26 Av 5770

By Sergey Kadinsky

Rabbi Manfred Gans was 26 years old when Congregation Machane Chodosh, then in Crown Heights, chose him as its second rabbi. He’s 86 now and the shul is soon to welcome its third rav. On July 25 Rabbi Gans announced his retirement after 60 years behind the pulpit that now stands in Forest Hills.

German immigrants founded Machane Chodosh in 1939. In 1950, Rabbi Gans’ first act was to campaign aggressively to build a permanent facility for the shul, two blocks from Ebbets Field.

“Any congregation that functions in rented facilities has a longevity of only one or two generations at best,” said Rabbi Gans. “After building our shul it was filled to capacity but then the danger came.”

When the building opened in 1958, the Dodgers were packing for Los Angeles. While the shul was initially hailed as an exemplary middle class development, within a decade, the ravages of urban decay and white flight were threatening its survival. Most of the remaining members were content with the shul’s slow death, but Rabbi Gans had other plans and decided to move the shul to Forest Hills.

In Queens the renewed congregation went beyond its German base, reaching out to the broader community, including recent arrivals from the Soviet Union.

In March 1979, the first brick was laid for the synagogue’s new building. “I was at the groundbreaking,” said Forest Hills resident Herbert Levy. “They all welcomed me and I felt truly at home.”

15 years ago, Marina Istkovich, who emigrated from Ukraine, was planning a bar mitzvah for her son and sought to hold the event in a local Conservative synagogue. She was deterred after an early meeting with the synagogue’s rabbi and cantor.

“The cantor told me that my son was difficult, and [I] became very upset,” said Istkovich. “My friend told me about Rabbi Gans, and I thought they were all the same.”

Her meeting with Rabbi Gans was drastically different, however.

“He did not ask how much, he asked about my son and his family,” Istkovich related.

Rabbi Gans warmly welcomed the family to the synagogue.

“Without him, my son would not have had a bar mitzvah,” said Istkovich. “He is a fine gentleman in the manner of an aristocrat.”

During the shul’s relocation, Rabbi Gans’ youngest son, Chaim, was born with Down’s syndrome. At that time, there were no services available for religious Jewish children with developmental disabilities so Rabbi Gans created one. He and his wife, Liselotte, posted an advertisement in the Jewish Press, inviting other parents with children who had Down’s syndrome to meet. The first meeting attracted 40 parents; the second drew 90. As the word spread, the parental support group became the nucleus of Otsar Family Services, where Rabbi Gans serves as chairman of the board of directors.

“Most of the parents who showed up at the meeting thought they were the only ones with such children,” said Otsar spokeswoman Gwen Bloom. “People were afraid and did not understand. It is a different world now because of Rabbi Gans.”

Rabbi Yossi Mendelson, who attended the neighboring Queens Jewish Center, recalled sneaking in to the shul to hear the professional cantor, who sung the traditional German Jewish niggunim.

“I was friendly with the last chazan, and I wanted to hear him sing,” said Rabbi Yossi Mendelson. He also had the chance to hear Rabbi Gans’ sermons. “His sermon was down to earth and he understood the nature of the people he was talking to,” said Rabbi Mendelson. “You knew that he was intimately involved in the lives of the congregation.”

Rabbi Mendelson eventually ran as a candidate to succeed Rabbi Gans and won by a wide margin.

“It is remarkable that it is so diverse and everyone feels as part of one group,” said Rabbi Mendelson. “The common denominator is the rabbi.”

While Mendelson will take up most of the rabbinic functions, Rabbi Gans will stay on as the senior rabbi. In his eighth decade, Rabbi Gans shows no sign of slowing down. He spends his Friday afternoons as he always does: visiting the sick, calling widows and reaching out to the unaffiliated.