A Tale of Two Jewish Communities in Westchester
Richard J. Garfunkel
March 29, 2008
Not too long ago I received a call from Miriam Netter, the daughter of the late Max Maccoby, who had served as the founding Rabbi of the free Synagogue of Mount Vernon from 1927 to 1956, the year of his untimely death at the age of fifty-two. I knew neither Miriam nor her brother Michael Maccoby, who were born more than a half a generation earlier. Miriam and folks from the synagogue were working on a party to celebrate not only the Maccoby Foundation, but the life of their late father. It seems that Miriam was surfing the Internet when she came upon my essay, The Connections Music, the Synagogue and Politics, which mentioned her father and his relationship with the great American Rabbi, Stephen Wise and his friendship with the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She was able to contact me through my website: https://www.richardjgarfunkel.com , and during our conversation, I mentioned that I knew her father when I was a lad and admired him greatly, as did the entire Jewish and non-Jewish community of the City of Mount Vernon. I learned subsequently that there would be a celebration of his life, a dinner in his honor, and an address from his son, her brother, Michael regarding his father’s legacy on Friday the 28th of March. This event would take place at the new Sinai Free Synagogue, which is located on the same property as the now demolished Free Synagogue used to stand. I promised her that Linda and I would be there, and we were.
I met Linda at the Harlem Line’s Metro North stop in Fleetwood, Mount Vernon, and within five minutes we were crossing Gramatan Avenue, heading east on Devonia Avenue and turning north for one block on Columbus to the entrance of the Sinai-Free Synagogue. We parked easily, found our way quickly inside, said hello, made our contribution and quickly found Miriam Maccoby Netter and her family. We said hello, and eventually found a table with a couple who were around our age. After our introductions, we realized that we actually were acquainted. We had last seen the Rosensweig’s fourteen years earlier. The Rosensweig’s daughter Emily, now a rabbi in Columbus, Ohio, had been on the White Plains High School Academic team in 1994, with our son Jon, and we had spent a number of afternoons rooting on their regionally undefeated team. It seems that Emily’s family had always lived in Mount Vernon, but she attended the White Plains’ schools because her mother Susan had taught in that school system. We hadn’t seen them in fourteen years, but I clearly remembered that we had had that conversation before. Because of this serendipitous meeting we chatted through dinner like long-lost buddies. Eventually I was even introduced to another “Garfunkel” who was the widow of one Jack Garfunkel, a well-known insurance man from Mount Vernon. It seems I was always mistaken for his fictional son, and I had gone about thirty years seeking out the real Jack Garfunkel. I had called his office, missed him at political and fund-raising events, and eventually learned of his death a number of years ago. He and I never linked up, but because of the Internet and Miriam’s curiosity I wound up in Mount Vernon chatting with Sylvia Garfunkel.
Recently I had written this piece about some of the Jewish institutional history of White Plains, where I lived for thirty-three years, so I decided to incorporate that history with some words about Mount Vernon and whatever I knew about Mount Vernon’s synagogues.
Here in the United States and especially, New York, Westchester County, White Plains and Mount Vernon in particular, we as fellow Jews have been welcomed much more than in most parts of the world. Wherein Jews of the Diaspora were spread to the four corners of the planet and the Seven Seas, the violent history of the 20th Century had a way of reaching the most far-flung places. Jewish communities that had existed for hundreds of years felt the sting of anti-Semitism stretching from one time zone to the next, all over the world. This time it wasn’t the old canards of Messiah killing, or ritual murder, or being members of secret societies intent on conquering the world. This time it was the issue of racial purity promulgated by not the members of one church or mosque or another. It was being trumpeted by the new totalitarian G-d haters that emerged from the collapse of the old world order that had crumbled in the wake of World War I and the Depression.
