Temple Israel Celebrates 70 Years

Before World War II, most American Jews lived in cities.

Other places did not always feel comfortable. So in Fairfield County, Judaism was centered in Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport.

After the war, suburbs boomed. By 1948, enough Jewish families lived here that leaders like Leo Nevas formed one of the first Reform congregations in the area: Temple Israel.

Members came from Westport, and newly suburban areas of Norwalk. They sought fellowship, community, and the chance to educate their children in the Jewish tradition.

For years they had no permanent synagogue. They purchased land near the current Whole Foods, but it proved not a good place to build.

Coleytown Road was much better. The cornerstone was laid in 1959. Just 5 years later, Martin Luther King preached on the bimah.

Temple Israel under construction, 1959.

This year, as Temple Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary, congregants look both back and forward.

Dorothy “Dood” Freedman remembers much of that 7-decade history. The niece of Leo Nevas, she joined Temple Israel in 1962. There were only a couple of hundred members. Both the sanctuary and religious school were small.

Temple Israel grew gradually but steadily through the early 1980s. The congregation included Conservative as well as Orthodox Jews. It was the only synagogue in Westport.

“But it was quite Reform,” Freedman recalls. “I loved it.”

Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein was a longtime activist in the cause. In June of 1964 — a month after Martin Luther King preached at the temple — the rabbi joined him at a protest in St. Augustine, Florida. Both were arrested.

Rev. Martin Luther King, before speaking at Temple Israel. He’s flanked by Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (left) and congregation president Dan Rodgers.

The Vietnam era was a testy — and testing — time. The congregation was divided politically. But — led by Rubenstein — they were united in their support for civil rights.

In the ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s, Westport’s Jewish population grew rapidly. Temple Israel did too. At one point, there were 900 family units (single individuals, and families of any size).

Today, there are about 750. Members still represent a variety of leanings. But there are now 3 other Jewish congregations in Westport too: the Conservative Synagogue, Beit Chaverim (modern Orthodox) and Chabad Lubavitch.

Freedman served as Temple Israel’s first female president, from 1980 to ’82. A lot was going on. The congregation was building a major addition to the sanctuary, and searching for a replacement for the legendary and long-serving Rabbi Rubenstein.

“The building campaign was a literal — and actual — symbol of the growth of the congregation,” Freedman says. So was a subsequent building project: expandiing the school wing in 2003.

Rubenstein’s legacy was “kindness, teaching and civil rights justice,” Freedman notes. His successor — Rabbi Robert Orkand — presided over great growth in numbers. The education and nursery school programs expanded greatly too.

Rabbi Robert Orkand, surrounded by young congregants.

Orkand was also one of 3 founders of the Westport-Weston Interfaith Clergy group.

He was very active on a national level too, Freedman says.

Orkand retired in 2014. He was succeeded by Rabbi Michael Friedman. It was a time of transition for the temple, as the longtime cantor and senior staff members also left.

The new chapter is “an opportunity to redefine the temple,” Friedman — only the 3rd permanent rabbi in the congregation’s history — says.

“It’s a period of creativity, growth and renewal,” Dood Freedman adds. “There’s a great feeling of the congregation being a family, working and worshiping together. There are lots of people in the pews on Friday nights.”

Temple Israel’s current clergy (from left): Rabbi Cantor Dan Sklar, Senior Rabbi Michael Friedman, Assistant Rabbi Danny Moss.

The 70th anniversary is marked by several events. Orkand came back to Westport for a scholar-in-residence weekend. He, Freedman and others shared stories, and re-examined the history of the congregation.

Volunteers are conducting video interviews with some long-time congregants — including Freda Easton, the longest-tenured member.

“We have not always done a good job of memorializing our past,” Freedman admits. “Now we’re creating a documentary and digital archive.”

Hebrew school students are involved too. They’re studying Jewish life through the years — including the fight for Soviet Jewry and the integration of women into worship — including a focus on Westport.

Of course, there’s a party. It’s this Saturday (May 18, 7 p.m.), and includes honors for all 12 living presidents.

Dood Freedman looks back with satisfaction on 7 decades of Jewish life here.

“I think we’ve got quite a presence in Westport,” she says. “When I joined, it was something just to have a temple here.”

Mazel tov! L’chaim!

Temple Israel today.

