Temple Sinai "The Early Years"
A Brief Introduction - American Jewry
The Jewish migration to America began slowly, and by 1800 there were only about 6,000 Jews in the United States. During the 1830's German Jews began coming to America and by 1850 there were approximately 17,000 Jews living here. By 1880 there were over 250,000 Jews in the United States.
Many of the "organized" Jews of the mid to late 19th century belonged to the Reform movement, which had been founded in Germany and transported to our shores. The Hebrew Union College was founded in Cincinnati in 1875, and its first graduating class of Rabbis was in 1883. In response to the growing Reform movement, the Conservative movement was organized in the United States with the founding of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1887, twelve years after the founding of the Hebrew Union College.
The following 25 years brought the great migration of Jews from Eastern Europe and the Jewish population in the United States swelled to over 2 million by the beginning of World War I.
The Early Jewish Community In Stamford
Jews have lived in Stamford since at least 1698, when records show that Moses Levy purchased a slave from another Stamfordite, Mary Turney. Records from 1728 identify Jacob Hart as an early Jewish settler in Stamford, and by 1738, he was the fifth highest taxpayer in town. Then in 1776, Manuel Myers and his wife Miriam Pinto moved to Stamford from New York, in protest against living under British rule. They remained until 1785 when they realized that to survive as Jews it was necessary to return to New York where there was an established Jewish community with a synagogue (of which Myers later became President.)
The first Jewish marriage in Stamford was recorded in August 1805. It was solemnized by Lewis Gomez, a member of New York's first congregation, Shearith Israel, because the rabbi of the congregation was unavailable for the journey to Stamford. After the Civil War, the Jewish population of Stamford slowly began to grow.
Although, as noted earlier, the Reform movement had taken hold in the United States in the late nineteenth century, there were very few Jews in Stamford who considered themselves Reform. Dr. Louis Kronholtz, whose father established a clock and jewelry store here in 1888, remembered traveling to New York by railroad on early Friday evenings to attend Reform services with his parents at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, then located at Lexington Avenue and East 63 Street.
1954: Temple Sinai's First Year
1954 was a tumultuous year in our world. Senator Joseph McCarthy's ”˜red scare" was mesmerizing the national media, Colonel Nasser gained power in Egypt, school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, the first Hydrogen bomb was tested at Bikini atoll, Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile, Dr Salk developed the polio vaccine and two major league baseball teams moved-The Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City and the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles.
Reform Judaism had remained dormant in Stamford until the fall of 1953. Change began that autumn in the parking lot of Temple Shalom in Norwalk, CT. Several Stamford parents were bemoaning the fact that this was the only Reform Temple in lower Fairfield County and they were spending a lot of time driving back and forth on Friday nights and Sunday mornings.
A small group began holding meetings with the guidance of Rabbi Samuel H. Goldenson who was Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in New York and the father of one of our founders, Evelyn Glick. Plans started to fall into place (although Clarice Strasser wondered why services could not be held on Tuesday nights, because Friday nights interfered with her concert series.) But by the beginning of December, five families had each written a check for $1,000 as a deposit to purchase an available property. A committee of twenty-seven persons called for a meeting of interested Reform-minded Jewish families in a letter dated December 18, 1953.
That meeting was held in the auditorium of the old Connecticut Power Company at 429 Atlantic Street at 8:15 P.M. on Tuesday, January 5, 1954. Rabbi Daniel Davis, Director of the New York Federation of Reform Synagogues addressed a group of about 100 people.
The new congregation met officially on January 18th and voted unanimously to purchase a building for $25,000 occupied by St John's Lutheran parish, which was in the process of building a new church on Newfield Avenue. The building at 54 Grove Street had been built in 1894 by St. John's parish on St. John's Place, but in 1924 it had been moved to the Grove Street site.
On February 5, 1954, the first Friday evening Sabbath service was held in the little white edifice on Grove Street. Those people who came to services that night missed seeing Topper, The Life of Riley, Our Miss Brooks and Ozzie & Harriet on the then available six television stations. Most people, however, still did not own TV sets- a new 21 inch black and white RCA sold for $440.00, almost 25% of the cost of a new Chevrolet.
The first service, led by Rabbi Davis, was attended by 150 people, and the congregation which was already known as Temple Sinai, had seventy families. The Church and the Temple shared the building for the next five months, until St. John's could move to its new home.