In America, where Emma Lazarus penned her immortal words “Give me your tired and hungry masses yearning to be free…” which was placed at the base of Lady Liberty, the virus of anti-Semitism started to filter into the American lexicon in the first third of the 20th Century. Much of it came from a growing case of national xenophobia devolving from the inflow of immigrants from Eastern Europe before WWI, from the red scare of the 1920’s, the Crash, and the Depression. This anti-immigrant feeling harkened back to the foreigner bashing from the Know-Nothing era of the 1840’s, and was extended by later fears of Asians, resulting in the Chinese and Japanese exclusion acts of the late 19th and early 20th century. The immigration quotas based on national origin and skewed to northern and Western Europe further fueled an attitude of fortress America. Jews were certainly not immune to these newly constructed legal walls that were erected in the post World War I era. Therefore, when the Crash hit in 1929, and the Great Depression ensued, massive unemployment created conditions that did not welcome immigrants. The scourge of Nazi-anti-Semitism emerged, with legal authority as Germany officially welcomed Hitler and his fascist gang to power in 1933. Therefore, with an America, which in 1930 claimed a population of 120,000,000, of which 40% had German blood, one could easily imagine a welcoming climate for the racial theories of the so-called “new” Germany. Of course many of these thoughts had emerged in the United States and out of the mouth of Henry Ford. Also remember, it wasn’t that long before the crash that the Ku Klux Klan had marched in full regalia up Pennsylvania Avenue right to the Capitol.
In America, and especially in Westchester County there were many deeds of property that had caveats, which restricted many groups from ownership of land. Jews were especially not immune to this legal redlining. Therefore up until 1937 when these deeds were ruled unconstitutional, many of the towns and village of Westchester were hotbeds of exclusivity. Towns and villages like Pelham, Bronxville, Irvington, and Ardsley were unwelcoming to Jews, and only a handful of Jews owned homes in Rye, Larchmont, and Pelham Manor. But Scarsdale, unlike Bronxville, was not a planned village and many Jews were able to buy property there, and by 1925, the Jewish population reached 10% of the village, causing unpleasant reactions from many of their local institutions. In fact, The Scarsdale Inquirer accepted ads inviting people to join “desirable Christian Beach Clubs.” (From The Jews of Westchester, Shargel and Drimmer.)
Many of these provisions still existed in these deeds through the 1960’s, and it wasn’t too long ago that Jews could not live Bronxville, or other communities. Therefore it was up to the cities of Westchester, with more pluralistic populations to open their doors to the new teeming masses from NYC. Since new housing had been virtually stalled from the crash and through WWII, there was a crying need for housing for the new baby-boom population that merged after the war. Over-crowded apartments in the Bronx and Manhattan cried out for new areas to settle after the end of the war.
The place for this new internal migration of Jews became the suburbs of northern New Jersey, Nassau County and Westchester. The cities in Westchester, like Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, Yonkers and White Plains, became home to thousands of former city dwellers and also the many refugees from Europe who had escaped Nazi-persecution. Therefore the synagogue became the central place for this new suburban style of communal Judaism. It was no longer the neighborhoods like Tremont Avenue, or Bruckner Boulevard, or the Grand Concourse, or Ocean Parkway, or 13th Avenue, or Southern Boulevard, but the leafy glades of southern Westchester, where the automobile was king, and the subway and buses were vestiges of the past. The stoop where kids played with their “spaldeens” and the chalked hop-scotch sidewalks were quickly replaced by the open fields, the YMHA’s, like the one on Oakley Avenue in Mount Vernon, the ball fields at the Webb School in Hartsdale, the parks on Lake Street and Gedney Way in White Plains, and the tennis courts and ball fields on California Road in Mount Vernon.
In Mount Vernon the first synagogue built in 1892, was the Congregation Brothers of Israel, known by all as CBI. Amongst its congregants were businessmen from New York City who were in the garment trade. CBI eventually found a home on 8th Avenue and First Street, and remained there for many years until 1980. They had a number of rabbis, and my good friend Alan Rosenberg’s grandfather Morris J. Rosenberg, served as an acting rabbi there in the 1930’s. He also read Torah there from 1910 through 1952.