24 responses to “Temple Israel Celebrates 70 Years

  1. Bill Kutik

    Dan, may I amend your history of Jews settling in Fairfield Country? Please tell me if I’m wrong. The history books talk about “artists and writers” started moving here in the 20’s and 30’s, code for Jews forbidden from being homes in Greenwich and Darien. Greenwich fell to Wall Street money; you tell me about the religious distribution in Darien. Jewish composer Richard Rogers, of “Oklahoma” and “South Pacific” fame, build a mansion near Beachside, and I knew his grand-daughter who remembered visiting there. Most people in NYC, ignorant or not, consider Westport the Jewish town along the CT Gold Coast, and you need look no farther than Gold’s in the Compo Shopping Center to understand their POV.

  2. Bill, the insights on Jewish life in Fairfield County through the years was provided by Rabbi Friedman and Dood Freedman. They said that “most” Jews lived in cities — not all. I’m not sure that “artists and writers” is “code for Jews forbidden from (buying) homes in Greenwich and Darien” Richard Rodgers’ home was on Hull’s Highway, just over the Southport line from Westport. Gold’s was founded in the late 1950s.

    I don’t disagree with your premise that Westport was more welcoming to Jews than other suburbs. But I think the examples you’re citing are not the best ones.

    • Bill Kutik

      Thanks you correcting me, as requested, Dan Woog. My research (and certainly knowledge) is much less rigorous and widespread than yours. This shows once again the unreliability of older eyewitness testimony, since his grand-daughter “vividly remembered” visiting Richard Rodgers at his home on the water. Southport above the Post Road, huh?

      You don’t know that I live in the “Gerber Baby” house that you wrote about some time ago. Happy to have you come by sometime and see the studio where Dorothy Hope Smith drew the charcoal in 1929 and offered P&G an oil, but they loved the rough! For nearly 70 years.

      Of course, husband Perry Barlow was no slouch producing hundreds of covers and cartoons for The New Yorker from 1927 when he built the house with a second separate painting studio until 1957 when he died. When I moved into it 20 years, I used all my reportorial skills from the NYT to track down his then 80-year-old son still in Westport, who filled me in on all the house’s (and family’s) puzzling details. Ping me at bill@kutik.com, if you are interested in visiting.

      • Bill Kutik

        Correction Perry Barlow died in 1977, 50 years after having the house designed by the same architect who did the triangular brick bank between Church and the Post Road now the home of Patagonia. His style was eclectic or whatever the client wanted. The architect’s daughter was gathering his drawings from all over Westport, and I had his blueprints (not as good) for my house.

      • Thanks, Bill. That’s great history! I’d love a tour for sure.

        • Wendy Crowther

          The architect for the triangular building in town, formerly Westport Bank and Trust (now housing Patagonia), was Charles Cutler. Charles’ daughter was named Barlow Cutler-Wotton. The Cutler’s lived in a house Charles designed on Kings Hwy. Barlow was born there and returned to it later to live out the rest of her life there. The house left the ownership of the Cutler family after her passing. It’s interesting that there is a “Barlow” in both stories. Could there be a connection?

  3. Richard Fogel

    shalom. Very nice story. I grew up in Middle Village Queens in the late 1950s and was always one of the few Jews in a classroom and I was exposed to anti semitic behavior at a young age. Im grateful Westport has a Jewish community with multiple synagogues. I am glad Temple Israel and others are thriving. Darien and New Canaan???????

    • Jeffrey Miller

      Richard, There is a thriving Chabad in New Canaan led by Rabbi Levi Mendelow. Sabbath services are held in his home which backs up to the YMCA, where Hebrew school is held. We have our high holiday services at The New Canaan Nature Center. And a Chanukah menorah lighting service at God’s Acre, where menorahs were not always welcome.

      • Richard Fogel

        thanks Jeff. Im glad to be know there is Jewish education in New Canaan. Id like to see it in a free standing synagogue. New Canaan has the ability to afford a shul/temple. Im glad they are off to a start. Thanks Jeff. Anyone have thoughts on Darien and why there is no synagogue there??

        • Jeff Miller

          Why a Jew would want to live in Darien is beyond me. The Aryians in Darien.

          • Peter Gambaccini

            As specifically singled out, of course, in “Gentleman’s Agreement

    • Arline Gertzoff

      You will be happy to know since 2012 New Canaan has a Jewish Center ,their own Torah,a growing and diverse Jewish population in excess of 100 families, and a Hebrew School Earlier Jewish families there went to synagogue more in Stamford and some to Norwalk .I worked in New Canaan earlier and times have changed a lot.You Can Check it out further online

  4. Susie Blumenfeld

    Mazal tov to TI! A terrific synagogue and a winderful part of the westport community. It has served us well.

