They gathered on the front steps and turned toward the camera — 50-odd fathers, grandfathers, husbands and children — standing strong and proud.
At their backs is Temple Mishcan Israel, a synagogue, spiritual home and symbol of the Jewish community they built from the ground up in the late 1800s, a labor of gratitude and love for the new lives they had found in Sag Harbor.
And over 120 years later, after surviving a tumultuous history, the temple is still a pillar of the community today, vibrant and alive as ever, according to Rabbi Daniel Geffen.
“That picture that we have of a bunch of the congregants standing on the front steps, I think it’s from the early 1900s,” he said, “and I often remark to people that I don’t think that these people could have had any idea, ever in their minds, that there would be the same congregation that would have 260, 270 families and 50 kids in the Hebrew School and a renovation coming up. All of these things would have been inconceivable to them.”
Now known as Temple Adas Israel, the oldest synagogue on Long Island stands as a metaphor for the Jewish experience, one of resilience and overcoming the most impossible of odds. It is a theme passed down through the generations as both a practical tool in everyday life and, above all, the faith that Jewish existence is not accidental, insignificant or trite, Geffen said.
It has purpose, he said.
“Our congregation has been entrenched in some of these bigger challenges that not just the world is facing but, specifically in Judaism, a very real sense of the anti-Semitism,” Geffen said. “In some ways, our defining characteristic as a people is our resilience. Think about how many other peoples have existed in the world that have been obliterated and we no longer have any record of them whatsoever. All of the things, people or powers that have tried to ultimately overtake the Jewish people, at one point of another, have failed.”
The Early Days
The particular story of Temple Adas Israel begins with a certain group of businessmen and local government officials who convinced Joseph Fahys, a watchcase manufacturer, to move his factory from Carlstadt, New Jersey, to Sag Harbor. With him, he brought hundreds of desperately needed jobs to a struggling community in the midst of recovering from the demise of the whaling industry — one that had fueled its economy for over 100 years.
His relocation happened to coincide with a massive wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States. Chief among them were watchmakers and fine metal craftsmen, Geffen said, and when they arrived in Sag Harbor, building a synagogue was a top priority.
“When you study Jewish history, since we lived basically in exile on Diaspora for 2,000-plus years, there was a sort of pattern of behavior,” he explained. “When a Jewish community started to build itself, there began to be a necessity for an actual synagogue. These first guys who were coming out here, they just knew they were putting their stakes down, they were going to raise their families there and, as a result, they needed a place to pray and a place to live their Jewish lives.
“Synagogues are, first and foremost, places of prayer, but they’re also places of learning and places of celebration and, in some cases, of consolation,” he continued. “That was why even with very meager beginnings, they really defied all odds in being able to create a tangible community in a much faster fashion than I would have expected.”
In 1889, following the death of a child, Sag Harbor’s early Jews collected money to found Cemetery Society, with an initiation fee of 25 cents and weekly member dues of five cents. The following year, they purchased land for $50 and cleared it themselves, officially marking the beginning of Jewish spiritual life in the village.
The next logical step was to build a synagogue, raising weekly dues to 10 cents and, in 1896, purchasing the property where the synagogue now stands for $350.
“Gratitude is maybe at the center of specifically Temple Adas Israel’s history,” Geffen said. “The idea that these founding people had found their place to be, and for them it was important that the best way they could show their gratitude to God — which I’m sure they legitimately felt their need to say if Sag Harbor was anything like it is today — was to build a synagogue and to build it in the best possible fashion.”
Combining the architectural form of a wooden Colonial church and an Eastern European synagogue, the white-painted temple — with its signature peaked roof and pair of pillars on either side of the entrance — opened its doors for Rosh Hashanah services two years later.
And at the center of the New Year festivities was a Torah of legend.
“I will toe the party line until I’m told otherwise,” Geffen said, “but here’s what I will say: History is a challenging field because definitively proving things, especially ancient things, is challenging. But, basically all the details surrounding the story, outside our narrative, add up.”
As the tale goes, Theodore Roosevelt gave the synagogue its first Torah, which he had acquired in 1898 when he returned to the United States with the 1,200 Rough Riders he had led in the charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.
When three of his men contracted yellow fever, Roosevelt returned to American shores via Montauk, where the brigade was quarantined for a month to assure no one else caught the contagious disease. It was there that he procured a Torah for his Jewish soldiers to properly observe Shabbat services — and, when they went on to a hero’s welcome in Manhattan, he donated it to the nearest synagogue, Temple Mishcan Israel.
“I feel very confident that I can say this story is correct and we treat that Torah with great reverence,” said Geffen, who had read from it a day earlier. “And if it should ever be proven untrue, we’ll accept that. But at least from our oral tradition that has been handed down, that is our story and we’re sticking to it.”
The Lean Years
While Temple Mishcan Israel attracted Jews to Sag Harbor from across the East End, the 1920s marked both the economic decline of the village and the synagogue itself. New laws restricted immigration, setting rigid quotas and ending decades of new Jewish settlement, and then, there was the fire of 1925.
It consumed large portions of the Fahys Watchcase Factory and the Alvin Silver Factory, forcing them to lay off hundreds of workers and cease production — and, inadvertently, dwindling the number of Jewish families to less than a dozen. Money to pay visiting rabbis dried up, the structure began to deteriorate and the mikvah was boarded up, not to be seen again until it was accidentally discovered in 1977.