In the period before our entry into World War I, prosperous garment industry men like Joseph Durst, among others, were not comfortable with the Orthodox service at CBI, and they eventually looked to the newly emerging Conservative Movement. They had rejected Mount Vernon’s Reform Sinai Temple, which was established in 1906, and founded Congregation Emanu-El. They engaged the services of Rabbi Elias Margolis, who had originally been raised a in the Reform Movement, but after his marriage changed his affiliation to the Conservative Movement. He was an incredibly outspoken personality and controversy reigned at times, but he led that Congregation for thirty years until 1946. “One Kol Nidre night he chastised his congregation as ‘nothing but exalted peddlers, cloak and suiters’ and he often denounced Harlem slumlords, while a few of their number squirmed uncomfortably in expensive front pews.” (From, The Jews of Westchester by Shargel and Drimmer.)
Eventually there would be more departures from CBI and another branch of the Orthodox Movement established the Fleetwood Synagogue in 1956. Rabbi Gedalyah Berger currently leads Fleetwood Synagogue, and it is located on Broad Street just one block east of Gramatan Avenue.
CBI eventually moved from the south side of Mount Vernon and now resides in a former church on Crary Avenue and next to the old Sinai Temple location, which is also now a church. In the period of the late 1930’s and 1940’s, Rabbis Israel Klaven and Joshua Merinminsky led the Congregation. Rabbi Solomon Freilich, probably the longest serving rabbi in Westchester, has led that congregation since1953, after serving Congregation Anshe Sholom in New Rochelle from 1947 to1953. Unfortunately CBI’s future is in grave doubt as its Congregation is aging out of existence. It is being sold back to the 7th Day Adventist Church, Rabbi Freilich is retiring, and it may be closed forever or merge with the Fleetwood Orthodox Synagogue.
In 1906 Sinai Temple was founded as the first reform Temple in Westchester with the help of Daniel Hays. Its first Rabbis in those early days were Kohut, Warsaw until Joseph Gorfinkle, who served for twenty-one years from 1908 through 1929. It was during this period that it moved to Crary Avenue. Over the next forty years, Sinai Temple was guided by both Dr.Andhil Fineberg, who served until 1937, and then was succeeded by the great Dr. Henry Kagan who served though 1969. After Rabbi Kagan’s departure, Sinai merged with the Bronx Sinai Temple. In the 1920s a group of families broke off from Emanu-El, and eventually raised enough money to buy property on South Columbus Avenue, not far from Third Street, and they partially erected the new Jewish Center of Mount Vernon. Congregation Emanu-El continued to expand and they moved from the Masonic Temple on Crary Avenue and re-located to a new building on Lincoln Avenue in 1957, under the religious guidance of the liberal Rabbi Aaron Blumenthal.
But times changed, and before long that beautiful building had become almost empty. Temple Emanu-El, which was founded in 1916, had to eventually merge with the Jewish Center that was founded in 1927. It then became the Emanuel Jewish Center. Similarly, Genesis Hebrew Center of Tuckahoe, which was founded in 1936, also saw its congregation decline and disappear. Eventually all three remaining congregations merged with Shaari Tikyah in Scarsdale. It was there, about two years ago in late February that my old friend Warren Adis, a former congregant of the old Emanu-El Temple, and I went to the funeral of Walter Grossman, who had died at the age of 93. He was the father of our old school friend Joel and a pillar of the Jewish Community of Mount Vernon. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that he was the last of the old Emanu-El congregants.
