In 1928, when Great Neck was a community of farms and estates with a population of 12,000, 115 Jewish families called the Gold Coast suburb home. It had been 35 years since the very first Jew, Manhattan tailor Abram Wolf, moved to the peninsula with his family in 1892.
Twenty-one years passed before the next Jew, Morris Lefkowitz, a wagoner who eventually became the owner of Belgrave Motors, moved to town.
Unlike today, when multiple synagogues of just about every denomination can be found throughout Great Neck, the Jews who began to move to the community had to travel to the boroughs for religious services.
“Everyone went to Brooklyn or the Bronx on the High Holy Days,” Dorothy Weigert Paltrow, whose family moved to the peninsula in 1922, told Temple Beth-El during its 50th anniversary. “We all thought, Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we didn’t have to travel, if we could just stay in Great Neck?”
The sentiment was shared by four men, Sol Becher, Mack Schenck, Mr. Platt and Harry Reis, who held the historic first meeting that led to the founding of Temple Beth-El during their commute on the 9:12 a.m. train to New York on Sept. 5, 1928. The meeting continued that evening at Becher’s house, with the addition of Albert Hamerslag and Irving Weigert, Platt’s son-in-law.
On Friday, Sept. 14, 1928, Rosh Hashanah services were first held in Great Neck in Community House, which is now Community Church, with 86 families in attendance.
Rabbi Jacob Philip Rudin was installed on Sept. 12, 1930, and the building was dedicated in 1932. By the late ’50s, Beth-El overflowed with members and grew to a congregation of 1,500 families with a 500-family waiting list.
Though it was founded on Reform principles, Great Neck’s only temple drew Jews of diverse religious backgrounds until 1940, when member Irving Lurie, with the help and blessing of fellow members, founded Conservative Temple Israel.
According to current Executive Director Stuart Botwinick, some mythology surrounds the origins of the chapel design.
“With questions about whether Great Neck could sustain a Jewish community and synagogue, the leadership chose to create a synagogue space that could be repurposed by a different religious group if the Jewish community should not find roots and need to sell the building,” explained Botwinick. “Today, its grand wooden cathedral ceiling, European architecture and stained glass define the Temple Beth-El chapel, which is known as one of the most beautiful synagogue chapels not just in Great Neck but in the country, having been included in both architectural writings and books on beautiful synagogue spaces.”
Great Neck’s first synagogue, which has grown to include a nearly 1,000-seat modern sanctuary, now offers a plethora of unique programs. The caring community engages members through its small groups and micro communities, strong social action programs, preschool, religious school, teen programs and summer camps, along with yoga classes, robust clubs, varied events and guest speakers.
“Beth-El continues to be the primary Reform temple on the North Shore,” noted Botwinick.
The temple walls are lined with names of famous congregants, who are credited with founding Long Island Jewish and North Shore University hospitals, among other local institutions.
“Every organization that existed in Great Neck had its roots in Temple Beth-El, for we were the community lifeline,” Josselyn Shore, a temple president in the ’50s, noted in an article chronicling Beth-El’s history in 1978.
Throughout the years, the temple has hosted historic speakers, including Martin Luther King, Jr., in March 1967. An article documenting the event and an interview with King are proudly stored in the Great Neck Record’s archives.
Temple Beth-El has been commemorating its milestone 90th anniversary with special celebrations throughout the year. Attracting nearly 300 attendees, its grand gala was held on Sunday, April 7, featuring a concert with TV, movie and Broadway star Erich Bergen and culminating with a gourmet dinner catered by Lola.
The evening honored the 10-year anniversary of senior husband-and-wife Rabbis Meir and Tara Feldman and temple President Ronald M. Epstein.
The president admitted that while he was apprehensive about accepting his position six years ago due to the time commitment necessary to serve the community appropriately, the rewards have been even greater than the challenges. Ultimately, he was inspired and enriched through his deepened relationship with the temple.
“Temple Beth-El, now in its 90th year, has a proud and storied history,” noted Epstein. “Throughout these nine decades, there have only been 16 presidents. I am honored to have my name stand alongside all of those who laid the foundation for this community. The Talmud describes the kehilla kadoshah or the sacred community. Temple Beth-El is indeed a sacred community, and it has been a privilege to serve.”
Senior Rabbis Meir and Tara Feldman are also thrilled to serve this congregation, along with the husband-and-wife team of Cantor Vladimir Lapin and Assistant Rabbi Elle Muhlbaum.
“It is a blessing and honor to serve a community such as Temple Beth-El with its powerful history of social action, its courage to embrace change, its warmth, spirituality and dynamism,” beamed the rabbis. “From the moment we took our positions as co-senior rabbis, now a decade ago, we have felt at home—embraced, challenged and uplifted. We know that Beth-El will continue to be a place that inspires learning and ever-deepening Jewish connection. As always, we will continue to strive to be a place which sparks hope through human connection both within our Great Neck community and beyond.”
Beth-El Commemorates 90 Years
Great Neck’s oldest synagogue celebrated the milestone with a gala on April 7, featuring a concert by Erich Bergen and a dinner catered by Lola, honoring Rabbis Meir and Tara Feldman and President Ron Epstein.