During the years in between, the remains of the congregation and synagogue were predominantly lay-led and lay-repaired, with founding members often seen taking to the roof to patch holes. The temple abandoned its Orthodox roots in 1948 and with its new Conservative identity came a new name — Temple Adas Israel — as well as an influx of creative types looking for a spiritual home.
In the 1950s, the synagogue was once again a center for Jewish life, even without a full-time rabbinic presence, and the need for an expanded sanctuary arose. In 1956, the temple bought the adjacent lot for $1,500, building toward a future that would, most notably, usher in a Reform religious practice, a full-time rabbi, a swath of renovations — including new stained-glass windows by Sag Harbor artist Romany Kramoris — and a surge in the congregation’s population.
“This is a congregation that is not only surviving, but truly thriving,” Geffen said, “and its potential actually hasn’t even been close to tapped.”
Nathiel Egosi’s earliest memories of the synagogue date back to his childhood in the early 1960s, when his father took him for a nighttime drive to see the Eternal Flame, a symbol of God’s eternal presence that is, therefore, never extinguished. Its meaning was lost on the young boy at the time, but after his lifelong relationship with Temple Adas Israel, it resonates deeply.
“It’s not difficult to see around us how whatever is here today may not be here tomorrow,” he said. “Every day, I’m busy doing my thing, but when I’m in the synagogue, it brings me back in time and has me reflect on my roots, where I’ve been, my family, so with those feelings, it reminds me what is my purpose, and when I walk out, what do I do with that feeling.”
For Neal Fagin, his involvement in the synagogue began as innocuously as pulling over his car to help a man “shlep” prayer books into the temple, the board president of 24 years recalled with a laugh.
“Somewhere in the beginning, I was co-president, and now I’m co-president again because I really have one foot out the door, but I’m tripping because I can’t get out the door!” he said. “It’s hard because I live here most of the time, and I stop at the temple very often.”
With close to 300 families in the congregation — and a growth rate of five to 10 more every year — the synagogue established its Hebrew School in 2003 and became a year-round house of worship in 2010, a milestone for many members, including Mr. Fagin.
“When my family moved to Lynbrook in 1944, there weren’t many Jewish families and the local synagogue really became a hub for the families,” he said. “I grew up very involved. It was an area where the kids, besides the religious aspect, it was very social. At the temple, we had Hebrew School twice a week, Cub Scouts, youth group, and so I grew up not religious, but very Jewish.”
The synagogue’s new identity and vitality convinced Rabbi Leon A. Morris, who had served the congregation on a part-time basis for 10 years, and his wife, Dasee Berkowitz, to move their family to Sag Harbor. When the family realized a long-held dream of making aliyah to Israel, Geffen and his wife, LuAnne — who serves as the temple’s director of community engagement — moved in.
In the last five years, the Hebrew School has grown from less than 20 students to over 50, Fagin reported. And with a capital campaign and more renovations on the horizon, he attributes the overall good health of the synagogue, in part, to Geffen.
“Rabbi Dan is inclusive,” Fagin said. “When I say inclusive, I mean the Jewish identity is tough to maintain. At least half of the 50 students come from mixed marriages and Dan doesn’t care if someone doesn’t convert, if a parent doesn’t convert, or the kids don’t convert. The Reform Jews believe lineage from either the father or the mother. They don’t care. A lot of rabbis do care, but Dan doesn’t care. If someone wants to be Jewish and wants to be bar or bat mitzvahed, or b’nai mitzvahed, fine! We take them! No conversion, no dunking under the water. It’s not a requirement. This is not how the world is today.”
When considering which congregation to join, Geffen said his draw toward Temple Adas Israel was undeniable, from its century of history and deep community roots to the one-page description he read about it.
“This congregation used the Yiddish word haimish, and I’m not exaggerating, at least 20 times in a single page,” he said. “The word haimish is hard to translate exactly, but what it means is home-like. It should feel like you’re coming home. The thing was, I said to my wife, even if we don’t know what this word means, this is exactly the place we have to be.
“And we’ve found it was, in a very rare instance, exactly as what it advertised itself as: a place that emphasizes the idea that when people walk through the door, regardless of who they are, they should feel they are in their spiritual home,” he continued. “I’m just thankful that everything worked out the way that it did, and I very much hope we’ll be here for the rest of our careers.”
A week after the High Holy Days services, Geffen was self-admittedly exhausted. “I jokingly and not-so jokingly always say that nobody threw anything at me, so I figure that’s a good sign,” he said.
Of the six times he has led the congregation through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this year felt the most meaningful, he said. As a congregation, they accomplished significant spiritual work, he said, connecting to one another and the challenges they face every day outside and within the synagogue.
“There are a lot of things about this job that are challenging,” he said. “One of them tends to be that I wake up some days and I realize that I’m responsible, in some form or the other, for a congregation that is 120-something years old. That can be a heavy weight in some degree, but it is also the inspiration, because it survived all those years after all those hardships, after all those situations and redefined itself so many different times.
“At a time when religious institutions are closing all over the place, especially synagogues, the fact that it is the exact opposite situation is really a testament first and foremost to the people of the congregation and the leadership of the congregation, long before my time.”