But as the only rabbi in the 50-year history of the center, Sladowsky said he has seen many changes in the neighborhoods around the Glendale facility, including a shift among the members of his congregation from young to old and the immigration of the majority of the Jewish community eastward.
"Over the years the community has changed," said Sladowsky of the Jewish center located at the intersection of Woodhaven Boulevard and Myrtle Avenue. "So we have had to change with the changing population."
The Forest Park Jewish Center, founded in 1953 by residents of the Forest Park Coop, started when there was a large Jewish population in the communities of Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, South Ozone Park and Howard Beach, Sladowsky said. At its peak from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, the rabbi said, the congregation had a variety of youth-oriented activities and classes - including a full-time Hebrew school.
Sladowsky said the Jewish center had more than 300 children in attendance during that time, and sponsored band classes, a youth group, and sports activities at neighboring Victory Field and Forest Park.
But as the children grew up, married and started looking for homes, Sladowsky said they decided to leave the apartments where they had grown up in favor of large homes on Long Island, in New Jersey and upstate communities. This transition has left the Jewish center with an aging population and forced it to alter its programming to meet the needs of its senior citizen congregants.
"Judaism is moving east," Sladowsky said. He pointed to the communities of Jamaica Estates and Kew Gardens Hills as the two Queens communities experiencing the most growth among Jews. The rabbi also said the Rockaway communities of Far Rockaway and Bayswater are going through a renaissance, with Jews moving back to communities that their grandparents once inhabited.
To maintain its membership, Sladowsky said the Jewish center reaches out to new families who move into the community. He said the recent arrival of Russian immigrants has increased his congregation's youth population, but not near the numbers it used to house.
Sladowsky, who is no stranger to being in a new country, fled from Germany in 1936, three years after Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler's rise to power. His parents took him through Belgium to France, where they would later take a ship to America after his uncle, who was already in the United States, had secured the appropriate papers.
He said he remembers parts of his journey to the United States, including his first sight of the ship he traveled on from Marseilles to New York. "It was the biggest thing I had ever seen," Sladowsky laughed. He said his congregation runs joint programs with other institutions on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israeli Independence Day.
Sladowsky also said the Jewish center has adult education classes on a variety of topics for its elderly members, including discussions on modern Judaism, the Talmud and the Bible.
Sladowsky said he is still able to keep in touch with former congregants who have moved away through the center's newsletter. The publication, called "The Voice," features a monthly column by Sladowsky, news on the congregation and upcoming activities.
The rabbi said he also stays in touch with new community members by providing gift baskets full of food and other goodies during Thanksgiving and before Passover in April.
"The primary idea is to help people," he said of the baskets.
The rabbi described his center as very Zionist-oriented, meaning it strongly supports the nation of Israel. He said the congregation currently has 120 families enrolled, down from its former 330 during its peak in the mid-1960s.
Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.
©2004 Community News Group
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