A Tale of Two Jewish Communities in Westchester 3-29-08

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.




21 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Jewish Communities in Westchester 3-29-08

  1. Hi there Mr. Garfunkel
    Just wanted to say I enjoyed your article “A Tale of Two Jewish Communities in Westchester.
    I have a silver kiddish cup celebrating the 10th anniversary, June 6, 1926, of Temple Emanu El which was my grandparent’s Herman and Rose Seplow’s temple. My grandfather died in the early 1950’s and my grandmother in the early 1970’s.
    I’m preparing to pass the cup on to my young cousin Eric and his soon to be bride as a wedding gift and I was searching for some information about the congregation and your article is the only evidence of it’s existence on the internet I could find.
    I’m wondering if there is any more information about Temple Emanu El.
    I’m not a religious person at all but I’m interested in history and my family’s history. I was born in Larchmont and we moved north to Poughkeepsie when I was in High School and I’ve lived in Boston Massachusetts since college so I have no current connection to Westchester.
    So, I just wanted to say Thank YOU! It was wonderful to find your article.
    Andrew Seplow

  2. Hi, this article brought back many memories. I was raised in Mt Vernon. The mentioned Jack Garfinkel was a close family friend. We belonged to Sinai Temple and lived closed to the Free Synagogue. I knew many other people and places mentioned. I had a friend from junior and senior high school — Evan (Van) Seplow and wondered if he might be a relative. The Seplows (Evan’s family) lived on Commonwealth Ave until the parents divorced. Then Evan lived at his grandmothers across town.
    I was famaliar with all the synagogues in Mt Vernon. All us Jewish kids would make the rounds and enjoyed services at each one on high holidays. We used to take 2 days off from school for each holiday until Rabbi Kagan said “no way – only 1 day off is allowed.

    • It was Jack Garfunkel, but he was no relation of mine and he was childless. Many times I was asked whether he was my father. I don’t know the Seplows, but I have learned that with all my contact with my reunions from the 20th to the 50th, there are so few people I really know, and I know many! The history of the Jewish Community in Westchester can be found in a wonderful book, The Jews of Westchester by Baila R. Shargel and Harold Drimmer,1994, Purple Mount Press. Aside from that, I recall Rabbi Kagan and knew his two sons casually. They went to Horace Mann, where I went for a short time, and heard nothing of them after those high school days, more than 53 years ago. I assume they did well for themselves. RJ Garfunkel

  3. I grew up in Mt. Vernon in the 1950’s in a non- religious Jewish family who belonged to Free Synogogue, attending Sunday School. I remember well the sledding on the big hill. . I was talking to ny husband at the dinner table (in anticipation if seeing a play adapted from The Chosen) about the influence Rabbi Maccabee had on me; actually, because of him i “decided” to folllow our religious tradition and live my life as a Jew. One High Holiday sermon of his in particular, i recall, even at an elementary school age really had that impact. He died before i was even 10 years old but i have never forgotten him.
    So i started to Google Rabbis of Mt Vernon, and read your wonderful article. Apparently I’m a few years younger than you but my feelings about him match yours. Hence i felt motivated to tell you this article was meaningful and illuminating. I never knew his connection to Stephen S. Wise, as another thread in my life was in the Temple named after him in LA when i lived there. Now i see one of your replies mentions my beloved late former father-in- law Harold Drimmer.
    And i remember discussing Rabbi Maccabee with Jeremy Kagan when he made The Chosen in 1981- Max Maccabee’s impact continues long after his life on earth, with my oldest grandson about to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah… thank you for writing so eloquently.

  4. Mr. RJ Garfunkel, it was so nice to read about Jack and Sylvia Garfunkel, and the Sinai Temple. the Kagan’s they are also still around and one is
    member at Sinai Free Synagogue, He became a Doctor..

  5. Dear Mr Garfunkel:
    It was very nice to read about Sinai Temple. My parents Gilbert and Laura Stein along with my grand parents Minna and J. Harold Reuben were members for many years. I have fond memories as a young child attending services conducted by Rabbi Kagan. My parents and I then left the temple a few years after I became a Bat Mitzvah and joined Temple Israel in New Rochelle.