Max Maccoby, the late great rabbi, was the spiritual leader of the Free Synagogue when I lived as a child in the City of Mount Vernon. Rabbi Maccoby, was a student of the late Stephen Wise, who was one of the most important Jewish leaders of the 20th century and the founder of the Free Synagogue of New York. By the time Rabbi Wise married my parents in 1935, he was famous and a confidante of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The roots of the Free Synagogue emanated from the mind of Rabbi Wise in 1905. Rabbi Wise, who was from Portland, Oregon, was under consideration to be installed as the Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. When he learned that the temple’s board of trustees would review his sermons, he withdrew his name from consideration. He was interested in a “free” synagogue that would appeal to Jews from all of the then three existing movements. He started to hold services in the Lower East Side, and the Hudson Theater, on 47th Street and in 1907, at the Savoy Hotel, with hundreds of followers, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., the father of the future Secretary of the Treasury, was selected as president of the new synagogue. The Free Synagogue held services often at the Universalist Church of Eternal Hope on West 81st Street, where, in 1910, over 1000 people attended a service. Wise reached out to all of Judaism’s branches, and with his great success and message, the congregation was able purchase several brownstones on West 68th Street, before they built their new and current synagogue and headquarters there in 1950. Unfortunately, Rabbi Wise did not live to see the opening of the new location. He died suddenly on April 19, 1949, only one month after celebrating his 75th birthday at a gala diamond jubilee ceremony in his honor.
Of course with my parent’s connection to Rabbi Stephen Wise, along with our move to Mount Vernon and the need for a temple, my parents naturally gravitated to the Free Synagogue. By the time we moved to Mount Vernon in late 1945, the new home of the synagogue had been relocated to a wonderful location in 1939 on the old Mills’ Estate on North Columbus Avenue, not far from the Bronxville border. Rabbi Max Maccoby had founded the Free Synagogue in 1927, and it was there that I came in contact with him as a youngster in the early 1950’s. Interestingly, the new synagogue was used as a collection place and storage for arms for Israel in its War of Independence. Earlier, and before the temple was built, the location was used as a “safe” house for runaway slaves on the “Underground Railroad” route to Canada. In the winter one could sled down the steep bank of grass that was right behind the parking lot. I remember coming out on a crisp Kol Nidre night on September 21, 1955, and wondering who won the Rocky Marciano-Archie Moore world’s heavyweight title. Ironically it was the famous Brockton Bomber’s last fight, he retired April 27, 1956. It was also the last Kol Nidre for Max Maccoby.
Maccoby, a soft-spoken man, who was prematurely white-haired, was a wonderful storyteller and specialized in tales from Pinsk and the Pale of the Settlement. He had a wonderful charm about him, and his droll stories about “nail soup,” and the struggles of the shtetl always made me realize, from an early age, that our idyllic life in Mount Vernon was something unique in our history and not to be taken lightly. Of course the Free Synagogue was affiliated with the Reform Movement, and we did have a choir. We never saw who they were. They were ensconced in a small room above the pulpit and when they sang it was like a hearing some heavenly chant that floated down to the congregation. Of course, fifty years ago, people acted and dressed differently than today. Everyone in those days came dressed in their finest clothes, and it seemed that almost every woman had a hat and a mink stole or a fur wrap, and every man from the age of thirteen was dressed in a suit. Today, even on the High Holy Days, the dress code seems much, more casual.
Max Maccoby died suddenly in 1956 and his memorial service was held at the Free Synagogue just over fifty years ago on March 3, 1957. I recall vividly the sadness in the Jewish community of Mount Vernon and especially within the Free Synagogue family. This happened not too long before my Bar Mitzvah, and I never warmed up to his successor Leon Jick (1924-2005). Rabbi Jick left Mount Vernon in 1966 for Brandeis and became the Director of the Center for Jewish Studies for the next 24 years. It is never easy to fill the shoes of a legend. Just ask Harry Truman.
After the death of Maccoby, and with my disenchantment with Rabbi Jick, my family left the Free Synagogue. My sister had been confirmed, and my bar mitzvah was celebrated in May of 1958. My family was ready for a change. After that period, I went to High Holy Day services with friends at the Sinai Temple, the other Reform Synagogue, on Crary Avenue, in Mount Vernon. Sinai had a wonderful Rabbi named Henry Enoch Kagen, who served there from 1937 through 1969.
