By Stephen J. Kotz
Congregants of Long Island’s oldest synagogue, Temple Adas Israel of Sag Harbor, crowded Osteria Salina restaurant in Wainscott on Sunday to celebrate their 120th anniversary and look toward a future that includes an ambitious plan to renovate the aging building.
“Look at all these faces. Look at all of these wonderful people who have come here today,” said Rabbi Daniel Geffen as he surveyed the crowd. “Think about what it must have been like for our ancestors 120 years ago.”
“It is a great privilege, a great honor to be the rabbi of this community, not just because I am following in the footsteps of other tremendous, remarkable rabbis,” he continued, “but because I get to serve a community filled with people like you who dedicate themselves to the essential teachings of our people, to what Judaism means, who live a life of Jewish values and ethics manifested in the form of a temple as old and as significant as ours.”
The sentiment was echoed by Ronald S. Lauder, who with his wife, Jo Carole, was the honorary chair of the anniversary celebration. “When I was in my 20s, if someone told me I’d be involved in anything Jewish, I would have told them they must have been smoking something,” Mr. Lauder said. “One of the reasons I’ve done Jewish work and been involved in Jewish life is because of Temple Adas Israel.”
Mr. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress and a former ambassador to Austria, recounted that he had been encouraged to attend services at the small Sag Harbor synagogue about 30 years ago. “I used to feel that I was a stranger,” he said of his earlier experience at temple. “When I went to Adas Israel everyone greeted me. It was absolutely wonderful.”
It was because of that good will that Mr. Lauder “has made a large matching grant to the synagogue” to help underwrite a major renovation of the building, said temple vice president Alan Leavitt.
The project, which would require the rest of the congregation to raise an estimated $1 million will renovate ground floor classrooms, which could be converted into an auditorium for overflow crowds on the high holy days, as well as an elevator, new entrances and other improvements.
“It seems daunting that we could raise approximately $1 million, he said, “but 120 years ago, 50 factory workers, working with their hands, in four years raised the money for the synagogue.”
Roger Matloff, another congregant, told the story about the synagogue he attended as a youth in Union City, New Jersey, which was a vibrant congregation much like Temple Adas Israel. One day, to get around a traffic jam, he decided to take back roads and drive past his old synagogue and said he was shocked to find an abandoned and dilapidated building that was for sale. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “My heart fell to my feet.”
“The reason I say this is because you can’t take anything for granted,” he continued. “We have a jewel that must be cared for, most be nourished, and it take a lot of work.”
The temple’s current president, Neal Fagin, who has served in that role for the past 18 years, joked that he had taken on the duties as a summer job but learned quickly that the synagogue was an active and growing community requiring full-time attention. It’s a place, he said, where book clubs, Torah study classes, Hebrew school and other activities can always be found.
Since the congregation moved to a full-time rabbi, first under the leadership of Rabbi Leon Morris, and now under Rabbi Geffen, it has seen a healthy year-round population at weekly services.
“Sitting in that sanctuary just makes you feel good,” he said. “And I’m not really a spiritual person.”
The roots of Sag Harbor’s now thriving Jewish community can actually be traced to a death. In 1889, Jewish residents of Sag Harbor — many of whom were drawn to the village to work in the Fahys Watchcase factory — organized to raise money to buy property for a cemetery after the death of a child. At the time, the closest Jewish cemetery was in Lindenhurst, where a corner of a Protestant cemetery had been set aside for Jewish burials.
Once the cemetery was purchased, attention turned toward the building of a house of worship. In 1896, Nissan Meyerson purchased the lot on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Atlantic Avenue, where the synagogue now stands, for $350. The building itself, which was completed in 1898 and opened for Rosh Hashanah services that year, cost an additional $2,500.
By all accounts, the congregation thrived during those early years. A photo taken on the steps of the newly opened synagogue, originally named Temple Mishcan Israel, shows more than 40 men and boys. About 100 Jewish men, many of whom were recruited at Ellis Island by Fahys, worked at the watchcase factory. Others moved to the village as shopkeepers. But the Depression hit Sag Harbor hard, and many members of the Jewish community moved away.
Margaret Bromberg moved to Sag Harbor in 1945 when she was just 3 years old and began attending services at Temple Adas Israel when she was 8. On Sunday, she said she realized that after being involved with the Temple for much of the latter half of its history and knowing old Sag Harbor residents who were founding members that she could call herself an elder.
She said she was excited that Barbara Reed and Janet Hunter, twins who were members of the Schockett family, one of the synagogue’s founding families, had traveled from Michigan and Arizona, respectively, for the occasion.
“We stand on the shoulders of those families,” she said. “It is important for us to develop some grasp that Sag Harbor has long had a very vibrant Jewish community.”
The synagogue, which had shrunk in size over the years, began to see a rebirth in the early 1980s.
Through it all, it has remained “the warmest, the friendliest synagogue that I’ve ever encountered,” said Karl Grossman, whose grandparents were founders. “And that seems to be the common view of people who are members.”
David Lee, who joined the congregation shortly after arriving in Sag Harbor from his native England following World War II, had this to say about the special occasion: “It took us 120 years, but we did it.”