Sixty years ago, in September of 1959, Jewish residents of the new Imperial Gardens development in Westbury found themselves without a place to go for the High holidays. On a Sunday morning, at the corner of Marilyn Lane and Wedgewood Drive, Joe Einbinder remarked that it was strange not being in synagogue. One of his neighbors, knowing that Joe was in Real Estate, said to him, “Why don’t you build us a Temple?” And that was how this place was born. People went door-to-door and handed out flyers for a meeting in a Hicksville school. Fifty families pledged their support with checks of $75. Some people made loans of $1000, and soon the Yoakum property on Cantiague Rd- consisting of a home and a barn, was purchased. On May 12th, 1960, the Westbury Hills Jewish Center was incorporated, with 105 Charter Families. The Barn served as the first Temple, with High Holiday services being held in a tent. Joe Einbinder became the first President. In January of 1962, a vote was taken to rename the synagogue- in recognition of the fact that there were now many families from West Birchwood. Temple Beth Torah won; the runner-up was Temple Menorah. In April of 1964, a Building was dedicated, consisting of a Sanctuary, Classrooms, and a Rabbi’s Study. The cost of construction was $125,000.
What was it that the Founders of our Temple were looking for? I think there were seven things. First, they were all new to the neighborhood, most having come from Brooklyn, and a synagogue was a natural place to meet other Jews and make new friends. Second, it was important to many people that they walk to services on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. (Before the Temple was founded, one man drove to Yom Kippur services for the first time in his life- and he got a flat tire. He saw this as a message from God). Third, families wanted a Hebrew School where they could send their children, and where they could become Bar Mitzvahed (the boys on a Saturday morning, the girls on a Friday night). Fourth, a Temple was considered the best way to make sure they their kids married other Jews. Fifth, having a Temple, and a Rabbi and Cantor, meant that you didn’t have to hire a stranger to perform weddings and funerals. Sixth, joining a Temple was the perfect way to let your parents and grandparents back in Brooklyn know that though you had moved out to Long Island, you were still a loyal Jew. And seventh, a Temple in the suburbs was a step in breaking from the Orthodox Judaism of the old neighborhood, and towards creating a more modern version of Judaism- with clergy who could relate to kids, and talk about current events.
The Founders established a different kind of Long Island synagogue here on Cantiague Rd. It was small: A hundred families at the beginning, and never more than 385 members. It was modest: not a Catering facility with a chandelier and shmorgasbord room, and hardly any parking. As synagogues go, this one had a minimum of politics; it was not run by the rich people or by any other faction. High Holiday seating was first-come, first-served; the elite didn’t get to pay for and pick the best spots. In the spirit of Conservative Judaism’s motto, “Tradition and Change”, we became Egalitarian in the 1980’s. And in sixty years, there were only four Rabbis, and just two Cantors. The style of services here was also unique: The Cantor wasn’t an Opera singer; he wanted people to sing along. And the Rabbi didn’t even sit on the Bimah during Shabbat services, as most other Rabbis did.
What has happened on Long Island over these past sixty years? There’s been a great deal of assimilation. Jews have broken out of their ghettoes-gilded or otherwise- and for the most part the outside world has accepted- and welcomed- us. Fewer families are involved in retail these days, as they were in 1960, and most people have moved into the professions, especially accounting, the law, medicine, and finance. People are working longer hours, and the commute to and from the city takes a toll on family life. Being successful, and living twenty minutes away from the great Gatsby, we aren’t immune from conspicuous consumption: Nicer houses, and cars, and vacations. In more and more families, both parents work. Our kids face tremendous academic pressure from students who don’t go to summer camp or play after-school sports; the competition to get into the best schools is more than many kids can stomach. The obsession with playing sports-in school, or on travel teams, leaves little time for much else. And the demographics on Long Island have changed. Sixty years ago there were a hundred small congregations in Nassau County, in places like Hicksville, Levittown, Bethpage, Baldwin, Farmingdale, New Hyde Park, Freeport, Massapequa, So many of them are now gone. Instead, Jewish communities seem to be coalescing in a few areas- Great Neck, the Five Towns, Roslyn, Plainview, Syosset. In the Westbury neighborhood where we first began sixty years ago, there are now only two remaining Temple families. And I don’t have to tell you what’s happened in Jericho; It’s a case of ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ Having a top school district means a wonderful education for our children, and incredible values for homes. But it also draws other people who want to benefit from the American Dream. Unfortunately for us, the Chinese, Koreans, and Indians don’t join synagogues.
