A HISTORY OF TEMPLE BETH EL

 

            For well over a century Temple Beth El of Port Jervis has provided a welcoming place for the Jewish community of the Tri State area, for worship and celebration.  When our history began Port Jervis was a railroad town of farmers and merchants.  The synagogue began modestly but grew and changed over the years to meet the changing needs of the community. 

                               

THE ORTHODOX YEARS


It all began in 1904 when the 15 Jewish residents of, what was then called, the Village of Port Jervis joined together to form the Orthodox Congregation Agudath Achim.  Unable to build a synagogue at that time they worshipped together in a barn owned by farmer Barney Hocks , one of the 15 charter members.  Services in the barn, which was located at 177 Ball Street, were led by Rabbi Mendel Feingold.


Three years later services were moved to a loft located over Levin’s Department Store at the southeast corner of Front and Sussex Streets.  The building was owned by Julius Levin, another of the 15 founding members. In this same year the congregation purchased a tract of land on North Orange Street for use as a cemetery.  On March 26, 1908, a year after Port Jervis was chartered as a city, the congregation received its charter as a synagogue from the State of New York.


By 1916 the Jewish population had increased to 24 families.  The Torah, which had been kept in Barney Hock’s living room and was carried by hand to services, first in the barn, then in the loft, finally rested in a synagogue building in 1917.  The members of the congregation constructed the synagogue not only through fund raising but with actual physical work, assisting with all aspects of the construction.  Even  today there are people who remember an amusing story about an open balustrade that was installed in front of the women’s balcony.  The men seated downstairs found the visibility of the women highly distracting during services so in 1921 a solid partition was installed.


By 1924 the women of the congregation wanted a more active role in the religious and business aspects of the synagogue so they formed The Ladies Auxiliary, forerunner to the present day Sisterhood.


            Rabbi Feingold was succeeded by Rabbi Legman and Rabbi Bernstein.  On October 25, 1929 Rabbi Zebulon Jaffe began 25 years of service to the congregation.  There were approximately 30 families affiliated with the synagogue by this time.  In 1940 a Jewish Men’s Club was formed for the purpose of fostering better understanding between the Jewish residents and the non Jewish residents of Port Jervis.  The first Brotherhood Week meeting was held locally, a public lecture series was instituted, and Troop #72, a nondenominational group of  Boy Scouts of America was organized.  In October of 1940 the Port Jervis Section of the National Council of Jewish Women was formed. In 1941 the religious school was organized and taught by volunteers.  The Port Jervis Chapter of Hadassah was organized in February 1947.   By 1951, paid professionals were needed in the religious
school and Dr. Louis Greenberg was engaged as Principal and teacher. 

                         

The CONSERVATIVE YEARS


The Jewish population in the area continued to increase yet the community was not large enough to accommodate Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues at different locations.  In the mid 1940’s the congregation opted to become a Conservative synagogue reflecting the compromises needed to serve the entire Jewish community.  In 1954 Rabbi George Pollack, a Conservative rabbi, succeeded Rabbi Jaffee.


The golden anniversary of Congregation Agudath Achim was celebrated at a banquet in the vestry room of the synagogue in 1954. The congregation consisted of 110 members and had outgrown the existing facility.


In 1955 the property at 88 East Main Street was purchased for $20,000.  Fund raising became so important that it even included the young people of the religious school. The fundraising was very successful. 


The  Minisink Hotel was the site of an historic meeting of the Executive Building Committee on January 1, 1955 for the purpose of beginning the long process of  organization of the new synagogue.  In 1957 the committee was reorganized with George Roderman and Sidney Sakofsky as cochairs.  Some additional names on that committee are noted here: Jerome Cohen, Eugene Friedman, Sam Levine, Bill Leiman, Rose Ruderman, Joseph Sarfatti, Leonard Saul, Sophie Siegal, and Dorothea Solomon. Although time and tide have claimed some of these honored members, some are still helping us make minyan to this very day.  Middletown architect Milton Holtzman designed the new building.  In 1958 a mortgage was obtained and the John Innella Construction Company began to build.


The first actual function at the new building was a congregational meeting on August 27, 1959 originally scheduled for the old location.  But when it was discovered that all the tables and chairs had already been moved, the meeting too was moved to the new building.  That meeting, rather than the first  worship service, became the official first event at the new Temple Beth El on Main Street. 


Thus followed some historic and emotional events for the congregation.   On Sunday, August 30, 1959, farewell services were held at the old synagogue. Rabbi Greenstein prepared a special prayer service.  The Torahs were carried in a formal procession up Main Street from the old synagogue to the new one.  On May 20th, 1978, after 20 years, the $75,000 mortgage was paid in full.  Bob Levin was President of the synagogue at the time of that happy occasion. The dedication in the commemorative booklet read in part, “We have dreamed great dreams and lo and behold, mortal men have performed miracles of achievement by desire, trial, and dedication.  To our men and women who worked from youth to maturity, to our members who have passed from our sight by death or transfer, to the future members who will take our place, we rededicate this structure of worship free and clear and beautiful in its freedom.


Temple Beth El continued to fulfill the needs of the Jewish community under the guidance of Rabbi Schor, followed by Rabbi Milder in the late 1980s.  In 1992 our very own hometown Rabbi, Ira Blank took over the spiritual reins.  And now we are privileged to add to the long rabbinical line of Temple Beth El the very learned and talented Rabbi Burton Mindick.