Perseverance has long been central theme in the Jewish faith. To summarize this on a historical, global or even local scale would be an impossible feat. When Long Island’s oldest synagogue, Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, looked to the past, present, and future this past Sunday, August 12, during the re-dedication of the expanded Chevra Kodetia cemetery, this same theme was interwoven in a ceremony that was at once somber and hopeful. Rabbi Daniel Geffen, temple members, dignitaries, and local elected officials joined to honor what binds those of the Jewish faith together.
Rabbi Geffen prepared to open the dedication near the cemetery’s new reflection circle, standing before a crowd that had long endeavored to make this hard-fought dream a reality, he spoke of the importance of community and of addressing all matters from celebration to loss. Perfectly relevant to the synagogue’s 122-year history, which evolved from its Orthodox roots when founded in 1896 to conservative in 1948 and then reformed in the 1950s as it is today, Rabbi Geffen said it is those who have passed away that are treated is most essential.
“No matter where Jews have lived in the world, where they have begun communities and built synagogues, before they even laid that first stone of their sanctuary, more often than not the first thing they will do is build a cemetery,” Rabbi Geffen said. “Our experience is exactly the same. The cemetery and the historic place were the first thing our ancestors did to ensure that when the inevitable would happen that we would have an appropriate place to take care of our own.”
Born out of a concern for spiritual matters when a Jewish child died in 1889, members of the Sag Harbor Jewish community organized a Jewish Cemetery Society marking the beginning of spiritual life in the area. Today, this cemetery is just one of three on the East End. The synagogue itself came later on the property that had been purchased by Nissan Meyerson in 1896 and was built to be both reflective of an eastern European synagogue and the wooden Colonial church architecture popular of the period. Because it was an Orthodox Temple, men and women worshipped separately. There were 50 member families at the time. Today, there are 250.
“I don’t think our ancestors could ever have imagined what our Temple has become over the years or even imagine that it would be necessary to expand the cemetery,” Rabbi Geffen said, a nod to the struggles of Sag Harbor’s early Jewish immigrants to redefine family life in the new world. “In many ways, what we are doing today is beginning the process of completing a task that was started more than a century ago, and with that there is great significance and pride.”
Temple president Neal Fagin, current vice president and soon-to-be co-president Alan Leavitt, and treasurer and head of the cemetery committee Howard Chwatsky, gave thanks to those that had supported the cemetery over the years, including the late Donald Katz, a past Temple president, and architect Lee Pomeroy. Both had a vision for the expansion on the nearly one-acre parcel that was purchased in 2011. The land was within a short distance of a water recharge district, causing many hurdles in planning.
“The zoning board was concerned with the water retention area,” Chwatsky recalled. “A Jewish cemetery is the most ecologically healthy area. We use wooden boxes, our coffins have no nails in them, and we don’t embalm.”
Rona Klopman, temple board member, said education was essential in getting the expansion approved with East Hampton Town Trustees and the Zoning Board of Appeals. “You come from this earth and you go back to the earth,” she said. “In educating them as far as Jewish tradition, we were pretty successful. It took us a year and a half.” The expansion was finally approved in 2014.
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming praised the perseverance of Temple leadership. “This is a very difficult time in our world,” she said. “It’s an honor to stand with the Adas Israel community and cemetery community at a time like this. Since the 19th century the Jewish cemetery has withstood obstacles, threats, internal division, zoning and building codes, and still somehow managed to be committed whole heartedly to that which is true and just.”
East Hampton Town Councilman Jeff Bragman found the dedication to be hopeful for a peaceful world despite the disquieted times the Jewish community is facing with a rise in anti-Semitism around the world and even in the Village of Sag Harbor, he said. “There’s something soothing and calming about knowing that a well-settled Jewish community has the perseverance to create a cemetery for us and for future generations, and reaffirms our status and existence in the community,” Bragman said.
Sag Harbor Mayor Sandra Schroeder was also in attendance and commended Temple leadership for maintaining a space that is a place of peace and honor. “You’ve created a beautiful ever after,” she said.
Closing the dedication, Rabbi Geffen buried a genizah, a tradition in which religious texts are buried with the same respect as if it were a person. Wrapped in a prayer shawl and buried near the space for new plots while a Kaddish was sung, the genizah symbolized the sacredness of God’s name and work living on forever.
“Judaism has some very unique qualities in comparison to other faiths,” Rabbi Geffen said. He is the second full-time rabbi at the temple after its first, Leon Morris, moved to Israel in 2014. “We actively participate in the burial ourselves rather than give the task to others to do for us. There is an intimacy involved in it that can be painful but also in my experience rather cathartic.”
The rabbi’s wife, temple director of community engagement Lu Geffen, was moved by the cemetery dedication as both a liberal Jew and a parent navigating through today’s political climate. Sitting on the brick ledge of the reflection circle she couldn’t help but think of the circle of life and how Temple Adas Israel has persevered. “There’s also a natural beauty there at our cemetery that speaks to life,” she said. “In a place where the dead are buried, that circular space plus the lush greenery and all the abundant trees, reminded me of life and how the memories of our loved ones live on in the stories we tell and the lives we lead.”