This retelling of Temple Beth El’s history includes narratives from the 1958 Dedication Booklet, the 1983 Rededication Booklet and the 6/24/01 ”Temple Beth El New Sanctuary Dedication”.
In the fall of 1935, about eight Jewish families were invited to the home of Mr. Benjamin Krohn to meet with Rabbi Joshua Cohen of Temple Beth El in Utica. All those attending this gathering felt that it was time to formally organize into a religious group. The result of this meeting: The Oneonta Jewish Community became a reality.
The primary purpose of formally organizing was to provide a place for religious worship, and Jewish education and culture for the children and families in Oneonta and vicinity. In the early part of 1942 this need became great enough to have regular Friday night services. They were first conducted by David Trachenberg, a Hartwick College student, at the old American Legion rooms and at the Elks Club. When Mr. Trachenberg found it necessary to leave, Jacob Galinn with the able assistance of Gustave Einstein, George Stein and Mr. Dewald conducted services.
During the High Holidays, we received assistance from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Each year a student rabbi from the Seminary conducted services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We shall always be grateful to these men for their help: Rabbis Segal, Kogen, Skoff, Tannenbaum, Landau, Horowitz, Marans, Goldberg, Baumberger, Aronson, Lieberman, Lukinsky, Hammer and Charry.
Our first home was on Chestnut Street over the Oneonta Theatre. In 1950 we moved to larger quarters at 177 Main Street over Henderson’s store. Rabbi Marans of New York City returned to dedicate our new quarters. At this time Gabriel Harris was elected president of the community and was primarily responsible for conducting Friday night services. As our membership grew and family participation and interest was at a high level, we became aware that our quarters were too small for us to properly fulfill our responsibility for the religious education of our children, and for our ever expanding program.
Under the leadership of Dr. Sanford Gordon as president and Gabriel Harris as chairman of the building committee, The Oneonta Jewish Community purchased the Bookhout Funeral Home on Chestnut Street, in the spring of 1956. After extensive alterations, we proudly moved in and named our new place of worship Temple Beth El, in honor of our parent Temple in Utica.
Throughout these years, much work and thought has been given to the growth and development of our community. We have always been fortunate to have members and friends and relatives of our community who have had a genuine interest in our needs and progress. To this end, many people have generously contributed money and gifts which have added to the beauty and better functioning of our Temple. One such individual, the late and revered State Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Molinari, was a generous and frequent contributor. With three-thousand dollars remaining on the mortgage, Judge Molinari would arrange to have St. Mary’s Church make available to the Jewish community 144 plots at its cemetery on East Main Street. Judge Molinari took care of all the legal work and made a very substantial donation towards the purchase price. A true chaver of Temple Beth El was this distinguished man.
Our sisterhood and brotherhood have faithfully and devotedly worked to raise funds and work in behalf of our community.
We have always observed minyans for Yarzeits for members and visitors. We have had several Bar Mitzvahs and our Temple has always been open to the Hillel and to all young people from the colleges, schools and the Boy Scouts. We have always held festival celebrations at Succoth, Chanukah, Purim and Passover. We have had several Seder services both for the children and adults. We have had many guest rabbis who have spoken to us during Brotherhood Week to which our community has been closely associated. Many ministers from Oneonta churches, and speakers from Hartwick College and the (then) State Teachers College have given us inspirational talks on Friday nights.
Today we are proud of our new Temple, really built with living hands. Our past presidents, Mr. Charles Unger, Mr. Jacob Galinn, Mr. Gabriel Harris and Mr. Sanford Gordon have given much effort to the establishment of our temple. May our present president, Dr. Howard Joseph, and his successors carry on their good work which already has a firm foundation. As we dedicate this building, let us remember it is a Temple, dedicated as a house of worship and service, radiating spiritual warmth and strength, Jewish knowledge and culture, guidance and inspiration, for the entire Jewish Community.”
1983 – “In the twenty-five years that followed, Dr. Joseph and his successors did in fact build on that “firm foundation” that the Temple’s founders had so energetically and lovingly prepared.
With the rapid growth at the local colleges, particularly the State College, new members joined the congregation from the faculties and administrations. The same high mobility, however, caused the departure of other, often valuable members, when opportunities beckoned at other locations. Meanwhile, the great increase in student enrollment at the colleges resulted in larger numbers of Jewish students attending and taking part in Friday night and holiday services.
In fact, the numbers coming to High Holiday services became too great to be accommodated in the Temple. Fortunately, The Elks Club generously offered their hall, thanks largely to Sid Schlussler. In more recent years, Hartwick College would make available its Anderson Auditorium for the High Holidays.
Early in the 1970’s a cemetery committee, chaired by Sid Levine, put in a great deal of time and effort to establish a cemetery for the Temple Beth El congregation. At last, at the end of 1971, the goal was achieved. Sid was able to get approval of Father Whelan of St. Mary’s and the enthusiastic support of Judge Molinari who played such a vital role in the acquisition. It should also be noted here that Mrs. Beatrice W. Blanding paid the cost for the fence around the cemetery. (Mrs. Blanding has also made donations for a cantor for the High Holidays and, recently, a very large donation to the Temple to be used as needed.)
The Temple continued its practice of getting student rabbis from the Theological Seminary for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Among these were Rabbi Louis Zivic, Rabbi Myron Goldberg and Rabbi Paul Reis. In 1966-1967 student Rabbi Gary Perras served on a semi- annual basis. He was inspirational, compassionate and a marvelous joke-teller and raconteur. Rabbi Reis served for an extended time in the early 1970’s on a regular basis. He capped his distinguished tenure as spiritual leader by marrying Sarah Elfenbein.
