A Short History of Forest Hills Jewish Center

Forest Hills Jewish Center

In 1930, in the nascent community of Forest Hills, a group of women became a Sisterhood to create a Hebrew school for their children. It was from their incentive that the Forest Hills Jewish Center was born in 1931. Its origins were originally in the Reform movement. In time a split developed among its members between the Conservative Movement and Reform. In 1934, a Conservative Rabbi, Ben Zion Bokser, z’l, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, was hired and led the congregation with strength and distinction for the next 50 years. As it moved from a storefront, to the Kessel Street building in 1939, and after World War II, to our present home, which opened as Synagogue and Center for the entire community in 1949.

Under Rabbi Bokser’s leadership, originally our services were very formal, but gradually developed as the world changed around us. Never losing our dedication to traditional Judaism, women became more and more integrated in the Shabbat and Holiday services. Under the aegis of Rabbi Skolnik, after years of careful decision making, our services became fully egalitarian.

Building bonds of caringThe Forest Hills Jewish Center services have been embellished by rich Cantorial voices. Cantor Isaac Gorsky z’l, and Cantor Zvee Aroni z’l, preceded the arrival in 1963, of Cantor Erno Grosz, z’l, a graduate of the Cantorial School of The Jewish Theological Seminary. For the following thirty-six years his sonorous voice enhanced Shabbat and High Holiday services. We were privileged to have heard that voice until he retired in 1999 as Cantor Emeritus.  Cantor Adam Frei followed Cantor Grosz from 1999-2009 sharing his gentle, low key, passionate style as he led inspiring services.  From 2009-2022, we were inspired by the warm and rich tones of Hazzan Henry Rosenblum.  Now our worship is uplifted by Hazzan Randall Levin who fills our sanctuary with new and varied selections of liturgical music.

After many distinguished Assistant Rabbis who have become Rabbis of their own shuls, another came to us directly from the Seminary in 1981.  Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik immediately won the hearts of the congregation. After the untimely death of Rabbi Bokser, in 1984, Rabbi Skolnik became Senior Rabbi and guided FHJC to become a vibrant center of learning and prayer. After serving with distinction for 42 years, Rabbi Skolnik retired.  In May, 2023, we welcomed Rabbi Daniel Graber who has brought his energetic, innovative, warm and welcoming style.  We look forward to many years of flourishing for our FHJC community.

The Forest Hills Jewish Center has always had a social conscience developed by Rabbi Bokser, expanded by Rabbi Skolnik and continued by Rabbi Graber. In the late 80’s we joined Jews from across the country raising our voices to Free Soviet Jewry. We have rallied for Israel and other just causes. When the scourge of AIDS was upon our city, and no one seemed to be listening, Rabbi Skolnik immediately responded by heading a committee of UJA to help deal with it. It was Rabbi Skolnik’s impetus that resulted in interfaith communications with our Christian neighbors creating the moving, annual Thanksgiving Interfaith service. The annual Pride Shabbat service in honor of the LGBTQ community became reality under his leadership.

Since our beginnings took root in the search for a school, we know that education is the foundation of a Jewish community, second only to the Leadership and the philosophy of its rabbinical leadership.

In 1937 the E and the F trains reached Forest Hills, making it accessible, bringing huge populations to the area. The 50’s and 60’s were the Forest Hills Jewish Center’s halcyon years. There were 1800 member families and the student body in the Hebrew School grew from 300 to 900. 

There were many innovations in education. It was with the strong backing of Rabbi Skolnik, that the School Board approved raising the bar of standards for the Religious School which was awarded multiple “The School of Excellence” commendations by the New York Metropolitan Region of United Synagogue. The School is always moving in new, exciting directions.

In 1950 the Pre-School (The Nursery) was born, the place where the seeds of Jewish learning are planted in very young minds. Through the years under the direction of many wonderful directors, it has flourished and is still rated tops in Pre-School education. It has been the recipient of many United Synagogue awards.

With a new rabbinic leadership in Rabbi Daniel Graber and Hazzan Levin’s tenure at its start in 2021, Forest Hills Jewish Center is poised for another era of innovation.  Plans for strengthening and growing the FHJC community are well underway.  

All through our 90-year history we have grown, not necessarily in numbers, but in strength and conviction. We are a unique congregational family, which is strong and heterogeneous. We are individuals and families; we are LGBTQ; we are Ashkenazi and Sephardic. Our roots are in Eastern Europe, Russia, Germany, England, Ireland, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria, the Caribbean, Mexico and South America and Asia. We are the members who consider this a second home, the place to learn, to celebrate and seek comfort. The Forest Hills Jewish Center is our spiritual home.

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