Remember the seven things that our Founders were looking for when they created this Temple? They no longer apply. You create your social network today in the Jericho Athletic Association, or in the PTA, not by joining a Temple. The idea of walking to services at the New Year is no longer practical if you live in East Birchwood or Brookville, and frankly it’s no longer a value for the overwhelming majority of our members. If you want a Bar Mitzvah for your child, you don’t really need a Temple; you can Rent-a-Rabbi and do it at the Country Club… and skip all those years of carpooling. The intermarriage rate in 1960 was about 7%; today, for non-Orthodox Jews, it’s 70%! Most of us have made our peace with the fact that we will have non-Jews in our family. You don’t really need a Rabbi or Cantor for a Wedding – check the Sunday Styles page and see how many services were conducted by friends who became Universal Life Ministers. Grandparents from 1960 are sadly no longer with us, so we don’t need to assure Bubbie and Zayde that we’re still following tradition. And besides, being Jewish today is more about ethnicity and culture- the Holocaust, Jewish humor, bagels and lox. People today are searching for Spirituality, not Religion. The number of Shabbes regulars at our Saturday morning services is about 30- and the average age is over 65.
This year we celebrate Temple Beth Torah’s sixtieth anniversary, our Diamond Jubilee. We look back and we fondly remember. But it’s also a time to look ahead and ponder where we are headed. What’s in store for us? Sixty more years? Or maybe only sixty more months? What does the future hold?
A lot depends on whether you believe that History is Linear, or Cyclical. If Life goes in a straight line, then we reached our peak about 5 years ago, and we’re heading for a crash. Older members are moving out or passing away, or deciding that $2000 a year Dues for a couple of hours in the Fall is not really worth it. At the same time, not many young people with kids are moving in. Our annual budget is about a million dollars, but our dues and Kol Nidre Appeal no longer add up. We can exist running in the red for only so long. Maybe we’ve got another five years, maybe another ten. It was a good ride. But nothing lasts forever.
On the other hand, if History is Cyclical, then we’re just at a low point now, but things will bounce back. Homes aren’t selling as fast as they did a few years ago. The price of those houses is going down. Maybe Asians are looking to other school districts as well as our own. Maybe young Jewish marrieds in the City with kids in Second Grade will again consider moving out to Jericho- because of the Schools, or because they can now afford a house, or because this is where they grew up. And maybe those families will again be looking for a Temple. So we need to just hang on for a few more years, and then “happy days will be here again!”
But there’s a third possibility. Sixty years ago our Founding Members Invented Temple Beth Torah. Maybe sixty years later we need to RE-INVENT our Temple.
Maybe the answer is to become SMALLER. The two things that people care about most are High Holiday services, and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. That’s where we’d need to put our focus, and our energies. If we only have a few dozen people who are interested in Shabbat services, maybe we should create Havurot, or informal minyans that meet in people’s homes. If it’s not ritual prayer, but spiritual practices that members are looking for, then maybe we should offer classes in Meditation and Yoga. Sisterhood and Men’s Club were creations of the middle of the 20th century; do they still have a place in the first quarter of the 21st? Would people today be attracted to the idea of Mitzvah Hevras- groups that are committed to ongoing Social Action Projects? As school enrollment decreases, maybe having the clergy serve as teachers in what would become a modern version of “a little red schoolhouse” makes better sense than a full Hebrew School. Classes for Adults might take place in someone’s home, or in someone’s office during lunchtime. Could the synagogue become the center for various support groups (Bereavement groups, parents of LGBTQ children, AA) with Social Workers as facilitators? Maybe there’s a need for a different way to fund the building, staff and programming. Instead of the old Dues model (take the budget, divide it by the number of members, and everybody pays that amount), some Temples are experimenting with Voluntary Dues (pay what you want) or Fair Share (pay according to how much you earn)- with Fund raising making up the shortfall.
