Any discussion of change at Congregation Habonim involves understanding Habonim’s origins and traditions. Since our inception in 1939, there have certainly been changes. Depending on your perspective, you might welcome, accept, or question these changes. But what is true, and also important, is that there has always been a continuity at Habonim, and that the goal of our original founders is not really different from the goal of those who are here today - to build and sustain a congregation and to make an impact on the Upper West Side neighborhood and on the community-at-large.
Habonim was founded in November 1939, exactly one year after Kristallnacht. It was the intention of Rabbi Hugo Hahn and other founding members to create a place of worship here in New York City which reflected the style of worship they and other German refugees had been accustomed to in their native country.
As such, we immediately experienced success in drawing people in, largely because we fulfilled the needs of our members by providing a familiar home in a foreign country. In 1944, we joined the Reform movement. In 1995, we affiliated with the Conservative movement. From the beginning, and continuing to today, our congregants did not live specifically on the Upper West Side or near Lincoln Center, but came from all over the City and surrounding areas.
In the late 1940’s, Rabbi Hahn located a piece of property, which we purchased, located at 44 West 66th Street. Construction of our building began about five years later, and in 1958, Habonim had its own permanent home.
At its height, Habonim had 1100 members with about 400 of them in Queens. Services were held in Manhattan and Queens. Religious School classes were held here at our "home base," as well as in Washington Heights and in Queens. At one point there were so many students in Queens that Habonim purchased a building in Rego Park just for the school. To this day, owing to our large number of original founding members residing in that borough, we still hold monthly services and Adult Education programs in Queens.
In 1994, the Habonim Board of Directors approved a proposal for the establishment of a Nursery School at Habonim. The Nursery School opened its doors in 1997 and since then has been a success story for the synagogue. Twenty-five percent of Habonim’s new members come through the Nursery School. The Nursery School, under the direction of Tina Lobel, is the biggest single institutional change in Habonim’s recent past.
Under the guidance of our Religious School Director, Rina Cohen Schwarz, the Religious School’s enrollment currently stands at over 100 students, aided by a steady flow of Nursery School graduates into the school and by the addition of new post Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes.
Under the strong leadership of Rabbi Lisa Gelber, Cantor Bruce Halev, President Richard Verner and Executive Director Laura J. Lewis, Habonim is looking at a brighter future than it has in many years. With the well-meaning cooperation of all concerned, Habonim will continue to succeed and will continue to grow and prosper while we serve the needs of our community on the Upper West Side and beyond.