A small, yet integral, part of the village, the Garden City Jewish Center (GCJC) recently marked a major milestone when it commemorated its 65th year. Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen recently noted this significant anniversary with a citation recognizing the temple’s service to the town and community. For Rabbi Stephen Goodman, this kind of giving back is a big part of what has helped fuel the longevity of the GCJC.
“We have tried over the years to participate in social action events and to be meaningful helpers in community causes,” he said.
The reform congregation is located on 168 Nassau Blvd. To the casual passerby, it doesn’t readily appear to be your prototypical temple, given the fact that the base of operations is situated in a converted home that was originally purchased for $80,000 back in the mid-1950s. The circumstances for how the GCJC dates back to its founding, when seven families banded together in 1953 to establish a house of worship, study and social gathering based on the conviction that Jewish life should have a place in the community of Garden City. At a time when there was no synagogue in the village, these families wound up at loggerheads with local resistance to the idea that this kind of house of worship should be established. The Board of Appeals of the Incorporated Village initially denied the application to use the home as a synagogue back in 1956. Help from a local founding father and Supreme Court Justice Marcus Christ reversed this decision.
“The congregation had a little bit of trouble getting started because of the history of Garden City being an exclusive community and there had never been a synagogue here before. We were fortunate to have the help of C. Walter Randall, who was one of the founding fathers of Garden City. I think he’s credited with creating the system of government that still exists here in Garden City,” Goodman explained. “He came to our aid. He thought it was only fair that there should be a synagogue in Garden City and he took the helm in leading the legal fight. So we have a picture of him hanging in our lobby as a tribute to the important role that he played.”
Fast forward to 2018 and the GCJC is made up of about 90 families. It has a religious school that meets on Sundays, normal Sabbath and holiday services and provides all the traditional life cycle event ceremonies. It also has robust participation with fellow houses of worship in the Garden City Clergy Fellowship. Alongside spiritual leaders from the Garden City Community Church, the Presbyterian Church of Garden City, the Church in the Garden, the Episcopal Cathedral and both Catholic Churches—St. Anne’s and St. Joseph’s—the GCJC has participated in a number of social causes.
“The Garden City Clergy Fellowship is a great group of clergy that enjoys each other’s company and are very interested in ecumenical activities and learning opportunities. So from time to time, we have gathered together to try to make a difference in certain areas of need,” Goodman said. “In particular, I can recall our participating in a community-wide walk to battle hunger. We’ve tried to address homelessness issues. I think in the early days, when the Interfaith Nutrition Network was starting an overnight shelter for men, our congregation, along with others in the area, provided volunteers to sleep over and serve meals to the men. It’s really invaluable.”
Goodman’s background as the son of a rabbi in Columbus, GA who was heavily involved with civil rights causes made him the perfect fit for the GCJC. The temple is set up so that it only employs him part-time on weekends, a role he’s served since 1985. The arrangement has fit hand-in-glove with his other life as a full-time lawyer for the New York Housing Authority, which he’s spent 24 years doing after deciding that he wanted to, “…get more involved in social action activities in a different and more direct capacity.” In striving to continue keeping membership and strong leadership going within the congregation, Goodman and Temple President Deborah Rood Goldman’s wants for the GCJC are rather modest.
“One project that grew out of the celebration of our 65th anniversary is that we’d like to build an outdoor space that we could use when the weather is nice or for outdoor services and other ceremonies. It would be a pleasant place for people to gather. We’ll see if we can make that happen. But other than that, we just want to keep the place going,” Goodman said with a laugh.
Visit www.gardencityjewishcenter.org to find out more about the Garden City Jewish Center.