Celebrating Jewish Life in Sag Harbor
By Stephen J. Kotz
How in the world did little Sag Harbor, a village 100 miles east of New York City, become the home of the first Jewish synagogue on Long Island? That will be the topic of a talk Rabbi Daniel Geffen of Temple Adas Israel will give in the synagogue’s sanctuary at 11 a.m. on Sunday as a part of the Cultural Heritage Weekend in Sag Harbor.
Although the congregation celebrated the 120th anniversary of the construction of the synagogue at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Elizabeth Street last June, Rabbi Geffen said it is clear there had been a Jewish presence in the village for many years beforehand.
Because Sag Harbor was the country’s first official port of entry, “there probably were at least a handful of Jews living here as merchants and traders,” Rabbi Geffen said. “We have tended to be found in any port or major place where there is commerce. That’s just part of our history.”
Sag Harbor’s Jewish population grew when Joseph Fahys moved his watchcase factory to the village in the early 1880s and began to recruit Jewish craftsmen from eastern Europe. Soon enough, the Jewish community was large enough that it had outgrown the typical model members meeting in a community member’s homes for services.
Although there were certainly other Jewish communities on Long Island outside of Brooklyn and Queens, Temple Adas Israel is the first to be incorporated by the state, he said.
“It meant that the community had built itself up to the point where it felt there was a need for a synagogue and that the village was accepting of us,” Rabbi Geffen said. “Remember, we are not talking about now. We are talking about a time when it was not easy to be an outsider. It was not easy to not be a member of the prevailing faith.”
Rabbi Geffen said he decided to give his talk in the synagogue’s sanctuary because many non-Jewish residents of Sag Harbor have never seen it.
“I can’t tell you how many people I meet who don’t know this is a synagogue,” he said. “In a roundabout way, maybe it is an acknowledgement of the comfort with which this community has accepted our congregation, our temple, and ultimately the people who fill it.”