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Hempstead synagogue celebrates its 100th anniversary this week

Rabbi Michael Eisenstein is shown in the temple

Rabbi Michael Eisenstein is shown in the temple of Congregation Beth Israel in Hempstead on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. The synagogue is marking its 100th anniversary this year and leaders are hopeful it will continue well into the future. Credit: Howard Schnapp

They've been through a devastating fire, three changes of location and a sharp drop in the number of Jewish people living in Hempstead.

But Congregation Beth Israel, one of the oldest synagogues on Long Island, this week marks its 100th anniversary at a time when many other local synagogues are closing, merging or seeing declining membership.

"We love our synagogue, and we try everything we can do to keep it going," said Joe Levin, 94, of Rockville Centre.

The retired Hempstead High School chemistry teacher and Nassau Community College professor said he joined the synagogue in 1947 and has lived through its heyday and trying times. He called reaching the 100th anniversary "fantastic."

Congregants will mark the milestone with a gala dinner Thursday night at the East Meadow Jewish Center, which has a ballroom that can fit the 100 or so people expected to attend.

Rabbi Charles Klein, former president of the New York Board of Rabbis and head of the Merrick Jewish Centre, said Beth Israel's survival is "a testament to people's deep commitment to what a synagogue has meant to their community and their lives for decades and decades." It may be the oldest synagogue in Nassau County, he said.

Congregation Beth Israel was incorporated in 1915 by Jewish merchants in Hempstead who initially worshipped in rented locations, said Richard Krauss, president of the synagogue. The merchants built a synagogue that opened on Centre Street in 1922. As the local Jewish population boomed, the synagogue moved in 1950 to a larger facility on Fulton Avenue.

That was followed by a decline in the area's Jewish population starting in the 1970s and a downsizing of the synagogue. In 1981 the congregation shifted into a Tudor-style house at 141 Hilton Ave.

On Nov. 13, 2013, the complex caught fire after a contractor doing major renovations used a blowtorch to get paint off the exterior walls, Krauss said.

No one was injured, and the sanctuary was untouched except for smoke damage. But there was major damage to the rabbi's office, kitchen and other parts of the facility. It took $570,000 in insurance money and a year to repair before it fully reopened just in time for Hanukkah last December.

Despite the fire, membership has continued an upward trend and is up to about 180 people, Rabbi Michael Eisenstein said.

"With other synagogues falling down, we seem to be on the uptick," said Alan Mantis, whose wife, Adrienne, attended Hebrew school as a child at the synagogue starting in the late 1930s. The couple were married there in 1955.

Still, Beth Israel's membership today is a far cry from that of the 1960s, when it was close to 1,000 people and the rabbi held two services to accommodate all the people during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, said Marianne Baker, a retired accountant from Hempstead who joined the synagogue in 1964. "People would vie for officerships," with two or three candidates applying for each position, she said. "Now you have to ask people."

She and others attribute the synagogue's survival partly to low dues of $250 a year. They raise funds to supplement that income and help meet the synagogue's $130,000 annual budget.

A welcoming environment also attracts people, Baker said. "We are concerned about each other, and we are friendly," she said. "It makes a big difference."


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