On the lengthy drive from the city line in Lake Success to the Montauk Lighthouse, Plainview resident Brad Kolodny spent four years documenting the synagogues of Long Island. “They represent a microcosm of American Jewish life.”
With more than 300 photographs and 400 congregations, past and present, Kolodny’s research was published this past summer as the book, Seeking Sanctuary: 125 Years of Synagogues on Long Island, a 128-page coffee table book published by Segulah Press. “I belong to the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset. In 2015, I took photos of the old sanctuary before it was demolished. I thought about the memories that were lost,” said Kolodny. His Conservative synagogue was building a new sanctuary, but across Long Island many of the sizable postwar Jewish centers were closing their doors. Kolodny asked rhetorically, “Who is keeping track of the mergers and closings? Who is going to remember these places?”
This question inspired Kolodny to launch the Instagram account, @synagoguesoflongisland, adding photos of former and present synagogues across Long Island. “I photographed 385 buildings and received another 40 images from historical societies and libraries,” he said.
Kolodny identified the oldest synagogue structure as Agudas Achim in Setauket, built in 1896. Many of its members worked at a rubber factory that attracted immigrant workers from the city. It was disbanded during World War I, and the last congregation to use this space left in 1971. It is today a United Methodist Church thrift shop. The first organized minyan was much earlier, however: in 1874 in the village of Breslau, which was later renamed Lindenhurst.
As with many former synagogues, the buildings that survived have been repurposed in a variety of ways. “The synagogue built for Shaarei Zedek in Hicksville in 1926 is now a Hindu temple,” he said. “Nassau Community Temple in West Hempstead is today a laundromat. The Second Avenue firehouse in Bay Shore was built in the 1890s, but in 1920 the building was sold to United Hebrew Congregation, which later became Bay Shore Jewish Center. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
At least those former synagogues can be remembered in the physical structures. This past summer, the iconic Temple Emanu-El in East Meadow was demolished in favor of senior residences. The modernist structure had a sanctuary wrapped by hexagonal stained glass windows that was as representative of its time and style as the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan and the TWA Terminal in Queens. “But it had no insulation; it was all concrete and glass,” Kolodny said. “In the 1950s, synagogue architects were building elaborate structures.” The concept of a “shul with a pool” or a synagogue that also functioned as a Jewish community center followed the suburban boom on Long Island.
The book is not entirely about demolition and decline. Kolodny notes the growth of Orthodox communities in the Five Towns, West Hempstead, and Great Neck, as well as new Chabad houses that have emerged to fill in the void. “Going to the Five Towns was interesting. There is a lot of growth. The Young Israel of Woodmere is massive!” Concerning the North Shore, Kolodny’s book project taught him about Jewish traditions outside of the Ashkenazi scene. “I had never before stepped inside a Sephardic Persian synagogue. I’ve picked up the subtle differences.”
His effort to document every Chabad outpost in Nassau and Suffolk has been assisted by Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, the “dean of shluchim” who ran the first Chabad House on Long Island in 1977. Today there are 38 Chabad Houses. “As Reform and Conservative synagogues are declining, Chabad is reaching out.” One such example is the former Congregation Beth Sholom (Conservative), which installed a m’chitzah in 1990 under Rabbi Anchelle Perl. This building is known today as Chabad of Mineola and as Congregation Beth Sholom Chabad, a story akin to the Anshe Sholom Chabad in Kew Gardens. In East Setauket this past June, history came full circle. Not far from the island’s oldest synagogue building, Chabad dedicated its newest shul, serving local residents and the faculty and students of SUNY-Stony Brook.
“There is so much written about Jewish history on the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Long Island was being overlooked,” Kolodny said.
Since the book’s launch, his calendar has been filled with speaking engagements. “My calendar is booked through March. It surprises me that this really resonates,” Kolodny said. History did not stop with the publication of his book. “Since it came out in June, two more synagogues have merged and another closed,” Kolodny said. “It’s an indication of how rapidly things are changing.”
By Sergey Kadinsky