The Sepharadic Jewish Congregation and Center of Queens, Inc.
In New York
Also known, as it is often referred to “the Egyptian Synagogue,” in French “La Synagogue des Egyptiens”
by Albert Bivas

This synagogue was started in the early to mid 1950’s by Jews who came in from Turkey and Greece probably after the Second World War following and as a result of the German Holocaust. In the late 1950’s and the 1960’s they were followed and joined by Jews from Egypt and then Morocco who like and with other Jews from Arab countries had to leave their home-countries because of the problems caused by the ill-conceived situation in the Middle East with the division of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states and the chaos created by international diplomacy and the self-interest of some of the powers involved. Jews from other Moslem countries, Iran and Afghanistan, soon joined in by the 1970’s.

This synagogue was the first ever Sepharadic synagogue in Queens. It first rented locations in two consecutive places in the Forest Hills/Rego Park area. In the early to mid 1960’s it bought its own land and built slowly what would become with the Grace of G-o-d a permanent House of Worship to serve the welfare of the “community” according to its history, traditions etc… It took until the early 1970’s to be rather completed with the building structure, the pews, the Teva, the Eikhal etc… with the main sanctuary, an “auditorium”, a small synagogue whose apparent purpose was for everyday use, one small room serving as the synagogue office, another one as a checkroom and a kitchen as well as restrooms for the men and women.

During the decades of the 1970’s and 1980’s this congregation grew in number. During the high holydays all three areas: The main sanctuary, the small synagogue and the auditorium where prayers services occurred were fully filled to capacity and more. Today the congregation has largely diminished in number. Some groups started their own Sepharadic congregation in the neighborhood emphasizing the customs from their own countries of origin, some moved to different areas and perhaps joined a congregation in their new neighborhood, others, among the younger ones perhaps, left the Jewish community altogether in some ways, were assimilated or inter-married with mates of different cults or no cult and others like all of us are passing to the “next world.”

That synagogue, a congregation that is barely over 50 years old has already a decreasing membership and budgetary woes (according to some in the know…?), problems not infrequent in this city. Just as one example, the once largest synagogue in Queens, Rego Park, a non-Sepharadic one at that, had its membership decreased from well over one thousand to well under two hundred and struggling with its future at one time in doubt. That latest synagogue, like others, tries to remedy their situation by somehow trying to move with the time and liberalizing its ways including greater participation of women in services. It is perhaps unfortunate that this Sepharadic synagogue has not the fortitude to do likewise. Indeed at times it has been said that this synagogue is now only Sepharad in name. Its membership is changed and it definitely lacks the tolerance, sophistication and nobility of characters that are the traditional hallmark of Sepharadim. Many are those who have been turned-off by such static, indeed regressive policies. Some even have negatively characterized that congregation as “Taliban” and its Rabbi as an “Ayatollah” for its ways, including the treatment of women that is characteristic of antic civilizations. A Mehitsa similar to that of a harem’s screen separates the women’s section from the main part of the synagogue. Women are left completely apart from the full activity, enjoyment and service of the synagogue.

Albert Bivas

Published in Los Muestros #80, September 2010