Little more than a Minyan started Great Neck Synagogue in 1951. A dozen like-minded young couples, committed to the task ahead, banded together to create a center for Orthodox Judaism. Neither they, nor anyone else for that matter, could have predicted what was to come. For Passover 1951, services were held on the second floor atop the Squire Theater. Herman Wouk davened Shacharit and George Weinstein, Musaf. For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the “overflow” congregation prayed at the Veteran’s Memorial Hall (Quonset Hut) on Great Neck Road…long since replaced by an office building.
Within a year, September 1952 to be exact, the founders purchased a home on a magnificent one and a half acre site on “synagogue row” at 26 Old Mill Road. Each of the signators individually and collectively guaranteed the almost 100% mortgage, establishing a precedent for “going in over your head”. Dues were set at $50 a year, the tuition for Hebrew School at $12 per pupil. The house became the first Orthodox synagogue in Great Neck. The living room offered “mechitza” seating. Upstairs, bedrooms were converted to classrooms for the Hebrew School. Just a year or two later, the same house broadened its scope to include a nursery school for what was to precede the North Shore Hebrew Academy. The kitchen and basement adequately handled lunches, refreshments after meetings and festive parties. Had you been there, you would remember the latke assembly line for Chanukah and the illuminated faces of the “chefs”.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (UOJC) shook their heads in disbelief at the compact-size group applying for recognition, but granted its charter certificate in May 1951.
Yeshiva University, through Dr. Samuel Belkin z”tl, encouraged one of its brilliant young graduates, Rabbi Moses D. Tendler, to lead the way for one year.
All members fulfilled staff functions, varying from caretaker to carpenter to cook. Each one took pride in providing individual skills, whether vocational or hobby. No one needed a pep-talk, everyone pitched in. However, problems were no longer quite as simple. The officers looked to the UOJC for guidance in treating the growing pains of an Orthodox synagogue for a well-educated, prosperous, integrated populace in a suburban, residential area of homeowners. They consisted of NewYork executives, professionals and entrepreneurs determined to afford their families fresh air, green grass and healthy surroundings along with the opportunity to develop as intelligent, patriotic Americans and good Jews.
Most were old enough to remember first hand the depression years of the 30’s, World War II, and the horror of the six million Jewish martyrs. Many were in their twenties, inspired to pursue their ideals, to practice their faith, to embrace the new State of Israel as a monumental milestone in their own lifetime.
The growing Jewish community in all nine villages of the Great Neck peninsula represented a phenomenon in American Jewish society. New homes, new surroundings, new interests spurred new thinking.
How would and should Great Neck Synagogue meet the challenge? In retrospect, we must have been doing something right. As we grew from a minyan to over 100 families in 17 months, we learned that even in a new suburban community, Jewish life centers around the synagogue. We looked to it for religious inspiration, for child and adult education, and for wholesome social activity, all enhanced by warm, personal relationships and we still do. The philosophy expressed by Rabbi Tendler, which appeared over 40 years ago in the first Great Neck Synagogue journal, may be said to apply equally well today. We quote it in part:
Its guiding philosophy is that the Torah is the word of God, and therefore applicable to all social situations in all ages.
The Great Neck Synagogue believes:
1. Our Torah is the word of God.
2. The Torah which has patterned the life of the Jewish people for almost 3500 years, through all social changes, is today the major vital progressive force in Jewish existence.
3. Jewish survival in a world that has been actively hostile for thousands of years is not a freak of history but rather the predictable historical future of a religious people whose strength and resiliency are intrinsic in its pattern of living – the ever modern Torah way of life.
In the mid 1950’s, the membership blossomed. Their numbers and activities could no longer be contained in the Old Gray House. A building permit was secured and the new construction was classified as an “annex” to the house (after construction was completed, the gray house had fulfilled its purpose. It was demolished and the area is now a parking lot and playground).
In September 1955, the congregation and Great Neck celebrated a gala weekend dedication of the new synagogue (the present gym) and adjoining classrooms named after the first president George Weinstein (now the Weinstein Chapel and synagogue offices). Classrooms served both the Hebrew School and the fledgling North Shore Hebrew Academy. Cantor Jacob Koussevitsky led the Shabbat services. Dr. Samuel Belkin, z”tl, president of Yeshiva University, addressed the Dedication Dinner.
