It certainly doesn't look like a synagogue. Much less the oldest synagogue on Long Island.
Dwarfed by the spire of the United Methodist Church next door, the white rectangular building facing Setauket's Main Street is almost remarkable for how unremarkable it looks — an observation first made in newspaper accounts about the synagogue's opening on Sept. 2, 1896.
"It is very plain," yawned the Brooklyn Eagle.
That, explains Brad Kolodny, was by design.
"The plainness of the building was deliberate," says Kolodny, a local author and historian, as he guides a group of visitors toward the nothing-fancy-about-it, brick steps leading to the entrance on a Sunday in August. "The Jews wanted to fit in with the community. There's no ostentation. Nothing about it that would make it stand out."
While no one likely realized it at the time, the opening of this humble structure — built to provide a spiritual home for some of the 400 mostly Eastern European employees of the Long Island Rubber Co., whose factory stood nearby — marked the beginning of a profound social and cultural transformation, one that would reshape Long Island into the next century, and beyond.
Which is why on Sept. 5, almost 125 years to the day since it opened its doors, Kolodny will be unveiling a new historical marker at the old building — at 152 Main St. — through a grant from the Pomeroy Foundation, which handles verification and approval of New York State historical markers. He will be joined by representatives of two local organizations that have supported his cause, North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station and the next-door Setauket United Methodist Church, which has owned the building it renamed "Shalom Hall" (an homage to its earlier incarnation) since 1971.
The historical marker will sit atop a 7-foot metal pole in front of the building.
"I wanted it to say 'First Synagogue,'" says Kolodny. "But they went with 'Former Synagogue.'"
Deep Jewish roots
Kolodny, of all people, is aware of the precariousness of the "oldest" designation in anything historical. The Plainview resident, 51, documented Long Island's synagogues in his 2019 book, "Seeking Sanctuary: 125 Years of Synagogues on Long Island" (Segulah Press). His research confirmed that while Jewish congregations were formed in what is now Lindenhurst as early as 1874 and Sag Harbor in 1883, the first synagogue built for a Long Island congregation was this one. Setauket's Agudas Achim congregation ("association of brothers" in Hebrew) was incorporated in 1893 and within two years had 60 members — most of them workers at the factory. Three years after the congregation's founding, the new house of worship opened.
Today, the 125-year-old building is a reminder of Long Island's deep, Jewish roots, roots that Kolodny, who grew up in Rockland County, has been studying for much of the past six years, culminating in the organization he cofounded this year dedicated to exploring and preserving that history: The Jewish Historical Society of Long Island.
The unveiling of the marker at the former synagogue — now the Methodist church's thrift shop — is, along with a robust website, the society's first official event. But the story it aims to tell, much of which Kolodny has researched, is a rich one that goes back even further than the opening of the Setauket synagogue.
The distinction of being the first Jewish resident in what is now Nassau and Suffolk counties, Kolodny believes, falls to one Nathan Simson, a Brookhaven storekeeper in 1705. But Simson would swim against the tide of Jewish migration over the next 300 years: Instead of leaving the city for Long Island, he moved to the city from Long Island. By 1720, Nathan was in lower Manhattan, where he became president of Shearith Israel — formed in 1654 in what was New Amsterdam, by Jews of Portuguese and Spanish descent. Shearith Israel is recognized as the first Jewish congregation in North America.
Still the fact that Jews have been living and working on Long Island since the early 18th century is significant, Kolodny believes.
"People don't know the history of Judaism on Long Island before World War II," he says. "In fact, many may not even realize there is a history before World War II." By searching census and military records, old newspapers, naturalization papers — not to mention war memorials, where the names of Jewish men who served and, in some cases died, are etched in stone next to their non-Jewish neighbors — he identified more than 4,000 Jews who lived on Long Island before the end of World War I (their names will be published in Kolodny's upcoming book, "The Jews of Long Island 1705-1918," in March 2022).
Case in point: The Fishel brothers, Jonas, Andrew and Leopold, all merchants who settled in Riverhead and Patchogue in the 1850s. In his research, Kolodny found that Andrew Fishel registered for the Civil War draft in June 1863. While it was unclear if he eventually served, one other Jewish Long Islander likely did: Jacob Sidenberg of Hempstead who was drafted into the New York State militia.
Exodus to Long Island
Of course, the Jewish population of Long Island surged in the postwar years, when the promise of inexpensive housing in such new communities as Levittown prompted many young, Jewish men to move their families east — out of the crowded city neighborhoods into which their immigrant parents and grandparents had settled in prior decades.
Kolodny cites a statistic he found in documents at Hofstra University's Axinn Library to underscore that great exodus to Long Island: In 1930, there were 6,000 Jewish residents of Nassau — about 2% of the population. Thirty years later, in 1960, the county's Jewish population had swelled to 345,000 — more than a quarter of all county residents. (Although the population of Jews on Long Island has declined in recent years, Kolodny notes, Long Island is still one of the largest Jewish communities in the United States.)
The influx of new Jewish families in the postwar years was felt in Suffolk, too. In Setauket, the old synagogue — abandoned after the rubber factory burned down in 1904 and much of the original congregation dispersed — was reopened as the North Shore Jewish Center in 1948.
Growing up in the 1950s, Wendy Kaplan attended services in the old building. "It was packed and it was hot," she says with a laugh. "There was no air-conditioning."
The building itself is still crowded — not with people, but tables laden with merchandise for sale at Setauket Methodist's thrift shop: Clothes, shoes, housewares, with all proceeds going to local and overseas charities (something the synagogue's original congregants, themselves beneficiaries of charitable organizations during the odyssey to their new home, likely would have approved of).
