As most congregants trickled out of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor Village on Saturday morning, Rabbi Dan Geffen gestured to two who were left. They were cleaning up, putting away leftover baked goods from the Kiddush lunch.
He said that their work — and that of all the dedicated temple staff and volunteers — is why the oldest synagogue on Long Island continues to flourish today. But the congregation recently came together to celebrate Rabbi Geffen himself — and his warm, welcoming demeanor — in light of his fifth anniversary at the helm of the temple.
“Rabbi Dan fills a great need — his warmth, his wisdom,” said Eileen Moskowitz, the temple administrator.
Rabbi Geffen was born and raised in New York City. He comes from a family of rabbis and educators; his brother is a rabbi, his grandfather was a rabbi and his great grandfather was, yes, a rabbi, and also the first rabbi to make Coca-Cola kosher. His father, Peter Geffen, founded the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, a prominent Jewish day school. But perhaps unique about Rabbi Geffen is that he came to Temple Adas Israel immediately after being ordained by Hebrew Union College — without experience at a larger temple in an assistant position first, as is the norm.
“It was a very significant risk that the congregation took,” Rabbi Geffen acknowledged. “It shouldn’t be lost on anybody, especially a congregation as old and historic.” He added that members of the congregation were understandably concerned about “a kid coming in and taking over the congregation.”
But to the rabbi, that concern was comforting. On a broad level, rabbis have the ability to shape a congregation for years, even decades to come, and to him it signaled the already strong community that was Temple Adas Israel.
“Being a rabbi is imprinted in his DNA,” said his wife, LuAnne “Lu” Geffen, who is also a Jewish educator and serves as the director of community engagement at Temple Adas Israel. “It’s been so a part of his milieu his entire life.”
The pair, their three-year-old daughter, Eva, and their dog, have settled down in North Haven. They plan on staying in Sag Harbor — and at the temple — for the rest of their careers.
“The first thing that anyone said to us when we got here was, ‘Welcome home,’ and it’s been just that since day one,” Ms. Geffen said.
Rabbi Geffen and his wife both acknowledged that, upon their arrival, many things at Temple Adas Israel were working well, thanks in part to Rabbi Leon Morris, Rabbi Geffen’s predecessor. But in light of today’s political landscape, the temple has jumped head first into the world of social justice.
In fact, Minerva Perez, executive director of Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, or OLA — a nonprofit dedicated to furthering social, economic and educational development in Long Island’s Latino and Hispanic communities — will speak at the temple in August. The congregation is exploring ways to partner with OLA in a way that benefits the diverse community on the South Fork.
“The current [immigration] policy is—I will only speak for myself—unacceptable even through the eyes of the constitution of this country,” Rabbi Geffen said. “To me that is the crisis of the moment that is in the greatest need of our attention.”
He continued, “In our tradition, we are commanded to help those who don’t have the power to help themselves, or don’t have the voice or financial resources or professional experience necessary to fight within a system that is basically stacked against them.”
Rabbi Geffen has also worked with other clergy in the area, including Karen Campbell of the Christ Episcopal Church, on projects such as Maureen’s Haven, which provides temporary shelter to the homeless during the winter months using various houses of worship.
“Nobody is under the illusion that all of our religions say the same thing, or believe the same thing, or that we don’t have complicated pasts with each other, but I think more and more in this era we’re realizing the interconnectedness of our relationships,” Rabbi Geffen said. “If you spend time learning about each other and learning about each other’s sacred texts, more often than not it comes down to one major concept, which is love.”
At times, the rabbi said, it can feel like Sag Harbor is an idyllic place. The community isn’t always confronted with many of the harsher realities that are prevalent in the rest of the world. He recalled growing up in New York City, where it wasn’t unusual to see someone begging for food or in need of a place to sleep.
“The way we tend to look at things in Judaism…you don’t have to finish the task but it’s not acceptable to not do anything at all,” he said. “If Judaism or any tradition means anything, it’s that we have a job to do.”
Temple Adas Israel will also cosponsor the second East End Walk for Interdependence on July 14 in Sag Harbor, which again will use the theme of “keeping families together.”
Other in-house programs at the temple are also thriving, including Challah Day, where families with children braid challah — a special traditional Jewish bread — sing songs and learn about Shabbat, as well as Shabbat by the Bay in Sag Harbor, which in addition to a regular service has a social justice component.
There are now over 250 families with membership at the temple and the Hebrew School has doubled in size to 50 children. That lends credence to the important work the temple does in the community, its programming, as well as that of Shelley Lichtenstein, the school’s director.
“It’s such a good vibe in this place,” Ms. Lichtenstein said. “Rabbi Dan is fun to work with and the kids like to come — they really do have a good time.”
“Dan is welcoming,” said Neal Fagin, who has served as president of Temple Adas Israel for 22 years. “He’s really established a community — we’re part of the community.”