In September 1977, during the tenure of the Temple’s first woman president, Bunny Joseph, the congregation secured the services of Rabbi Max Rothschild. The arrangement worked out had Rabbi Rothschild coming up two week -ends a month from his home in River Edge, New Jersey. Dr. Rothschild came to the Temple as a member of the faculty of the Theological Seminary. The considerable scholarship he brought with him, and which he continues to develop, has been a rich source of knowledge and inspiration to the congregation. It should be said that Use Rothschild, his lovely and gracious wife, has solid credentials as an academic scholar in her own right.
One of the innovations Rabbi Rothschild brought with him is the Jewish Study group which has been meeting regularly on Sundays. Among the subjects dealt with were: the Dead Sea Scrolls, many books of the Bible (Job, Ruth, Jonah, Ecclesiastes, the Prophets, Ethics of the Fathers, etc.), Judaism and Christianity, Jewish Life in the Enlightment and many others. The sessions would often include prepared presentations by members of the group and much animated discussion. Ilse has been a regular participant and a valuable contributor. And no study period ever reached its conclusion without a generous sprinkling of Max’s, usually ironic but always spicy, humor.
In the years since the dedication, Temple Beth El has seen the loss of a number of beloved and esteemed members, including several who played a founding role in the congregation. The same period of time has seen the maturing of many of our young people who have become active congregants. A special note of acknowledgement seems appropriate here for Ben and Hannah Krohn, our honored elder statespersons. Their constancy, dedication, generosity and noble example are an inspiration to us all and a standard worthy of emulation as we continue to define and practice our Judaism as members of the congregation of Temple Beth El.”
2001 – Temple Beth El has continued to grow as our spiritual home, a place to shape our families’ Jewish lives. Temple Beth El’s mission is to teach Judaism by example and by precept: through worship, learning, and community activities. The synagogue has continued to offer religious services, children’s education, adult study groups, music programs, and counseling to members, non-members, students of the four surrounding colleges, and to visitors from out-of town.
In 1992, we reached a significant milestone when a full-time rabbi was engaged, making it possible to observe all Jewish Holy Days and to expand our children’s and adults’ pastoral needs and education programs. Our Oneonta Jewish Community was blessed when Rabbi Donald Neil Roberts came to us. We were twice blessed when Rabbi Roberts brought with him, his wife, Barbara Lynn Roberts, a Cantorial Soloist. After serving our community for twenty years, the Roberts’ retired and we were lucky to have had a wonderful replacement in Rabbi Molly Karp. Following her departure from our community after five dedicated years we are so fortunate to have Cantor and Rabbi George Hirschfeld as our new rabbi. Rabbi Hirschfeld has relocated to Oneonta from his home in Brooklyn, NY so we once again are blessed to have our Rabbi living locally and working with our congregation.
Frequently in the past, the sanctuary had been too small to accommodate our regular Shabbat congregation and did not accommodate our needs during the High Holy Days. For decades, we had to borrow facilities from area colleges, churches, and other institutions to conduct services for our members and guests.
We were fortunate that our President, Howard Gelbsman was willing to commit himself, to what turned out to be almost four long years of fundraising, dealing with contractors, and assuaging feelings. We were fortunate that our Vice President, Ron Feldstein, was, from the beginning, determined to see the project through, overseeing and prodding.
We were especially fortunate that Elliot Cohen, one of our members, agreed to design and to build our new sanctuary. Surely, God was guiding the Oneonta Jewish Community. Coincidentally, Rabbi Harold Marins, who had been one of the rabbinical students leading services for us in the 1940’s and who came back in 1950 to dedicate our second Temple above Henderson’s Store at 177 Main Street, has been Elliot Cohen’s family rabbi in Cedarhurst, NY. Elliot Cohen more than fulfilled our expectations. His work is indeed a gift from God, inspired and inspiring.
We can be proud that funds for the expansion have come for the most part from the congregation, the community at large, and local organizations. We are thankful for all donations, as no amount is insignificant. We do need to recognize some very sizeable amounts, without which the project would not have been feasible. The Sam Rosen, Sid Levine and Henry Gersoni families were especially generous. The Blanding, Dewar, and Rowe Foundations have been most outstanding in their financial support. We still need monies to finish some aspects of the expansion project and to start an endowment fund.
One of Judaism’s sacred duties consists of tikkunn olam, mending the world, which Temple Beth El follows with its work in the community at large. The congregation participates in interfaith activities, works to fill social needs, is active in social and charitable causes, donates money, contributes goods, and participates in direct services. For example, our temple gives to local food banks and works at St. James Episcopalian Church’s Lord’s Table. Our facilities are available to other community organizations for meetings and other activities. Furthermore, a very large numbers of our members volunteer time and effort to assist the needy. Each year, our congregation participates in a community-wide Thanksgiving service, and will take part in the dedication of the new St. Mary Roman Catholic Church School. Father Paul Roman has conveyed to the Oneonta Jewish Community, title to additional plots in the St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church’s Cemetery.
We maintain our commitment to keep alive our history, our tradition, and our faith. We prepare our children to live full Jewish lives. We honor those who started, maintained, and still actively work and encourage Judaism in this community: Clarice Schlussler, Sid and Smitty Levine, Morris Rosen, Bunny and Howard Joseph, Edith Wilk, Effie Ettlinger, Helaine Segal, Betty and Ernie Goodman, and so many others.
We also salute all those who presently fight for our Judaism and who set an example for our children. We salute all those who follow the commitment to our Temple, in prayer, in learning, and in continuing God’s creation.