Or maybe the answer is to become BIGGER. Should we copy what the Christians do in a Mega-Church? Imagine if Temples were not organized by neighborhoods, but across several zip codes. Syosset, Plainview, Woodbury, Old Westbury, Roslyn and Jericho would combine to build a huge Jewish Center. On Shabbat, there could be several minyans at the same time- one more traditional, one more touchy-feely, one centered around learning, another one around singing. When it came to social activities, or classes, or youth programs, there would be a much larger base to draw from. The impression in such a building is of a thriving center of constant activity, instead of a dying institution desperately struggling to keep the doors open.
If we were to re-invent the institution, which way would we go? Smaller, or bigger? And here’s the most important question: Would you join?
Only 35-40% of Jews today belong to a synagogue. A majority of people say: “No thank you; I don’t need it.”
Others might say: “Older families whose kids are grown still pay school taxes; there should be Shul taxes on every Jew, to help support the Jewish community- whether they take advantage of the services offered or not.” Hillel taught: AL Tifrosh min HaTzibur: “Do not separate yourself from the Jewish people.”
Here’s what I would say: You do need the Temple, for a number of reasons. Sixty years ago, Jews tended to stick to our own kind. The outside world didn’t often open their arms and welcome us. Today, we live in a different world; Diversity and Pluralism are good things, and Jews have made it, and have been welcomed into every aspect of Society. But you always come back to family. We Jews are masters of living with a foot in two worlds. We don’t want to live in isolated ghettos, but we also don’t accept the old idea of the “melting pot”- where everybody is the same. The story of the 21st century is that we maintain what makes us unique, while respecting, and embracing those who are different. We make a terrible mistake if we abandon the particular and that which makes us unique for only the universal. The Temple is the other home of our extended family. It’s here we celebrate our holidays and our Life Cycle events, it’s here we learn about and embrace the meaning of Israel, and of the Holocaust.
At the same time, I’m sad to say, that we live at a time when anti-semitism is on the rise. When we unite, we’ve got each other’s backs. We are stronger together than we are alone. Remember the Ben Franklin political cartoon from 1765? The snake cut into pieces, with the caption “Join, or Die.” A Temple can’t guarantee physical safety, but it does serve as the place where we can all gather in tough times, and find comfort, and strength, and wisdom.
The Temple can protect us- from spiritual death. We live in a crazy world. We are confronted by so many complex issues: Gun control, Climate change, Immigration, Border Security, Health care, Abortion rights, Taxes, Regulatory policies, Nations- such as Russia, China, North Korea, Iran- who threaten us economically, and even physically. At times we are overwhelmed, and lost. The Temple is a place that can ground us, that conveys to us a set of values that we can try to aspire to, and live by. The Temple is a place where we can search for and find access to God. Seeing the world, and these issues through the eyes of God, and through the teachings of our tradition can give us perspective, and bring us peace.
And there’s another thing that the Temple can offer us. The essence of Judaism, and the lesson of Jewish History is that we always question and we constantly challenge what everyone else blindly accepts. A little kid is told to ask the Four Questions on Passover. An adolescent is given a Haftara to read at his or her Bar and Bat Mitzvah, because the Prophets were people who stood up and said “NO!” to the nonsense and immorality all around them. While others strive to conform, and be like everyone else, our Religion offers a Counter-Cultural voice. It’s no coincidence that Jews have been at the forefront of changing and perfecting society. And where does that voice come from? From our Tradition. And where is that Tradition taught, and learned and practiced? HERE in the Temple.
I want to take a moment to recognize those of our Founders from 60 years who are here with us today: Sue Einbinder, Roz and Bob Blumberg, Roberta Burstein, Rose Cohen, Joan Eglow, Eleanor Friedman, Carole and Harvey Kessler, Al Palatnick, and Evelyn Seelig. We are indebted to you for giving us this most precious Temple. May God bless you! Biz Hun-dred un Tzantzik!
In the coming year, we will be celebrating this our 60th anniversary in a number of ways. We will not only be looking back- we will be looking ahead. We hope that all of you will be with us on the journey.