In the second-floor gallery — where women and children would have sat during services — the church has Christmas items on sale. Wendy, her husband, Ron, and Kolodny enjoy a laugh at the idea of Santa Claus kitsch and an old vinyl copy of Gene Autry's record "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" for sale in a former synagogue.
'Thrilled beyond belief'
By the 1970s, the local Jewish community needed larger, more modern facilities. In 1971, Kaplan's family and many others moved to a new house of worship: North Shore Jewish Center's new synagogue in Port Jefferson Station. Kaplan — a past president of the center — is delighted to see the synagogue of her youth finally get acknowledgment.
"I'm thrilled beyond belief," she says. "We've been waiting a long time for someone to come along and do this."
That someone — Kolodny — is himself elated when, in a coincidence that feels like divine intervention, a car with two women pulls into the parking lot beside the building. Nancy Goldstein and her wife, Gail Cohan, had stopped when Goldstein recognized Kolodny outside the building. Goldstein, who lives in East Setauket, is the great-great-granddaughter of Elias Golden, a worker at the rubber plant who was a founding member of Agudas Achim.
According to Kolodny's research, Elias and his wife, Rebecca, worked at the factory as did their son Samuel. Like many Jews who immigrated to New York during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they had fled pogroms in modern-day Poland and Russia. "A lineage of trauma," is how Goldstein termed the hardships endured by her ancestors.
The age-old suspicions of their religion that sparked the violent persecutions of Jews in Eastern Europe were never far from the minds of Long Island's Jewish immigrants — even in far-off, bucolic Setauket. "There unquestionably was anti-Semitism on Long Island in the early 1900s," Brad says. While many Long Islanders were tolerant of their new neighbors, there was still apprehension. Indeed, at Agudas Achim’s opening in 1896, the otherwise-cordial keynote speech of a prominent minister — Dr. James H. Darlington, pastor of Christ Church in Brooklyn and a summer resident of nearby Old Field — hints at the sense of "otherness" by which Jews were viewed.
"I come here tonight on your invitation … to greet you as a neighbor and friend," Darlington said that night 125 years ago in a speech reported by the Brooklyn Eagle (and preserved on the Three Village Historical Society website). "Not that I agree with you in all your views or am any less a Christian minister and sincere believer of the Christian faith, but I respect your venerable and most ancient belief as all Christians must … We differ as widely as possible on many points of belief, but there are equally as many we hold in common."
By contrast to the hedged, tolerant-but-cautious reaction of 1896, the modern Setauket Methodist Church has embraced the former synagogue next door. The church's pastor, the Rev. Steven Kim, as well as some members of his congregation, will be on hand for the new plaque unveiling.
"We're very excited to see that it's getting the historical recognition it deserves," said Kim, the pastor here for six years. "Our Methodist Church and Judaism have a natural connection. We say 'shalom' in our services, and we have the Old Testament, too."
And now, they will have a historical marker outside their building, honoring this place and its people — who found a new life and a new opportunity to practice their religious beliefs on Long Island.
Artifacts tell story
A glass beer bottle, manufactured at Jacob Hartmann’s Amityville bottle factory in 1890.
An undated brass candelabra, adorned with a Star of David, from a synagogue in North Bellmore.
An 1890s photograph of the Babylon Base Ball Club, with Harry Fishel — born in Babylon in 1872 — grasping a bat in the picture.
These are three of the items in the Jewish Historical Society of Long Island’s virtual gallery — mementos of local Jewish history that were donated to the organization, formed in June as a nonprofit.
Co-founder and president Brad Kolodny says the idea of such an organization occurred to him while researching a book on the history of Long Island’s synagogues. In his research, he learned that more 25 synagogue buildings on Long Island have closed in the past 20 years. While not a phenomenon unique to Long Island (it’s likely a reflection of the lower participation in organized religion in general, as well as the declining Jewish population on Long Island), it made Kolodny think.
"I wondered, `what memories have already been lost?’" he said. "’And who is recording this?’ The answer: No one."
To that end, Kolodny, and three like-minded friends, decided to form the first historical organization on Long Island dedicated to preserving and celebrating Jewish history here.
His goal for the society is to become "the central repository for information and artifacts pertaining to Jewish history on Long Island." He also hopes to develop programs that "educate the public about the rich Jewish heritage that has existed here for over 300 years."
"I think it’s wonderful," says Howard Kroplick, president of the Roslyn Landmark Society and former historian for the Town of North Hempstead. "And it’s helping to promote an important part of Long Island history. Most people know about the Jewish population here since World War II. But what was here before? I’m eager to learn."
Some of what was here before is evident in the artifacts the JHSLI has already gathered. Kolodny hopes there is much more ahead. One recent, interesting addition (although not yet shown on the website) is a beer license, issued in 1938 by the New York State Liquor Authority to a Jewish-owned grocery store in Quogue run by the Weixelbaum Brothers.
"People want to add to their own family or community history," said Kolodny.
The historical marker ceremony is planned for noon on Sept. 5 at 152 Main St., Setauket. For more information, visit the Jewish Historical Society of Long Island’s website, jhsli.org.
To help celebrate the 125th anniversary of the first synagogue built on Long Island, Suffolk County Historical Society Museum in Riverhead, in conjunction with the Jewish Historical Society of Long Island, is holding an exhibit called "Seeking Sanctuary: 125 Years of Synagogues on Long Island." It features 18 photographs — taken by JHSLI president Brad Kolodny — of synagogues from 1896 to today selected for their historical importance, notable architectural style and other unique attributes.