  5. Dan, you omitted one other Jewish congregation founded in Westport 52 years ago by the late John and Jeanne Franklin: the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. We function as a cooperative — sans building and rabbi — and our full name now ends with “of Fairfield County.” We meet for Sunday School and Adult Ed at a local school, Shabbat and other programs in members’ homes, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at the Unitarian Church, where we welcome the community at no charge. A year and a half ago we celebrated our 50th anniversary with a memorable banquet. Read more about us at humanisticjews.org and see more at https://m.facebook.com/CongregationforHumanisticJudaism.

    • Thanks, Barbara. My apologies. You fly under the radar – but I know it’s a thriving and important congregation!

  6. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    I remember the founding of Temple Israel and continue to be ashamed that Westport, at least when I was growing up, was quite anti-Semitic and although I had many Jewish friends, I wasn’t very good at connecting the dots until long after I left. I’d be interested in hearing, from peers of mine, quite a few of whom still live in Westport, if they remember what it was like, in the 50’s and 60’s and how the environment compares to the present day. At least on a world-wide basis, I am concerned that the non-Jewish have little if any sense of historical context. I recoil at the term “white privilege” If it were amended to “WASP privilege” I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with it. I wonder at times why the idea of reparations has never been applied to the Jewish. It would be a debt that we could all share regardless of when our ancestors came across the pond.

    • Fred Cantor

      Eric, my family moved to Westport in 1963 when I was in the 4th grade. I never experienced anti-Semitism growing up; most of my friends were not Jewish and there were never any issues.

      Below is part of what I submitted to the Westport Historical Society for a current exhibit—and it describes my family’s experience in moving to Westport:
      “But there was another consideration as well: the fact that Westport was very welcoming to Jewish families at a time when that was not true of all nearby towns which also had superb public schools.

      What my parents wanted for my brother and me was to live in a town where there was a Jewish presence but where we were clearly in the minority—because that’s what the most of the real world was like (in contrast to our neighborhood in Queens where Jews constituted a significant percentage of the community).

      The Jewish population in Westport was roughly 12% of the total in 1960 (based on statistics from the 1960 census and the American Jewish Yearbook of 1961).

      So Westport seemed to be a perfect fit. And my entire family ended up being very happy with the move here, as evidenced in part by the fact that I am a Westport resident 56 years later.”

      Finally, happy 70th to Temple Israel.

      • Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

        Fred, I’m thankful to hear your positive observations and ongoing experience. Although we’re contemporaries I could never have your 1st hand insight. I’m no sociology expert but I suspect that for every overt bigot there are 100 that keep it to themselves. Thank God you avoided them. May it always be so. I add to yours my very best wishes for Temple Israel.

  7. Wonderful to read about the 70th anniversary of Temple Israel and all they have achieved. The Unitarian Church in Westport, a close neighbor of the temple, also celebrates its 70th anniversary this year! And I’m glad to see Barbara J. reminded you of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism which we at The Unitarian Church host for their Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service.

  8. Arline Gertzoff

    Check your info please.Temple Israel was in Norwalk in the beginning on West Ave. Today the building houses a Church. I went to Sunday School there in third grade and Elaine Arnow was my teacher .Then the congregation moved to Westport.

  9. Fred Cantor

    If Temple Israel is looking for vintage photos for its documentary and/or digital archive, Alan Bravin has some terrific photos from his 1966 Bar Mitzvah, including a wonderful one of Alan and his friends posing on the rock formation outside TI (in which you can see, among others, Dan Magida as a 12-year-old). I’m not sure how common it was back then to have a professional photographer at a Bar Mitzvah reception, but Alan definitely had one.

  10. Michelle Scher Saunders

    Truly wonderful to read about Temple Israel’s 70th anniversary. It stirred a childhood memory for me. In the early 70’s, my grandparents were looking for purchase and build a summer/wknd home in CT. They loved the fact that Greenwich was so close to NY and met multiple times with a builder (a native Italian craftsman) who built a home they had admired. After negotiating a price for the construction, the builder showed them several lots and started asking about which church they attended since he wanted to build the home close to “their church.” Every time, they responded that they were not “church goers” and it didn’t matter to them. The builder kept pressing them each time they met. The message became clear, as Jews, they were not welcome in Greenwich. My grandparents did a little research and found out that Westport had a synagogue in town and was welcoming to them. They bought their summer home on Mary Jane Lane in 1975 and the rest is history. As a child, I spent many wonderful weekends and summers in town and moved to Westport to raise a family in 1993. It was a great decision with no regrets.