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Long Island’s Oldest Synagogue Celebrates Its 120th Anniversary

Temple Adas Israel, Long Island’s oldest synagogue, held a 120th anniversary celebration last weekend. Temple member Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and former U.S. ambassador to Austria, was honorary chair of an anniversary dinner Sunday and praised the warmth and friendliness of the Sag Harbor temple. .

“Every synagogue I used to go to,” said Mr. Lauder, “I felt like a stranger”—but not at Temple Adas Israel. “Everybody greeted me.”

Moreover, he has found the synagogue’s rabbis extraordinary, he said.

Mr. Lauder noted that when he first began going to Temple Adas Israel, Rabbi Paul Steinberg was the synagogue’s spiritual leader, on a part-time basis. The “special” Rabbi Steinberg was otherwise a dean and vice president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, the foremost educational institution in Reform Judaism in the United States. Rabbi Steinberg inaugurated Hebrew Union’s Year-in-Israel Program for its students and established its Israel Rabbinical Program.

He was followed by Temple Adas Israel’s first full-time rabbi in all its years, Leon Morris. “I saw Leon last week in Jerusalem,” Mr. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress since 2007 and a major global figure in Jewish affairs, told the 200 persons in attendance.  Rabbi Morris, his wife, Dasee Berkowitz, and their children made Aliyah. Rabbi Morris is now North America Vice President for Programs in Israel at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Mr. Lauder continued about how Rabbi Morris was succeeded by the synagogue’s current rabbi, Dan Geffen, whom he also strongly praised.

As a young man, said Mr. Lauder, he did not realize “what going to synagogue meant.” Being a member of Temple Adas Israel has dramatically changed that.

The temple’s vice president, Alan Leavitt, announced after Mr. Lauder spoke that Mr. Lauder has “made a large matching grant to the synagogue”—$1 million—to enable it to expand its facilities to provide for “the next 120 years.” The lower floor of the temple, where its Hebrew School conducts classes, would be renovated and other major building improvements made, said Mr. Leavitt.

Temple President Neal Fagin, in introducing Mr. Lauder, said he was the “first to support the temple having a full-time rabbi” and spoke extensively of his commitment to the synagogue.

The event began with Rabbi Geffen speaking of what a “great privilege, a great honor [it is] to be the rabbi of this community.” And, he added: “We are just getting going.”

New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor presented the temple with a proclamation from the State Assembly and spoke of the integral role the synagogue has played in Sag Harbor of which he had been a lifelong resident.

Sag Harbor, on the East End of Long Island, was a thriving whaling port from 1760 to 1850. It was the first port-of-entry in the State of New York, established one day before the City of New York, by an Act of Congress in 1789. Jewish merchants who resided in Sag Harbor were joined in the late 19th Century by Jewish engravers who worked at a watchcase factory founded by Joseph Fahys. Fahys or his agents met skilled Jewish immigrants after they arrived and brought them to Sag Harbor. The Jewish settlement in Sag Harbor came while neighboring communities such as East Hampton and Southampton didn’t accept Jews. For more information about Jews and Sag Harbor, a 2013 television documentary I wrote and narrated for WVVH-TV, “The (Unusual) Jewish History of Sag Harbor,” can be viewed on YouTube.

Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, whose district office is in Sag Harbor, presented the temple with a proclamation from the Suffolk County Legislature. “You have been a critically important part of our community,” she said.

Margaret Bromberg, a former temple president, spoke of the impact the synagogue made on her when her family moved to Sag Harbor when she was a little girl. She introduced two granddaughters of a founder of the synagogue, Barbara Schochett Reed, who had come to the event from Tucson, Arizona, and Janet Schochett Hunter who had traveled from Muskegon, Michigan to be there.

Roger Matloff, a coordinator of the dinner, told those in attendance, “we have a jewel that must be cared for” and emphasized the importance of the expansion plan. “The future is in our hands,” said Mr. Matloff.

And speaking as a 120th birthday cake for the temple was presented were other past presidents and honorees. David Lee, an ex-president, said he was “very proud to be involved with the synagogue and its members,” with his involvement beginning in 1948. Hank Katz told how his late father, Donald Katz, a former president, “put so much effort and wisdom” into the synagogue. Nathiel Egosi, spoke of his late father, Charles Egosi, also a former president, and the deep involvement of his dad who had, he noted, escaped from a Nazi concentration camp and fought in Israel’s War of Independence.

The temple’s 120th anniversary celebration began at Friday evening services and continued through Saturday morning services with remarks made at both by Rabbi Geffen. For the month of June, a photo exhibit depicting people and events through the years has been on display in the temple’s social hall.

About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for 45 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up,” the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and the author of six books.
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