A comparatively new member, Solomon S. Goldwyn, Chairman of the Construction and Campaign Committee, planned the multi-purpose building. He employed innovative layered wooden beams to support the roof, independent of the walls in order to provide a practical spacious auditorium. The new synagogue structure, completed in 1955, became the focus of activity and growth. To provide guidance and direction, an enthusiastic and energetic young rabbi from Wilkes-Barre was hired. He took over the pulpit, headed the Academy and Hebrew School, directed the Youth Program, enlarged membership and brought new stature to Great Neck Synagogue. Few would disagree that Rabbi Dr. EphraimWolf, z”tl, exceeded the expectations of the growing community. Only a few years later, several members recommended that Cantor Eleazer Schulman, z”tl, accept the invitation to be Cantor of the Great Neck Synagogue, a role to which he had given notably of his unique talent.
After a few years, a more ambitious plan for expansion began with the purchase of an additional and larger property adjacent to the synagogue. (This is the main building which now houses the sanctuary, Mikvah and social hall.) Simultaneously, the project included a two-story school building with a full lower level for assemblies. This structure currently houses students of the North Shore HebrewAcademy. All of this expansion was due to the vision and determined leadership of Sol Goldwyn. It is altogether fitting that the main sanctuary is dedicated in his name, an everlasting tribute to his consecrated service and immortal spirit.
The new facility was dedicated in 1967, with the laying of the cornerstone. Inspired by Jacob’s dream it reads:”And this Stone shall be a pillar for God’s house 5727″. Tragically, Sol Goldwyn passed away before his dream could be realized. Mac Mender assumed the mantle of leadership. The new complex enabled the Great Neck Synagogue, North Shore Hebrew Academy and the Mikvah to offer the community a totally modern facility in which to further expand and grow. The physical part of the dream had been realized.
Always concerned with the future of Judaism, Mac Mender expanded his fund-raising to include an intensive campaign for youth activities. In recognition of his successful efforts, at the Annual Dinner in December 1970, where the Menders were guests of honor, the auditorium/gymnasium was officially dedicated as the “Mac and Billie Mender Youth Center”.
The facility and spirit which resulted from the hard work and efforts of our founding families, continued to live up to its potential. The synagogue was filled with activity, youth programs, adult education, social opportunity, tzedakah, community activism and above all spiritual growth. The synagogue set the stage for the dynamic growth of Great Neck Orthodoxy.
In 1988, Rabbi Dale Polakoff joined Great Neck Synagogue. Under his leadership, together with Cantor Ze’ev Kron who joined in 1994, Rabbi Sholom Jensen, the Youth Director of Great Neck Synagogue who joined in 1991, Rabbi Steven Moskowitz, who joined as High School Youth Director in 1994, and Rabbi ShalomAxelrod, Assistant Rabbi of Great Neck Synagogue, who joined our staff in 2001, Great Neck Synagogue has continued to thrive. In 2001, Great Neck Synagogue marked its 50th anniversary with a year of celebrations, chesed and learning events. Among other things, a sefer torah was dedicated in honor of Rabbi Dr. Ephraim and Elaine Wolf and other key founders of the synagogue.
Many of the activities described in greater detail on this site, were born out of the planning and programming of these past five decades.
We invite you to become part of our family and to play your part in the history, the tradition and the dynamic growth of our community.
I just wanted to remind everyone that another of Rabbi Wolf’s accomplishments was that he singlehandedly and with foresight established and maintained the Great Neck Eiruv which enabled young orthodox families to move to our community. It required a great effort to “create” the eiruv. It took several years for him to obtain approval from all the villages, LILCO and even Nassau county (for the bridge by the library) to allow the markers to be put up.
Also the Mikvah was originally called a “wading pool” in the building plans so as to avoid any possible controversy with regard to building a Mikvah at 26 Old Mill Rd. I believe this was Rabbi Wolf’s suggestion.
Lastly, it was Rabbi Wolf who encouraged the Sephardic community to join the Great Neck Synagogue. They originally rented space at Temple Israel and then it was Rabbi Wolf who provided space at our synagogue rent-free, for them to continue their minyan. This was the start and the rest is history. He certainly “exceeded the expectations of the growing community.”
Steve Mayer 12/5/2008