Originally the Astoria Center of Israel was to be a building housing the Talmud Torah for the adjacent orthodox synagogue, Mishkan Israel. The cornerstone for the new structure was laid in 1925. The new building was planned with the idea that it would also serve as a Jewish community center for the Astoria Area. A schism between the older members of the Orthodox Shul, and younger members who were interested in the Talmud Torah, resulted in ACI becoming a separate Conservative Congregation in 1927. Rabbi Joshua Goldberg was chosen to be the spiritual leader of the new congregation. His vision, and cultural and literary breadth were a tremendous asset to the Center.
In 1928, the Board of Trustees chose Louis Pierre Rigal to paint the murals that adorn the sanctuary. Rabbi Goldberg chose this passage from the Talmudic book Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) to be depicted: “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion. ” The murals were completed in 1929.
The Center truly became a pivotal point for the social life of the members and their children. There was a Parents’ Association for the women and a Men’s Club. The Hebrew School had over a hundred children; Boy Scout troops and Young Judea met here. Important Jewish figures came to lecture and Ecumenical Services were held with the neighboring Christian clergy. The Astoria Zionist Organization and Astoria Hadassah were founded by members of the Center.
At the start of the Second World War, Rabbi Goldberg, who had served in the First WW, became a Chaplain at the Third Naval District and subsequently became Chief of Chaplains. He rose in rank to become a Captain in the Chaplain Corps of the Navy and is buried at Arlington. Besides Rabbi Goldberg, we have had a number of clergy who held prominent positions as chaplains. Amongst them, our late revered Cantor Richard Cohn, and late former Rabbi Jacob Polish both served along with Rabbi Goldberg as Chaplains during World War II. Many of the young men who had graduated from the Hebrew School enlisted in the Services and served with valor. A former ACI Rabbi, Dr. Alvin Kass was involved in the US Air Force Chaplaincy. Rabbi Kass was a Chaplain for the New York City Police Department (today he is Chief Chaplain of the NYPD!) throughout his tenure at the synagogue, hosting here many police functions – especially many functions of the Shomrim Society, the Jewish policeman’s organization of the NYPD.
ACI has always had quite a group of community involved people. Our members have had strong involvements in local school boards and community boards as well as participation in a wide range of community and professional activities on the local, borough, city, state, national and international levels.
The post-war period was initially robust for the Center. But with time, as families grew, the parents chose to leave the area and move to the suburbs. The Jewish life of the area waned as the kosher butchers and delicatessens left. Some synagogues closed. The lean years set in, and although some of the children of the founding members remained in Astoria and through devotion and hard work kept doors of the Center open, ACI’s fate was in question.
And then a change came “blowing in the wind.” We were fortunate to bring Rabbi Jonathan Pearl and his family to our synagogue in the Fall of 2008, to spearhead a revitalization of ACI. With his passion for Judaism, and his warm and dynamic approach (and working with some wonderful, dedicated congregants and a supportive board and officers) Rabbi Pearl has infused the synagogue with new energy and optimism, attracting new members to a synagogue that today has a sense of excitement and rejuvenation. As Astoria in general undergoes a renaissance, so too does its Jewish community. Young people, including Jews, are moving into the area for its many attractions and its lower cost rents.
We at ACI are busily involved in rebuilding our commitment to education; religious services; and reaching out to the community beyond our walls. We are dedicated to again being a CENTER of Jewish life in Astoria.