By Irving F. Shaw, Past President
When writing the history of the first ten years of Congregation Etz Chaim, then called the Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Community Centre, I began by saying “there are some things to which we have grown so accustomed that we take them for granted”. Many have come and gone, only a few of the founding members still remain with us. But our Congregation stands strong and vigorous as a Tree of Life in our community. Many of the leaves have fallen, but always there is new life, and new branches reach upward.
We celebrate our joys at the beautiful Synagogue on Main Street; and sometimes when sorrow visits us, we turn to the Synagogue for solace and understanding. It’s as though it was always there. But the Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Centre had small beginnings.
In the Spring of 1949, a handful of men met in the basement of a home on Talfor Road. Concerned to know where their children would learn the heritage of their faith, study its language and observances; where they themselves could worship on the Sabbath and the High Holy Days or observe a Yahrzeit, they organized a Jewish Community without a formal name or home.
By June of 1949, the group of eleven had grown to over one hundred. A committee selected the name “Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Community Centre”‘ organized “for the betterment of our social, religious and civic life”. There was lively participation in the drafting of a constitution, selection of a meeting place and preparation for High Holy Day services. The first such services were held a few months later at the Hewlett Point Beach Club with a temporary Rabbi, Rubin R. Dobin.
The enthusiastic response to these services helped the membership to grow by leaps and bounds. Meyer Tack was elected as the first President of the Congregation. In a far-sighted move, on November 21, 1949, a binder was placed on the purchase of the Tameling Estate, (at one time the home of Rudy Vallee) consisting of two buildings on three and three quarter acres of land on Main Street. With property already becoming scarce, the purchase was made in a rapidly rising market at a total cost of $37,000. (Compare that to the cost per acre today!) Title was taken on January 25, 1950 and the buildings were soon in active use. The larger building served as the original sanctuary and religious school on the present grounds.
There was a spirit of excitement and purpose throughout the Jewish community, and a feeling of accomplishment. While the men organized various activities, launched the Hebrew School in November, 1949, purchased the real estate, conducted religious services and planned a variety of social events; Sisterhood was organized and soon became an important arm of the Synagogue.
Sisterhood has actively supported every function of the Synagogue and has been directly responsible for the success of the Children’s Services, the decoration of the Sukka and innumerable Oneg Shabbats, lecture series and other activities. It makes a significant financial contribution to the Synagogue every year. The past Presidents of Sisterhood were honored by the Congregation at the Annual Dinner Dance in 1995.
By May, 1950 the Congregation, still less than a year old, already owned its property and conducted an active Synagogue Center and Religious School. The Centre became a gathering place for young and old, and most important, the core of our spiritual involvement. After several interviews, the Congregation engaged Rabbi Milton Feierstein as its spiritual leader. He served as our Rabbi until 1959. In 1960, Dr. Morris M. Goldberg became our Rabbi, retiring in 1974. Rabbi Sheldon Switkin held the post from 1974 to 1976. Dr. Stanley Platek has been our distinguished Rabbi since 1976 and has given enlightenment, instruction and guidance to the membership of Congregation Etz Chaim. Rabbi Platek has an invaluable helpmate in Cele, who has participated in many Sisterhood and Synagogue functions.
Cantor Mordecai Feinerman was engaged by the Congregation in September, 1950 and served until 1972. In 1973, Cantor Meyer Davis became our second Cantor followed by Cantors Morris Dubinsky, Nissim Benjamini, Emanuel Perlman and Stephen Texon.
Cantor Adam Goldstein came to Etz Chaim in 1991. Cantor Goldstein, with his wife Holly not only reorganized a very active Synagogue choir, which participates in the High Holy Day and other services, they have also presented several outstanding concerts by the Goldstein Family Singers and other artists.
The original buildings of the Tameling Estate soon became totally inadequate for the Congregation. In 1950 a famed architect, Morris Lapidus, was engaged to design a Synagogue building. His plans for us won a first prize in a 1951 national competition as one of the most beautiful designs submitted. The Congregation contracted for the construction of the Synagogue, which was started in 1951. In the meantime, for the next four years, High Holiday Services were held in a large tent on the Centre grounds.
The new building was first used for High Holy Day Services in 1955. The school continued for several years in the Estate house, which was razed in 1960 when a new school building and gymnasium were finally completed.
None of these great strides could have been accomplished without the devoted service of the many men and women who gave unstintingly of their time and energy. The Congregation has been particularly fortunate to have had exceptional leadership.