Rabbi Goldenson, an eloquent speaker, led the second service on February 12th and led the congregation's services several times over the next few months. Several other Rabbis filled the pulpit over the first six months, while the first Rabbinic Search Committee completed its assignment.
On August 1, 1954, Rabbi Robert J. Marx began his tenure with our congregation. In December, 1954, Temple Sinai held a formal Service of Dedication. Our joint tenancy with St. John's had ended, our full-time Rabbi was here, our first President, Harold Sandak had been elected and our religious school was in operation.
Temple Sinai: The Early Years
The budget for our young congregation reflected the expanding needs and by 1955 costs had skyrocketed to almost $30,000. Dues of $200 a family were requested to meet these needs, but deficits became the norm. Rabbi Marx stayed at Temple Sinai until 1958. During these years, the congregation grew to a membership of 250 families and acquired our present 11 acre site on Lakeside Drive and Interlaken Road.
With the acquisition of the Lakeside Drive site, the congregation began its first building drive campaign. An eight page glossy brochure was prepared. Governor Ribicoff added his prestige to the effort in a letter to the congregation encouraging its support. Although this campaign, and the one that followed in 1959, were not successful, our congregation continued to grow.
The year 1959 saw the beginning of "The Silver Years." Rabbi Samuel M. Silver, began his nineteen year ministry to the congregation and the community Rabbi Silver began to attract the attention of the general community through his ecumenicalism, with the radio program "The Reverend, the Priest, and the Rabbi," as well as his speaking in other Stamford houses of worship. Innovations in the classical Reform service began to take place and well known personalities were invited by Rabbi Silver to speak at Sabbath services.
As our congregation's membership grew, this ecumenical spirit was further fostered by the kindness of many churches in the area who offered Temple Sinai the use of their facilities for holding High Holiday services due to the inadequacy of the Grove Street building. The religious school was forced to move classes to Roxbury School and High Holiday services were held in the Congregational Church in 1960 and 1961.
By this time, it had become obvious that a new campaign to erect a sanctuary and social hall was an absolute necessity. During the spring of 1961, the site master-plan was re-evaluated, new architects were hired, and the current sanctuary, social hail and religious school buildings were planned.
In early September, 1961, each member of the Congregation received a formal invitation to attend a "Sukkot Supper" on September 24th at the Y.W.C.A. auditorium to see the "Architect's illuminated model of the structure (our new building)..." The dinner would "help launch our campaign for a new sanctuary and social hall" and, "there will be no solicitation of funds." The goal was to raise $175,000 over a two month period. Within three weeks, $130,000 had been raised. On December 5, 1961 the Grove Street property was sold to the Bridgeport Catholic Diocese for $35,000 and the campaign was guaranteed success.
In the early spring of 1962, the groundbreaking ceremony was held and construction began. The cornerstone for the sanctuary was laid in 1962 and the building was dedicated in February 1964. In April 1965, the congregation purchased 1000 grave sites from Fairfield Memorial Park. The addition of the religious school complex was begun in 1966 and dedicated on Sunday, September 17, 1967. By the time of its Bar Mitzvah year, Temple Sinai had become a vibrant member of the Stamford religious community. Membership was over 350 families and there were almost 400 children in the religious school.
By 1970, Temple Sinai had over 480 family members and 533 children attending religious school. However, the Temple was continuing to operate at a deficit, and the Board finally decided to drop the "voluntary dues" program that had existed since the founding of the Temple. Membership immediately plummeted to present levels, without a significant impact on actual revenues.
In later years, we would have the first female President (Phylles Wyman) of any synagogue in Fairfield County, we would have the first female clergy (Cantor Sarah Sager) in either Fairfield or Westchester County, we would build an atrium connecting our two buildings and we would expand and modernize our religious school and office.
This history was compiled by David S. Cohen from Irwin Miller's "History of Temple Sinai" included in the 25th anniversary Silver Jubilee Digest, Phylles Wyman's 1984 document "Temple Sinai-1954-1984, A History and a Future," The Jewish Communities of Greater Stamford" by Linda Baulsir and Irwin Miller published in 1982 by Arcadia Press, the scrapbooks of Harold Sandak, first President of Temple Sinai, the archives of the Jewish Historical Society of Lower Fairfield County and old issues of the Stamford Advocate.