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In search of LI's oldest synagogue

The Bessel Torah is still in use today

The Bessel Torah is still in use today at Congregation Tifereth Israel, Glen Cove. Photo Credit: Brad Kolodny

Standing at the corner of Elizabeth Street and Atlantic Avenue in Sag Harbor is a sign in front of Temple Adas Israel that indicates it was built in 1898. On the history section of its website, Congregation Tifereth Israel in Glen Cove identifies itself as the oldest continuously operating Jewish congregation on Long Island having been established in 1897. Does this give the distinction of oldest synagogue on Long Island to Tifereth Israel?  Not necessarily.

So, what is the oldest synagogue on Long Island? 

It’s a simple question with a difficult answer. First, let’s establish the fact that when speaking of Long Island I only refer to Nassau and Suffolk counties. Furthermore, what is the definition of a synagogue? Is it a gathering of Jewish individuals for prayer or is it a physical building? Ask two Long Island Jews this question and don’t be surprised if you get three answers.

Through the middle decades of the 19th century, as immigration to the United States increased, individual Jews and families headed east from New York City but were few in number. It wasn’t until 1874 that 10 men gathered in the town of Breslau (renamed Lindenhurst in 1891) to form a congregation called Neta Szarschea. Two years later, the fledgling group purchased land in the Breslau Cemetery but a synagogue was never built.  

In 1881, Joseph Fahys moved his watch case factory from Carlstadt, N.J., to Sag Harbor. Jewish immigrants found employment there and established the Jewish Association of United Brethren in 1883. One of the association's stated objectives was to provide a place of worship for its members that took place in temporary quarters until Rosh Hashanah in 1900, when the first service was held at the new synagogue called Temple Mishcan Israel. By 1918, the synagogue was renamed Temple Adas Israel.

Another factory in Suffolk County, the Long Island Rubber Co., also looked to immigrants to fill manual labor positions. Some 400 employees manufactured boots, hoses and other rubber products for the Setauket firm. In 1893, Agudas Achim was incorporated but had been meeting informally since the late 1880s. By October 1895, the group purchased a plot of land on Main Street and built the first synagogue on Long Island, dedicated on Sept. 2, 1896. After a period of inactivity between 1918 and 1948 the congregation was revived as North Shore Jewish Center, now in Port Jefferson Station. The original synagogue building still stands at 152 Main St. in Setauket.    

Isaac Bessel had a feed and grain business in Glen Cove in the early 1880s and also sold horses. He and his wife, Esther, would hold services in their home simply because they owned a Torah. Enough Jews moved to Glen Cove by the end of the century to organize Congregation Tifereth Israel in 1897. Two years later, Yom Kippur services were held at the opera house on Continental Avenue, a building the congregation would later purchase for use as their synagogue.

Archival holdings, newspaper articles and other documentation give us a peek inside the humble beginnings of the Jewish community in Nassau and Suffolk counties. These resources offer proof that the first Jewish congregation established on Long Island was in Breslau in 1874, and the first building constructed for use as a synagogue was erected in 1896 in Setauket. 

There are so many laws, customs and topics of Jewish interest that are subject to interpretation and open to debate. Add the oldest synagogue on Long Island to the list.  

Brad Kolodny is the author of "Seeking Sanctuary: 125 Years of Synagogues on Long Island." 

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