For more than 70 years, Temple B’Nai Israel has served Elmont, inviting Jewish and non-Jewish community members to pray and study religion at its synagogue on Elmont Road. After years of watching the congregation shrink to a fraction of what it once was, however, Rabbi Samuel Kehati explained that the congregation has now sold its building, ending the era of Elmont’s oldest synagogue.
“It breaks my heart to say that we have to move,” Kehati said. “We used to have overflows of people coming here for religious experiences, and we would provide what they needed.”
Bonnie Cohen, an older member of the Reform synagogue, called it the “end of an era.” She was among hundreds of people who expressed their grief on Facebook when they heard that their temple was being sold. Cohen said that Elmont was the home of a large community where first-generation Americans of Jewish descent bought their first homes and opened temples freely, without concern for the discrimination that they faced in neighboring communities. A 1956 article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency documented the struggle of Jewish residents in Garden City — which, despite having a population of more than 1,000 Jewish residents, did not have a single synagogue.
“It was well known then that Jews were not welcomed in places like Garden City and Floral Park,” Cohen wrote on Facebook
Elmont was different, though, Kehati explained. It was accepting. Kehati, who served Temple B’Nai Israel for 40 years, reminisced about his time in the synagogue. He said it had once boasted a congregation of 600 Jewish families, the majority of whom were happy to serve the community, both at the synagogue and outside its walls, as they practiced their faith. Kehati said he often lectured to students on the Old Testament at the old St. Boniface School. The synagogue and St. Boniface Catholic Church even held joint Thanksgiving celebrations each year with members of the Elmont community.
While Elmont’s oldest Catholic and Jewish communities enjoyed a time of prosperity all those years ago, the changing times would favor one group over the other. As Joshua Roff, the curator at the Long Island Museum, explained in his essay “Diasporas in Suburbia: Long Island’s Recent Immigrant Past,” a wave of new immigrants from Queens began taking hold of the culture in western Nassau County during the mid-1970s. As new Latino and Caribbean Americans found homes in Elmont and embraced its churches, aging Jewish families began to migrate to other communities and leave Temple B’Nai Israel.
“Now the demographics are completely different from what they were,” said Rabbi Chaim Blachman, of the Elmont Jewish Center.
The Jewish Center, which is smaller but nearly as old as B’Nai Israel, has also witnessed the changes in Elmont. The U.S. census estimated that in 2017 African-Americans and Hispanics made up the majority of the Elmont community. Sperling’s Best Places, which gathers community demographics and information for the real estate business, showed that only about a thousand Jewish residents remained in Elmont as of last year.
Blachman attributed the dwindling numbers to the fact that as older Jewish families moved out, few Jews moved in. Now left with a senior population, Blachman said it is critical to try to appeal to young people, but Elmont may not have enough of them to save these older institutions. “Young people just don’t move in anymore,” he said.
Despite changes to their community, Blachman and Kehati expressed gratitude to Elmont for housing their congregations. In her Facebook post, Cohen wrote, “Elmont should be proud of its heritage of offering ‘starter homes’ for minorities to start to live the American Dream.”
As though history were repeating itself, a new group from Queens has purchased the synagogue to open a church.
The congregation will continue to operate in the temple until the end of the year. “We want to continue to be in the community.” Kehati said.
“Maybe we will be allowed here,
or maybe we’ll have to find a
place close by. I don’t know, but I’m still full of hope.”