Controversy Grows Over New Site For Gutted Synagogue
Bob Wein, the President of Congregation Derech Emunoh, wants a new home to replace the historic, 98-year-old synagogue at Beach 67 Street in Arverne that was gutted by fire and then demolished by the city in June of 2002.
“For nearly 100 years, we had our own building,” Wein told The Wave. “The outward appearance of a synagogue is important. We are a prominent force in the community and we want a prominent building.”
“It is our strong belief that what the congregation requires is a separate free-standing building with its own entrance and an appropriate sign, just like all the other houses of worship in Rockaway.”
Gerard Romski, a spokesperson for Benjamin-Beechwood, the development consortium that is building the massive Arverne By The Sea complex wants to help him find a new home.
“We have offered the congregation two sites,” he said. We offered them a site on the second floor in a new, mixed-use building we will construct at Beach 69 Street. When they offered their objections to that site because it was on the second floor, we offered them a first-floor space in that building. They refused that offer as well.”
Wein told The Wave that the second-floor rooms were turned down for a number of reasons.
“We are an orthodox community and our members can’t ride an elevator on the Sabbath,” he said. “We have many elderly congregants who could not attend services if they had to walk a set of stairs.”
He added that the proffered space had no separate kitchen facilities and no place to safeguard their valuable Torahs, which were recovered from the fire.
“We can’t share a kitchen with others and we worry about others having access to the Torahs,” he said.
The original building sat within the boundaries of the Arverne Urban Renewal Area, the land given to the development team. The original plan was for the dilapidated synagogue building to stay in place and for the development team to spend up to $500,000 to refurbish the building in the hope of drawing Jewish residents to the new residential area.
When the synagogue was severely damaged in a fire three years ago, however, it was clear to everyone that a far greater sum would be needed for a rebuilt synagogue.
In May of 2003, Benjamin-Beechwood provided a doublewide trailer on another site in the urban renewal area as a temporary meeting place. The 25-member congregation has been meeting there ever since, but that land is slated for new homes that will be built in the coming year.
Wein suggested two sites to the development team. The first was the synagogue’s community room, a brick building that stands across the street from the Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center, on Rockaway Beach Boulevard at Beach 72 Street. The second was the unused building that formerly housed Lowitt Laboratories between Beach 70 and Beach 71 Streets.
“Both of those locations would be ideal because they are located near to Dayton Towers, where many of our elderly members live,” Wein said. Romski says, however, that neither of the buildings are available to the synagogue.
“Rockaway Beach Boulevard will be expanded in that area,” he said. The sites stand in the middle of what will be that expanded road.”
The former Lowitt Labs was recently demolished. Wein believes that the quick action in taking down the building was a direct result of the congregation’s desire to use it as a synagogue building.
“They tore it down because we wanted it,” he said.
Romski, however, says that the plans to tear down that building as well as others in the area to make way for homes, stores, restaurants and a new YMCA building were made in the original plan years ago. Many other businesses and organizations, including the Claddagh INN, Loeb and Mayer Meats were impacted by the plan as well.
Rabbi Heshey Rubenstein, who has been the spiritual advisor to the synagogue for more than three years, says that the number of congregants is growing.
“We get more people each Shabbat,” he says. “We never have a problem of getting the 10 people necessary for our minyan.”
He adds that there have been three bar mitzvah’s in the synagogue in the years that he has been with the congregation. “We are not just elderly people,” he argued. “We have lots of young families with children. We are not dwindling, not closing.”
“Our congregants need us,” he argues. “We mean a lot to Arverne. If we were not here, where would those people go?”
Romski says that he understands the need for the synagogue and that the developers have tried to accommodate them.
“[We] have gone out of our way to assist the congregation,” Romski said. “It is indeed unfortunate that the congregation apparently refuses to recognize or appreciate these efforts.”
He added that plans are under way to offer the mixed-use space that was offered to the congregation to another tenant.
Jonathon Seigel, the congregation’s vice president, says that he hopes that the negotiations will continue.
“We have to convince Arverne By The Sea to build us a free-standing building,” he says. “If not, then I guess we will have to accept what they give us.”
Seigel adds that he wants to know the plans that have been made for the land where the synagogue stood before it was demolished. He believes that the developers should trade a new building for the rights to that land, although it is not clear whether or not the congregation owned the land at the time of the fire.