  6. It was very nice to read about Sinai Temple. I have very fond memories as a young child attending services led by Rabbi Kagan. My grand parents Minna and J Harold Reuben were members for many years.

  7. I had my Bar Mitzvah in Temple Emanu-El April 25, 1964. Left for college in June of 1969, may have gone back for holidays the next few years, but to be honest did not think about the Temple, until my son married a lady from NJ. As it turned out her parents had gotten married in Emanu-El in 1977. They were not members. Neither of them have much of a recollection of the Temple. The wife was from New Rochelle and he was from Mt Vernon.
    I remember the Temple being built, as a very young child. I remember High Holy Days services being held in the YMHA before the building was finished.
    Recently( see how close I have followed Mt Vernon) I learned the Temple was no more. Your article mostly focuses on the other Temples in the area. Which Temples did Emanu-El join (merge). My father was listed on a plaque as a large contributor, do those and other plaques even exist? When did it close? If anyone reading this knows the answers or was Bar Mitzvah in Spring 1964 please respond to BpBlumberg@Gmail.com (Bruce Blumberg)…Anyone from that time and has memories is encouraged to write.

  8. I am thrilled to have come across your article! It was wonderful! I was looking at mount Vernon because my oldest cousin, now 87, found a letter that she gave to me. The youngest and the family historian.

    It is a condolence letter sent from rabbi dr. Solomon freilich 48 villa street my Vernon to my fathers older brother Herman guest in sunrise Florida. It was sent June 26 1986, in response to hearing of my grandmother, Ethel guest ,(formerly Cohen,) as they all went by. He wrote of her davening at shul on south 8th ave. How uplifting of a woman she was.

    When I was young my father, dr. Samuel Isrial guest ,(guzikirwicz,) used to take us to their dry good store on Cary ave. It was across from a large Catholic Church. I was little. I remember going up the stairs to the place where she lived with her eldest Herman and his wife gertie and two kids. They had a son and a daughter. She, Irene is the oldest cousin. I have pictures of the synagogues from my dads albums. Stories of the life in my Vernon after coming in 1920 at eight years old.

    Reading your article affected me almost as deeply as getting this old letter. I thank you for writing it!

    All of the best to you and yours!

    Perri Lynn guest-rappel

    • Glad you enjoyed the piece! I enjoyed writing it. I was involved in a number of aspects regarding MV in the years after we moved (1965), but for sure the Jewish life there was extensive and unique. We were more secular Jews, but I was a dues paying member of Bet Am Shalom in White Plains and Beth Shalom in Hastings for 35 years. Now in Palm beach County we go to High Holiday services at various venues! Stay well- rjg

        • There are more people from Mount Vernon in Palm Beach County than you could shake a stick. By the way, I was a member of Beth Shalom for a number of years when I moved from White Plains to Tarrytown. I knew Laurette Fagan quite well. I used to write her and Rabbi Schechter. Too bad about her. She was a lovely gal. I met her when she was 15. Aside from that we’ve been here going on 9 years. Give me a ring if you wish 914-261`-6587 (c). By the way, I believe we were in the same Hebrew class at the Free Synagogue with Mr. Schacter. rjg

    • I remember as a child going to an Orthodox Synagogue where the women’s seating was above the men’s on a balcony. Was that the Brothers of Israel in Cary Avenue in Mt. Vernon? If you have photos I would love to see them.

      • It was Crary Avenue, not far from Hartley Park and the YMHA. The last time I was there was a second Bar Mitzvah of the late Alan Rosenberg, possibly when he was 63 in 2007 or 2008. I may have a picture from my Mount Vernon collection of then and now fotos- If I do, I’ll email you a copy- rjg

  9. Thanks, Richard, for the substantial summary of some of Westchester County’s Jewish communities. Your articulation of Mt. Vernon’s history is personally interesting because it brings to mind so much of what transpired there in my youth. There is, however, one subject you touch upon that deserves additional—and perhaps dissenting—commentary.

