The small white building on Atlantic Avenue in Sag Harbor gives no hint of a legacy connected to some of history’s most well-known names — Theodore Roosevelt, Betty Friedan and Coca-Cola — or of its own place in American history.
Temple Adas Israel, with its modern siding and updated stained-glass windows, is Long Island’s oldest synagogue and one of the last remaining 19th century synagogue buildings in the United States.
“This is really a special place,” said Eileen J. Moskowitz, 68, the synagogue’s administrator and a former Disney producer. “It’s the history, but it’s the warmth that we extend to people who come here. We generate the warmth here.”
Temple Adas Israel, a Reform Jewish synagogue founded in 1896 as Temple Mishcan Israel, is celebrating its 120th anniversary with a dinner on June 26 at Osteria Salina in Wainscott and the burial of a time capsule to help tell its story.
“We’ll be including everything in the time capsule that shows what happened in this anniversary year, and then we’ll open it in 30 years for our 150th,” Moskowitz said. Included will be the invitation to the anniversary dinner and photographs.
If history repeats itself, there will be many more interesting stories to tell about Temple Adas Israel by 2046.
Legend has it that, as Temple Mishcan Israel, the synagogue was given its first torah, a scroll containing the Five Books of Moses, by future President Theodore Roosevelt. According to the story, he acquired the torah in 1898 after he returned to the United States with the 1,200 Rough Riders he had led in the charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.
When three of Roosevelt’s men contracted yellow fever, he returned to American shores by way of Montauk, and the brigade was quarantined for a month.
While in Montauk, the men held worship services, including Shabbat services for the Jewish soldiers, and a torah was procured. When the quarantine ended and the brigade left, Roosevelt donated the torah to the nearest synagogue, which was Temple Mishcan.
Other historic figures became congregants of Temple Adas Israel, including Friedan. The writer, activist and feminist was a leader of the American women’s movement with her 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique.”
Friedan, who died in 2006 and is buried in the temple cemetery, became the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She co-founded the group in 1966 with politician, educator and author Shirley Chisholm and public relations executive Muriel Fox.
The temple’s congregants have come from all walks of life over the years, said Howard Chwatsky, 79, who has been an active member for about two decades.
Moskowitz said there are about 250 member families who come from throughout the East End and that many vacationers visit during the summer. Young people have their bar and bat mitzvahs there, and Hebrew school, preschool classes and potluck meals are held in the basement.
Ronald S. Lauder, the billionaire son of the late cosmetics giant Estée Lauder, is one of the honorary chairs of the anniversary event. He recalled worshipping at the temple over many years with his mother and other relatives. Estée Lauder created the Manhattan-based Estée Lauder cosmetics empire, which has a research campus in Melville, in 1946 with her husband, Joseph Lauter (later Lauder).
“Congregation Adas Israel is extraordinarily special to my family,” said Lauder, 72, who is president of the World Jewish Congress, a Manhattan-based international federation of Jewish communities and organizations. “My wife and I have attended services there for decades, and time and again brought other generations of our family, including my mother, and our children and grandchildren.”
Lauder said the temple’s “rich history” reflects the journey of the “tenacious and resilient” Jewish community on Long Island and throughout the country.
“At a time when the Jewish community is facing both enormous opportunities and perilous challenges at home and around the world, the shelter, inspiration and comfort that places like Adas Israel bring is as necessary as ever,” Lauder said.
Factory was factor
According to a history of the synagogue written by one of its rabbis during the 1950s, the late Arthur Gilbert, Sag Harbor’s Jewish community was created by Joseph Fahys, an American Christian, when he brought 40 to 50 Jewish men directly from Ellis Island between 1886 and 1888 to work in his watch case factory.
Before their settlement in Sag Harbor, some Jews were already there, including Max Ollswang, Morris Meyer, T. Thomashefsky, Sam Rosenberg and a German Jew named Herman who was known as the village policeman. They organized themselves in 1883 into the United Brethren of Sag Harbor.
In the early years, according to Gilbert, the struggle for a livelihood was dominant. But the death of a child in 1889 hastened a concern for spiritual matters. There was no Jewish cemetery east of Lindenhurst, where a corner of a Protestant cemetery had been set aside for Jews.
So the Jews in Sag Harbor organized a Jewish Cemetery Society. An initiation fee of 25 cents and weekly dues of 5 cents were imposed on all members. In 1890, they purchased land about a mile from the village for $50; the highway between Sag Harbor and East Hampton now passes this cemetery. They cleared land for themselves and Jewish spiritual life began, Gilbert wrote.
Once organized, the Jews decided to build a synagogue to serve their religious needs, and their weekly dues increased to 10 cents. Nissan Meyerson purchased the property where the synagogue now stands for $350. The synagogue committee consisted of Ollswang, Meyer and Edel Spodnick, and the first services in the temple, built for $2,500, were held in 1898.
Walking around the building recently, Chwatsky spoke proudly of the place he calls his second home.
He started with the sanctuary, which accommodates 100. Its cheerful décor pops with royal-blue cushions on the congregant benches and stained-glass windows in bold tones of red, yellow, orange, purple and green. Chwatsky noted the hand-carved wood altar details.
“All of this is hand-carved by immigrant worshippers — artisans and craftsmen — that’s what they brought from Ellis Island,” he said, adding that the updated stained-glass windows are the work of Romany Kramoris, a local artisan from Sag Harbor.
Walking down to the basement, Chwatsky points out the Shema prayer — the most important prayer in Judaism — that hangs over the staircase. He then walks over to a display case — made for the temple’s 100th anniversary — that holds artifacts. One item is a gift from E.L. Doctorow, author of “Ragtime” and “Billy Bathgate,” who died in 2015.
His gift to the temple was a wrought iron, candle-lighted prayer book stand believed to have been used on the bimah (a podium or platform) of a Sephardic synagogue in Spain more than 100 years ago. It is from the bimah that the torah and Prophets are read.
Other items on display are tallit shawls, shofars (rams’ horns) blown to signal a new year, a prayer book from 1900 and applications for U.S. citizenship dating to 1899.
‘An unusual story’
Two years ago, Karl Grossman, a temple member and journalism professor at SUNY Old Westbury, made a documentary about the congregation, “The (Unusual) Jewish History of Sag Harbor.”
The Brooklyn-born Grossman moved to Sag Harbor 42 years ago and has been active in the temple for 25 or 30 years, he said.
“I just thought it’s such an unusual story . . . that Jewish people were accepted on the East End of Long Island,” said Grossman, 74. “In my grandfather’s day, a Jew couldn’t live in East Hampton or Southampton, but Sag Harbor welcomed the Jews.”
Rabbi Daniel N. Geffen, who is 35 and has worked at the temple for two years, even brings a bit of history to the table. His great-grandfather, Tobias Geffen, was an Orthodox rabbi in Atlanta known for his 1935 decision certifying Coca-Cola as kosher.
Like others, Geffen spoke of the warmth that radiates from the congregation and noted how everyone welcomed him and his wife, LuAnne, with open arms.
The couple moved from Manhattan to Sag Harbor when Geffen became the temple’s rabbi. “There was nothing but support to succeed,” Geffen said.
Neal Fagin, 77, the temple’s current president, said Temple Adas Israel is special because “it’s not your typical synagogue. People can come in jeans, come in shorts, come in sandals . . . they’re all welcome. It’s a small synagogue, but it’s a community.”