Years before Jerry Seinfeld used bits of Jewish culture as fodder for his eponymous television sitcom, he found a receptive audience at a conservative temple on the South Shore of Long Island. Though its run as the Beth Sholom Center of Amityville and the Massapequas is over, the building where the iconic comedian performed his bar mitzvah (today a Science of Spirituality meditation center) is having its own star turn in "Seeking Sanctuary: 125 Years of Synagogues on Long island," a new photographic exhibit at the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum in Riverhead through Oct. 30.
An exterior shot of the storied 1950s structure is one of 18 images representing 400-plus Jewish houses of worship that have been in existence across Long Island since the late 1800s. They have all been documented — and, when possible, photographed — by exhibition organizer Brad Kolodny and appear in his 128-page book from 2019, also called "Seeking Sanctuary," dedicated to synagogues of the region.
"Long Island has the fourth-largest Jewish community in the United States," notes the 51-year-old historian, who works as a New York Times ad sales exec when he is not combing through county records and temple office files. "It didn’t just happen overnight."
Kolodny, who lives in Plainview, documents that chronology in the historical society show through a broad selection of synagogues that encompasses Ashkenazi and Sephardic congregations, the various denominations of Judaism, and an array of architectural styles. The temples, reflecting the continuing demographic shifts within the community, are large and small, lavish and modest, thriving and defunct.
THE FOUNDATION FOR THE EXHIBIT
The project, Kolodny says, grew out of the transformation of Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, the synagogue attends. Kolodny snapped a few photos of the building to preserve its appearance — and his own fond memories — before a renovation in 2015. "We were taking this sacred space down to its floor boards and wall studs," he says. "I remember asking myself who will remember it as it was? I started to wonder about other synagogues that may no longer exist today."
Those musings led Kolodny to his quest and, early on, an Instagram page called synagoguesoflongisland that now has close to 900 followers. It also led him to Long Island’s first synagogue, Agudas Achim, established in Setauket in 1896 by immigrant workers at a nearby rubber factory and today a thrift shop run by the local Methodist church. "Like others, they came from Manhattan for job opportunities," he explains. "They sought factory and farm work. Jewish peddlers from the city also went from town to town selling their wares and, with some success, were able to open stores."
For decades, synagogues on Long Island shared a similar rectangle design, with a lower level dedicated to offices and classrooms. "Some did not have a Jewish star or other decoration on the exterior that would indicate the building was a Jewish house of worship," notes Kolodny. "Jews in this early period were grateful for the better life they enjoyed in America compared to Eastern Europe and wanted to fit in. At the same time, they held onto their religious observance and kept the Jewish traditions that existed for thousands of years."
Still, there are many architectural standouts in the exhibit, from the makeshift seasonal synagogue on Fire Island founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk to Norman Jaffe’s Jewish Center of the Hamptons, revered for its transcendent wood-clad interior defined by beams bent like worshippers in deference to God. Temple Emanu-El in East Meadow, distinguished for its circular sanctuary formed by a wall of hexagonal glass tiles, was considered worthy of a 1963 exhibition at The Jewish Museum curated by renowned modernist architect Richard Meier.
That synagogue has since been torn down and replaced with a housing development. Others have been repurposed. The Nassau Community Temple in West Hempstead, for example, was converted to a Beverage Barn and is now a laundromat. An early design of prominent synagogue architect Percival Goodman, the Quonset hut-style building resembles an army barracks. "The acoustics were terrible, and it had poor heating," explains Kolodny of the congregation’s abandonment of the structure.
"Even a rabbi in town didn’t know it once was a synagogue," he adds. "It is surprising to learn what is out there and in plain sight."
WHAT “Seeking Sanctuary: 125 Years of Synagogues on Long island” exhibit
WHEN | WHERE Through Oct. 30, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, Suffolk County Historical Society, 300 W. Main St., Riverhead
INFO $5, $3 age 60 and older, $1 age 17 and younger; 631-727-2881, suffolkcountyhistoricalsociety.org