    Regarding Leon Jick’s tenure at The Free Synagogue starting in 1956, he was a brilliant and inspiring rabbi and teacher. While you may not have warmed up to him, I and many of my friends at the time did. My parents had switched membership to the Free Synagogue from Henry Kagan’s Sinai Temple, and while Rabbi Maccoby was, indeed, a charming man, his tales from Pinsk were fast becoming superfluous to events at the time. Leon Jick brought young and dynamic blood into the well-heeled Reform Synagogue finery, and while the minks, stoles, fine hats and newly evolved middle class self-satisfaction persisted, Leon Jick became a social and spiritual thorn in the sides of less progressive membership-paying congregants.

    Leon Jick had no problem filling the shoes left behind by Rabbi Maccoby. In fact, Rabbi Jick wore his own shoes and walked in a light that needed spreading. Jick saw the People of Israel as a light unto the nations, and he demanded of his flock that their consciousness be raised. He was actively involved in voter registration drives in the south. He made us aware of the need for a SANE nuclear policy during the saber rattling of the Cold War. He took up arms against a corrupt local machinery intent upon ramming through at least one public works project (Hunt’s Woods). Leon Jick may not have been so comfortable amidst the minks and perfumes of a a Friday night choir-driven feel-good Shabbat celebration, but he beamed with the intensity of social purpose and higher human spirituality.

    Leon Jick had the habit of calling a young student into his office just to schmooze, just to get to know us better, just to get us to think. The Congregation’s reactionary heat to Leon’s social and political involvements grew to the point where his departure became inevitable. The Free Synagogue of Westchester did not want a high profile activist as a spiritual leader, and that is when—and why—Brandeis University managed to land that fine, brilliant thinker on their faculty.

    Rabbi Maccoby wore his shoes well. Leon Jick wore his well. Both were fine rabbis and served different needs within the Jewish community for their times. Thanks again for your history sketch.

    Frank Engel
    Bar Mitzvah, Free Synagogue, 1958

    • I am sure you are right- aside from fouling up my Bar Mitzvah, by giving me the wrong Haftorah, I got through the twin service with Robert Marshall, of whom I never saw or heard of again. I left the Free Synagogue right after that because they forced me to promise to go on to confirmation or they would cancel my Bar Mitzvah. Thus, my slight experience with Jick was short and not sweet. Eventually he left for a long career at Brandeis. Frankly, I never thought much of him, but I was always an iconoclast. I went to services at Sinai, and never looked back. I have had only two heroes, though I have liked and respected many others. Most of us are flawed, but many of the folks I knew and respected were decent and honest, but they were never heroes. As many others in our fractured and imperfect world. As I got older, I lost respect for many institutions and people, even many of my old friends. Maybe I am just too picky. I knew Maccoby when I was quite young and hardly knew better. Over the years, I was a dues paying member of two temples for 35 years and liked both rabbis who were quite different as two Eurocentric Jews could be. I distrust most religious people, religion in general, and the hypocrisy it foments. But, I remain a Jew forever and a day! Glad an old buddy like you reads some of by scribbling. Hope you like the piece on FDR and Churchill. I should post it hear this weekend. Stay well- rjg

  10. you might want to watch ken burns america and holocaust. on pbs. you can stream if you missed 1st segment. he gives your boy, fdr, somewhat of a pass. he rushed the showing to solidify jewish support for dems – despite their totalitarianism, ripping up freedoms of bill of rights, attacking courts, supporting criminals, violence, their racism and anti semitism. instead, he raises alarm against maga, trump. no problem with obama and biden siding with iran.

    • I don’t know whether I answered your tripe, but, I always thought your were an idiot and a miscreant and you reaffirmed my belief!

