Sag Harbor Remains a Special Place for Jews

Gertrude Katz at Temple Adas in Sag Harbor.

Every Friday night for Shabbat services, Debbie and Steve Woloschin make the trek to Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor Village from Remsenburg. It takes them about 45 minutes.

There are closer temples, including the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton and the Chabad of Southampton Jewish Center. But they feel most at home in Sag Harbor.

“Ever since we joined, the people there, they go out of the way to welcome you and make you feel like family,” Ms. Woloschin said. In fact, almost immediately after joining, they were invited to a fellow member’s home for Shabbat dinner.

Sag Harbor Village has always been a welcoming place for Jews, according to 89-year-old Gertrude Katz, who spoke at Temple Adas Israel on Friday evening about growing up Jewish in the village.

Ms. Katz’s parents opened the Fil-Net Shoppe, a women’s clothing store, on Main Street in March 1930. Her grandparents, who came from Poland, lived on the North Fork in Greenport, which also had a large Jewish population at the time.

The Fil-Net Shoppe—named after both of Ms. Katz’s parents, Phil Rosenstein and Nettie Katz—stood right next to the Sag Harbor Cinema, and she and her family lived above the store. At that time, many local families lived above stores on Main Street.

Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor.

Ms. Katz, whose late husband Donald Katz served as president of Temple Adas Israel for 25 years, recalled that when summer visitors would arrive in town for the season, they would know to come to the Fil-Net Shoppe to ask for a minyan, a group of ten Jewish men that is often needed for certain religious prayers.

“They assumed that a Jewish person owned the store,” Ms. Katz said, nodding her head. “My mother would get on the phone and call East Hampton, Southampton, Hampton Bays—they would always be able to get ten [Jewish] men together.”

“It was the way things were done,” she added.

Even during World War II when Jews were the subject of mass murder at the hands of Adolf Hitler, and anti-Semitism was front and center globally, Ms. Katz, though aware of her Jewishness, said she and her family felt at home in Sag Harbor.

“There was actually less separatism in those days than there is now,” she told the room. “People were very busy putting food on the table.”

She recounted that her mother used to close the Fil-Net Shoppe for two days during the Passover holiday—and that the community understood why. “People respected each other’s religion,” Ms. Katz said. “People said, ‘Have a nice holiday.’”

Ms. Katz explained that she grew up keeping kosher, meaning that foods had to comply with Jewish religious dietary law, one of which states that meat and dairy products cannot be cooked or eaten together. Her family would eat their “meat” meal during lunchtime and after school, Ms. Katz said she would often need a glass of milk. “I inevitably wound up at other peoples’ homes in town,” she said. “I had people giving me glasses of milk—sometimes they would kid me and say, ‘Did you drink your milk today?’ It was like a password.”

Every year on a Sunday in June, a fundraiser for her synagogue was held at Herb McCarthy’s Bowden Square in Southampton Village. “Everybody in town came, all the trustees, the mayor, the police—the town supported it,” she said, emphasizing too that Mr. McCarthy gave them the space on a Sunday night “out of respect.”

“It was a very big deal in the summer,” Ms. Katz said, her voice rising, as the congregation erupted into laughter. “It was not this—I really don’t understand it, what’s happening.”

Anti-Semitism in the United States and across the globe has increased dramatically in recent years. In its most recent data release, the FBI reported that there was a 37 percent increase in anti-Semitic attacks from 2016 to 2017.

“Anti-Semitism is worse than ever in this country in many ways,” said Karl Grossman, an investigative journalist—who often presents on the history of Jews on the East End and made a documentary called “The (Unusual) Jewish History of Sag Harbor”—and whose Hungarian Jewish grandparents came to Sag Harbor in 1900 to work at the Fahys Watchcase Factory. He referenced the recent attacks at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh last October, where 11 people were shot dead, as well as the shooting at Poway Synagogue in San Diego in April that killed one person.

But Mr. Grossman too emphasized that Sag Harbor Village has always been a “center for Jews,” even when compared to surrounding villages. In addition to Temple Adas Israel, the Center for Jewish Life on West Water Street is also up and running, hosting orthodox religious services every weekend. Though a different denomination from Temple Adas Israel, it too has found a welcome home in Sag Harbor. “To me, it brings a warmth to my heart,” Mr. Grossman said, adding that Rabbi Dan Geffen has worked diligently with other clergy in the village. “Jews…have been accepted within the ecumenical spirit of Sag Harbor.”

The positive energy on Friday night at the temple—the oldest Jewish congregation on Long Island—was apparent and palpable. The music during services was led by a student cantor whose talent appeared to bely her age. It forced members of the congregation to their feet, and many danced around the room, arms intertwined with smiles on their faces.

One member even welcomingly asked me, “Would you like to dance?”