I Remember by Abe Chasoff

40th Anniversary Essays      

I remember Greenbelt in 1942, the small community in the midst of a forest at the end of the trolley car line.  Greenbelt had about 7,000 residents and was very clean and safe (no one locked his doors at night).  The frame houses were built for people involved in war defense work, which qualified us; and we were the first tenants in an apartment on Research Road.  Wondering whether there were any Jews in town, we met Adelaide and Harry Weidberg and the son Bert - who lived across the way.  Then we knew there were at least three more of us. Harry and I would go berry picking at the water tower near the end of Ridge Road.  In addition to the blueberries, he would often come back with poison ivy!

I remember the Jewish Community center (JCC) of Prince George's County before it became Mishkan Torah.  We joined when it was first organized.  The JCC met in the Center School where we had socials and dances, in addition to religious services.  One year I was chairman of the Social Committee and also Youth Group Leader.  I remember putting up the building.  Elliott Buzkin, who was president before me, persuaded me to take that office.  I was chairman of the board and president when the building went up to the windows.  Ben Rosenzweig was president after me when the building rose to the wood sheathing on the roof.  He was also president during the time a $15,000 loan was made with Twin Pines to finish the building.  Williams and Sines Company completed the roof and put in the heating and air-conditioning.  Martin Bickford (then vice-president), a surveyor, and I laid out the building from the plans on the wooded lot the winter before construction.

I remember a Gentile watching us lay bricks.  He went back to his boss, a Mr. Brown of the Aldon Construction company, and told him "Said some crazy Jewish amateurs are trying to build a church in Greenbelt and are doing a terrible job of it." One Sunday Mr.  Brown came out with all of his bricklayers and helped put up all corners of the building - which give us a marvelous start.  

There were about fifteen members who worked steadily several days a week on the building for three to four years, but most every man, woman and child - too numerous to mention - pitched in too.  It is impossible to mention everyone, but I remember that Nat Shinderman was the boss driver and Jack Ratzkin the chief foreman.  Ratzkin was the most knowledgeable amateur.  He also broke $5 levels (a lot of money in those days) in rage when the brick lines were not straight!  Elliott Bukzin was one of our great builders.  Hy Gerson put in all of the electricity.  Harry Weidberg was our chief schnorrer.  Mort Boroza was our best brick layer.  If attendance had been taken, Norman Granims would be found laying brick every day but Saturdays.  For the most part our work force consisted of Government workers - chemists, lawyers, engineers, mathematicians, etc.  - who had never had previous experience in building construction.  Mr. Bell (eighty years young) was our only professional bricklayer - contributing his services even though he had arthritic hands.

I remember Seymour Kaplan dragging several small sycamore trees from the woods with which he lined the JCC path on Ridge Road.  They are still thriving and beautiful today.  I remember the tree in the middle of the path of the entrance shielding us from the sun during the hot summer months of construction, and the women bringing jugs of lemonade and placing them in the shade of that tree.

I remember Dave Fisher and myself mixing bags and bags of cement and Dave telling me of his experiences in a kibbutz in Palestine during the thirties.

I remember our children, Rachelle and Phyllis, also helping us mix mortar.  As pre-schoolers they thought this was their private sandbox!

I remember "Help Build the Jewish Community Center Day" in Greenbelt, when the ministers and their congregants united and came down to help.

I remember William Gichner giving us all the bricks.  What a miracle that was!  Also, William Gichner's father, who was called "the iron man," giving us all 

the steel for the building.  I clinched that donation by telling him that the quality of becoming rich was God- given, and rich people had the obligation to 

make contributions to worthy causes.  I remember another non-Jewish bricklayer laying all the interior blue-gray brick.  He called them "Jew bricks."

We were young and strong then, pioneers of the only synagogue in the United States physically built by its members.  Now we are filled with great joy and pride knowing that Mishkan Torah has thrived and that the "youngsters" have taken over and expanded on our shoulders that which took place in the "olden and golden days" over twenty-five years ago.