Later when the Jewish community started to shrink in Mount Vernon, the old Free Synagogue building on Columbus Avenue was do to be demolished. At about that time I strolled through the synagogue on a quiet journey through time, and looked at all the aging confirmation pictures that still adorned the walls. It was like being on a time trip back to an almost forgotten era of careless suburban life, quietly nestled in the idyllic period that was flanked by the cataclysm of the 2nd World War along with the Holocaust and the death of President Kennedy and social upheaval of the middle sixties and seventies. It was eerily silent in that aging upstairs hallway where at one day hundreds of young feet scrambled from room to room with teachers like Mr. Schachter warning them to slow down. It was up in one of those rooms that I remember first hearing of the death of Albert Einstein on April 18, 1955. That shock and the death of Rabbi Maccoby the next year were very personal to me. Einstein was the first great man’s passing that I was really aware of, and when Rabbi Maccoby suddenly died, he was the first person that I knew personally who had passed away. To me life was never-ending and he seemed immortal. It was a rude awakening that all of us on this dear earth eventually experience.
Eventually the end had come to that magnificent building on North Columbus Avenue and it was leveled and most of the property was sold to Sunrise, an assisted living facility. Also the old Sinai Temple was also sold to a church group. With the planned merger of the two Reform congregations, the new Sinai-Free Synagogue congregation was relocated to a small parcel of land on the right side of the former grounds of the original Free Synagogue.
After leaving the Free Synagogue and during my high school years, I spent time at Sinai Temple on the High Holy Days. My parents moved from Mount Vernon in 1965 in the midst of my time in college, and I can only remember going to Boston University’s Hillel House on Bay State Road once. It was the sad occasion of John F. Kennedy’s death on November 22, 1963. I was unaware of any temple or synagogue in Boston and therefore it was only logical for me to attend the memorial service for our late President in that building. Somehow after his death and the tumultuous following days and years that followed, for me, organized religion meant less and less. For that reason, I have no distinct memory of ever attending a religious service in the mid to late 1960’s. My parents and my one grandparent were never religious, but we always had a Passover Seder. In those years from my Bar Mitzvah in 1958, to my parent’s deaths in 2005 and 2006, I never remember their mentioning that they had attended a service anywhere. The subject never came up.
I was married in 1969 to Linda Rosen at the Carleton House on Madison Avenue. We were married under the traditional Jewish “huppa” by Rabbi Perry Cohen. I had met him once or twice before the ceremony and have never seen nor heard of him since. In those early-married years, we attended synagogue, now and again, with Linda’s parents, Morris and Anne. Morris was one who loved tradition, was a conservative Jew, belonged to Temple Gates of Zion in Valley Stream, and was later a founder and a long-time president of the Junction Park Jewish Center, where Linda’s Israeli cousins, Ami and Nurit Raz taught. When he moved to Manhattan in 1968, he was a member of the Metropolitan Synagogue with the fiery Judah Cahn as its rabbi, who was a former president of the New York Board of Rabbis from 1976 through 1978 and the author of “A View From the Pulpit.” After moving to White Plains in the summer of 1969, we attended services at various places and with different friends and family. We finally joined Bet Am Shalom in 1978 when our daughter Dana was starting school. Both Dana and Jon celebrated their Bat and Bar Mitvahs there. As I re-oriented myself with Judaism, I began to learn a bit more about synagogue life in White Plains.
The first regular Jewish services of any kind in White Plains were held in 1904, at the home of Hyman Gordon, with nine other men, at 82 Brookfield Street. The earliest of the traditional synagogues of White Plains goes back to Temple Israel, which was founded in 1907 as the Sons of Israel, with the Reverend Morris Koslowsky as its spiritual leader. By 1909, its first building was located on Fisher Avenue. Six years later in 1915, a small contingent of worshippers from Temple Israel, broke away and formed the Hebrew Institute, which was originally located on South Lexington and Fisher Avenue, the site of an old Lutheran Church. By the way, not long after it’s founding, White Plains became incorporated as a city in 1916, with Pfarrington N. Thompson as its first mayor. The population at the time of its incorporation as a city was 16,000. Times were changing after the war, and even the orthodox Rabbi Samuel Feldshon, the spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute, allowed Friday night services once a month. He was succeeded first by Rabbi David Roth and then by Rabbi Murray Grauer, who served from 1951 through 1995. Today, Rabbi Chaim Marder leads the Hebrew Institute.