The funds for the rapid growth of Congregation Etz Chaim and the many services it provides, came not only from the nominal dues, but from a variety of fund raising activities. In the first few years the Community Players brought pleasure as well as profit. The Annual Bazaar was held in a large tent on the grounds, during the years before the gym was built. Thanks to the generous contributions of merchandise and the tireless efforts of many members, large sums were realized. Other large and important contributions were obtained through the Annual Journal Dinner Dance, which also became the social highlight occasion of our Synagogue Year.
The Annual Kol Nidre Appeal has been a mainstay of our Synagogue support for all these years, and has helped to preserve the dignity and spiritual tone of the High Holy Day Services by eliminating the need for appeals during services. This has been possible only as a result of the devoted service, year after year, of the Kol Nidre Appeal Committee headed by Al Levy and by Stanley L. Cohen. The Patrons Society, Project Renewal and other special funding drives have been another major source of funds. We are indebted to the members who have given their generous support to these special needs.
As concerned Jews, Congregation Etz Chaim has given leadership to drives on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal, Israel Bonds, the rescue of Soviet Jewry and such charitable groups as Hatzilu and other causes.
At many of our major functions and charitable drives the Congregation had the honor of acting as host to such luminaries as then U.S. Representative (later Vice President and President) Gerald R. Ford, Senator Wayne Morse, Abba Eban, Robert Briscoe (the Jewish Mayor of Dublin), Ambassador Yitzchak Rabin, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, Ambassador and Mrs. Abraham Harman, Max Dimont, U.S. Representative Herbert Tenzer, U.S. Representative Norman Lent and many other dignitaries.
As the Synagogue grew, so did its capable staff. In 1955 the need for an Executive director was recognized and Robert Fox was engaged to fill this post. He served in this position for thirty years to 1984. Robert Fischer has been our Executive Director since 1986.
Also in 1955, Dr. Herbert K. Lerman became Educational Director and Principal of the Hebrew School, serving until 1973. Since 1977, Mordecai Mahfouda has been the Director of the Religious School. In 1990, Nachum Plotkin joined the staff as Ritual Director. Under the leadership of Rabbi Platek, these men, and the teaching staff, Congregation Etz Chaim has achieved its present standing as a leading Religious School in its communal activities and high educational standards.
The Congregation has broadened its educational facility by establishing a Nursery School. Through the playing of games and the telling of stories, the children are given a sense of the cultural heritage and religious values of the Jewish people. Cheryl Karp is our current and most capable Director of the Nursery School.
Since its organization, the Centre has also been a focus of community social activity. Sisterhood brought the women together. The Men’s Club, which was organized a few years later, has been a vital force in bringing fathers and sons to Etz Chaim for sports and social activity. The Youth Group programs have been outstanding and received many awards. Our USY Group has been voted the most outstanding in the United Synagogue Metropolitan Region.
From January 1950, the news of Synagogue activities and personal highlights in the lives of our members have been brought to the membership by “Hakol”, our official publication. Hakol has been awarded first prize several times in the United Synagogue Bulletin annual contest.
It is impossible in this brief history of the Congregation to mention all those who have contributed to its growth and vitality as a center of Conservative Judaism. The beautiful structure on Main Street stands as a testimonial to their devoted service. To all of them we say “Yasher Koach”. As we begin the next millennium we remember those who have passed on and are no longer here to celebrate with us. We rejoice, however, in the participation of the many new members who are bringing a quickened pulse of activity.
There is an interesting sidelight to our story. In the 1920’s there was an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the Village of East Rockaway. As a warning to the expanding population of Catholics who were moving into the Village, the KKK, in their white hoods burned crosses on the lawn where our Synagogue stands today.
There were few Jewish families in the area until 1946, when a major influx began. Since then, the Jewish community has grown and prospered. Members of our Congregation have held important posts in the Village of East Rockaway. They include the Hon. Lawrence Eichner, as Village Justice; the Hon. Edward O. Lerner, Forrest T. Weisburst and Stephen Erlitz as Village Trustees and the Hon. Irving F. Shaw as a Trustee and Mayor. We pray that the brotherhood and growth of understanding among the Catholic, Protestant, Moslem and Jewish faiths in our community will continue to flourish.
We of Congregation Etz Chaim have made a fusion of the old and the new, the ancient and the modern, the Jewish and the American. We have tried to infuse the rich tradition of Judaism with the dynamic energy of America. We have been alert to the special needs of each age level and each group, so that everyone in the family can benefit from the services of the Centre. It is a place of meeting and of doing, a place for worship, study and good fellowship.
This brief history had focused on fifty fruitful and memorable years in the life of our Congregation. Of special importance to all Jews is the birth of the modern State of Israel. We hope and pray that Israel will know peace and that “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation” in the Middle East and there shall be no war for all mankind.
May Congregation Etz Chaim always be a source of inspiration, meaning and strength for the Jewish way of life for our members and our community.