  11. My paternal grandparents, Israel and Rae A. Oleet were amongst the 20 families that founded Congregation Emanuel in June of 2016. My grandfather was a diamond merchant and my grandparents began their foray into investing in and developing real estate in Mount Vernon and the Bronx in the post World War ! era of the roaring 20’s. They had moved to Mount Vernon because of what you had described – the welcoming nature of a Jewish community. They moved into their first home on South 3rd Avenue next door to the Palestine’s – Jacob and Sarah. The Palestines had been members of “the 8th Avenue Shul” (CBI) and there were 10 break away men from CBI that were looking for a different Judaic experience. Each had been given the assignment the prior Shabbat to recruit one new potential member – my grandparents and their then 4 children moved in that following Friday. Jacob recruited my grandfather just in time for Shabbat and the rest became the history of the development of the Mount Vernon Conservative Jewish Movement. I’d like to correct a few items in your original piece. Congregation Emanuel met in the Masonic Temple on East Prospect Avene while their own sanctuary and a few classrooms was built immediately to the west of the Masonic Temple. That building was dedicated in 1918. My grandfather was a founding trustee and the chair of the building committee. The building, sadly still barely stands today after apparently being abandoned as the office building it was converted into when Emanuel built its second home at 261 East Lincoln Avenue. Alongside the site where the “new Emanuel” sat. was a late 19th century mansion (replete with solid gold bathroom fixtures) was purchased by the congregation in the 1940’s as a “community house” and became the home of the religious school. After the construction of the new sanctuary and religious school building, the mansion was razed and the site became the parking lot for the synagogue. During the late 1940’s and 1950’s, Emanuel’s overflow crowd for the High Holy Days did attend services both at the Masonic Temple and the YM-YWHA eventually on Oakley Avenue.

    Back to my grandparents and their generation. While my grandfather died iin his 50’s in 1934 and Jacob died several years later, by grandmother and Sarah Palestine were close friends, constant canasta partners, and comrades in arms in a host of philanthropic endeavors in Mount Vernon, until their respective deaths in 1968 – Sarah at about 90 and my grandmother at 87. Their regular partners were Sadie and Abe Yavelow – another well-known Jewish Mount Vernon family. My dad, Harold, had often told me that with the combined forces of the Palestine, Yavelow and Oleet children, they could field a basketball team and baseball team and still have back up forces on the bench. The gentlemen who wrote in about Mrs. Seplow, I believe her name was Edith and their family pew was directly in front of ours in the old Emanuel on Prospect Avenue. I, too, have a sterling silver kiddush cup that was given out as a “favor” at the 10th Anniversary dinner dance of Emanuel’s founding.

    I grew up in Mount Vernon, class of 1968 and was Bar Mitzvahed under the wings of Rabbi Blumenthal and Cantor Joseph Amdur. My two younger sisters were also Bat MItzvahed on Lincoln Avenue. As Bruce Blumberg wrote, I remember vividly the construction of the Lincoln Avenue building as we attended Sunday School next door on Summit Avenue. We were even taken for several tours as the construction continued.

    I married Eileen Flink in 1972. My parents-in-law, Al and Berthe Flink were members of Sinai Temple. However, they wanted to have our wedding at Temple Beth-El in New Rochelle which had just finished a considerable renovation. We were married by both Rabbi Blumenthal and Rabbi Herschel Jaffe, who was the Rabbi to follow after Henry Kagan’s death in the late 1960’s. We always joke that we are very married.

    While we lived in Boston at the time, we did come back to Westchester and Sinai Temple exercised a stroke of genius in those days – they offered a free year’s membership to the newly married children of their members. Fifty years later we are still members of Sinai Free Synagogue despite having raised our three children in White Plains and after 22 years of living there, moved to Hartsdale 17 years ago. I served as president of Sinai Temple for 3 years in the mid 80-‘s and board chair for 2 years. I still maintain a pinky in the mix but am more than pleased to leave leadership matters to others who seek it..

    What casual readers may never quite appreciate is that in a city of just 4 square miles, there was by the late 1950’s, 6 synagogues and a vitally important YM-YWHA (that had moved to its new building in 1950), three divisions of Hadassah, a B’Nai B’Rith chapter, a Zionist of America chapter, Ladies Hebrew Aid and Loan Society, and the Hartman Homecrest League that supported an orphanage on the Esplanade. When I was of Bar Mitzvah age it was not unusual for there to be four or five bar mitzvahs at the same time at different synagogues and, as you mentioned, sometimes they were doubles at the same synagogue. It was, in so many respects, a very special time and place to grow up – and I think mainly because we were not the only ethnic group in the city that had major representation – all of whom we shared classrooms in public school. It wasn’t perfect, but it was filled with a lifetime of experiences.

    Closing thought – in the 1960 census of some organization, Mount Vernon had the highest number of Jewish residents of any community in Westchester. And yet, the diaspora continues.

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