Despite some institutional prejudice, the Jewish population continued to grow the first Reform Synagogue in central Westchester, the Jewish Community Center was founded in White Plains in 1923. It was the second of Westchester’s Reform synagogues (the first was the Free Synagogue of Mount Vernon) to be inspired by the teachings and leadership of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. Its first building was on Sterling Avenue, and in 1949, the Congregation moved to its current location on Soundview Avenue. Rabbis Lawrence Schwartz (1930-1967) and Maurice Davis (1967-1986) led the large and growing JCC congregation for over fifty years. Rabbi Maurice Davis was from Indiana, and he and I worked together on the Birch Bayh campaign for the 1976 Democratic Presidential nomination. He also became nationally famous for his work against cults that had started to emerge in America in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Today the JCC has been renamed Kol Ami and it is led by one of the first women rabbis to lead a major congregation, Shira Milgrom.
After the war the Jewish population of White Plains increased substantially, and Temple Israel grew to over 350 members by the late 1940’s. Eventually a Reconstructionist Temple, now called Bet Am Shalom, was founded from two congregations, Bet Ami and Beth Shalom. Since 1967, with its first Rabbi Edward Neufeld, that congregation, which started in an old mansion on Soundview Avenue, with a handful of members, continues to grow exponentially. Over the years there were many rabbis, cantors and spiritual leaders at Bet Am Shalom. In the 1970’s, Bet Am Shalom, needing more space on the High Holidays, would use the JCC’s sanctuary when their congregation traveled to the County Center to hold their own services. When the JCC wanted to return to their own sanctuary, Bet Am Shalom set up tents on their broad lawn to accommodate their growing congregation and guests. Since 1989, Bet Am Shalom has more than tripled in size and it has been blessed with the strong leadership of Rabbi Lester Bronstein and his wife Cantor Benji Schiller. Even Jewish havurat or prayer groups have expanded in White Plains with the founding of Young Israel of White Plains.
White Plains continues to have a thriving Jewish community with the founding of the Solomon Schechter School, in 1965, by Rabbi Max Gelb, and his wife Leah. Rabbi Gelb, at the time was the spiritual leader of Temple Israel of White Plains. He led Temple Israel from 1946 through 1972. Arnold Turetsky and then Gordon Tucker, who was once married to Hadassah Lieberman, United States Senator Joseph Lieberman’s current wife, followed Gelb. The Solomon Schechter School, which is located off Morgan Avenue, continues to grow. In fact, it grew so much that it eventually was divided between a lower school, which remains in its 1971 White Plains’ location, and a new upper school in Hartsdale, which was named a Jewish resident of that area named Isaac Hart. Hart owned quite a bit of land in Westchester in the late 18th Century and, coincidently Murray Grauer, the long-time Hebrew Center rabbi, found Hart’s marriage certificate that dated from 1810. (Our children attended the Solomon Schechter School in White Plains before attending and graduating from White Plains High School.)
What is the lesson of all of this? The lesson is that the Jewish people were able to rise from the ashes of the Holocaust that almost destroyed European Jewry and were also able survive the decline and destruction of their original neighborhoods in the cities of this country, where they were once concentrated, to a rebirth in the once restricted suburbs. This rebirth and renewal is a tribute to Jewish leadership in Westchester and especially to the post war, Jewish leadership in White Plains, Mount Vernon and other communities.
My thoughts are that Jewish education is still critical and essential to the substance of the Jewish people and family, and that the synagogue should still be in forefront of that leadership. The values of the Jewish home and institutions like the Solomon Schechter School, and the local synagogues must continue their critical role of education, values and faith in G-d. Let us never forget the past, but let us as a united community secure the future in an ever-changing community and world.
Therefore I see in this troubled world a sense of hope and faith that the essence of the Jewish community is still centered in education, and that the synagogue and its educational programs for young and old hold a key to that faith.