Tag Archives: Rabbi Robert Orkand

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.

Former Westport Rabbi Takes National Stand Against Hatred

On Thursday, a front-page New York Times story reported on the reaction of 4 major rabbinical groups to Charlottesville.

The organizations — representing a variety of Jewish religious practices — strongly criticized President Trump’s reaction to the carnage. They also announced they would not participate in a traditional High Holy Days conference call with the president.

The Times quoted Rabbi Jonah Pesner —  director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — as saying that Jews were appalled by Trump’s equivocal response to the events.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Pesner — who participated in 2 High Holy Days calls during the Obama administration — said there was “a lot of sadness” about the decision not to speak with Trump.

Westporters remember Pesner as assistant rabbi of Temple Israel from 1997 to 1999.

“Those of us who were privileged to work with and learn from him knew that he was destined to accomplish much,” recalls former senior rabbi Robert Orkand.

“Indeed, he went on to serve with great distinction at Temple Israel in Boston, and as a senior vice president of the Union of Reform Judaism before assuming his current position.”

Orkand is “proud to call Rabbi Pesner my friend, colleague and teacher. And I am proud that his leadership has led the religious movement I served for more than 40 years to take a courageous stand in opposition to bigotry and hatred.”

(Hat tip: Susan Farewell)

Rabbi Orkand: Oscar’s Was A Link To Westport’s “Covenant” End

For 31 years — from 1982 to 2013 — Robert Orkand was Temple Israel’s senior rabbi.

Rabbi Robert Orkand

Rabbi Robert Orkand

He and his wife Joyce now live in Massachusetts, near their son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. But Rabbi Orkand keeps close tabs on Westport, through “06880.”

The closing of Oscar’s sparked the same nostalgia and sadness many Westporters feel. But he has a special perspective on the history of downtown’s famed delicatessen. Rabbi Orkand writes:

The closing of Oscar’s is, in many ways, the end of an era. Locally owned businesses such as Oscar’s are, sadly, becoming a thing of the past.

There is an aspect to the story of Oscar’s, and many other businesses, that is not told often enough. But is a piece of the history of Westport that reflects its diversity and uniqueness.

When I arrived in Westport in 1982, there were a number of businesses that had been founded by Jews — Oscar’s, Gold’s, Klein’s, Westport Hardware, Silver’s, to name just a few. What few people know is how Jewish ownership became possible many years ago.

Gentleman's AgreementUntil the early 1940’s, many real estate agents in lower Fairfield County signed on to an unofficial “covenant” not to show property to Jews, or to discourage them from moving into certain neighborhoods. (The movie “Gentleman’s Agreement” depicted this practice.)

Even though certain cities, such as Norwalk and Bridgeport, had Jewish residents, many towns did not (and in a few places that is still true). Westport was one of the towns in which the “covenant” was enforced.

Before he died in 2009 at the age of 97, Leo Nevas told me how the real estate “covenant” ended in Westport.

He was the 7th and youngest son of Morris and Ethel Navasky, Lithuanian immigrants who met and married in the United States. They settled in Norwalk, and operated a small chain of grocery stores in the area.

Leo earned a law degree from Cornell University in 1936 and joined his brother, Bernard, in the practice of law in South Norwalk. Upon Bernard’s death in 1942, Leo opened an office in Westport. He continued to practice law for 73 years, until his death.

Leo Nevas

Leo Nevas

When Leo purchased the building in which his law office would be located, a local real estate agent inquired about renting an office in the building. Leo said that he would make a deal with her: If she agreed to ignore the informal “covenant” that made it difficult for Jews to purchase homes in Westport, she could have an office rent-free for a year.

She agreed. She began showing homes to Jews, which forced other agents to do the same. As Jews began purchasing homes, merchants opened stores and other retail establishments. One was Oscar’s, founded by Oscar Sisken and his wife, Sally.

While Westport’s Jewish community is strong and thriving, the retail establishments founded by the pioneers who helped establish that community are, sadly, gone. The memories of those pioneers will, however, remain with us.

Click here for “06880+”: The easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!

Shalom, Rabbi Orkand

In 1982, Los Angeles native Robert Orkand had never been to Connecticut.

Next month, he leaves Westport for Massachusetts. After 31 years, he’s retiring as Temple Israel’s senior rabbi.

Orkand’s road here wound through Miami, then Illinois. A placement organization told him about an opening in Connecticut. Knowing nothing about the state, he interviewed by phone.

Rabbi Robert Orkand

Rabbi Robert Orkand

Both sides liked what they heard. Orkand was chosen to be Temple Israel’s 2nd full-time rabbi, succeeding Byron T. Rubenstein after 24 years. His successor will be #3, after 55.

Rubenstein was well known for his social action work. But Orkand came with no preconceptions. “No matter what the profession is,” he says, “you can only close your eyes and jump into the deep end.”

In Westport, he found “a great community in which to live and raise a family.” His son Seth made “a wonderful home for himself here.”

Becoming the rabbi here — or at any synagogue — is “like entering into marriage,” Orkand says. “Both parties have to work at it.” He calls this marriage “very successful.”

When Orkand arrived, Temple Israel was the only synagogue in Westport. “I became the representative of ‘the Jewish community,'” he says. “The rest of the community was very welcoming. I very much enjoyed working with them.”

Temple Israel

Orkand praises his congregation for “never saying ‘no’ to new ideas. They’re constantly exploring how to make Jewish education better, and bringing the best and brightest here to speak.”

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, 2 new congregations — one Conservative, the other Orthodox — formed.

“Jews now had a choice,” Orkand explains. That was good for his Reform temple, he notes, “because people who were not necessarily happy here could go somewhere they felt more comfortable.”

One result, he says, was “a fairly large influx of young Jewish families” through the early 2000s. That changed “the nature of Westport — certainly of our Jewish community. There were different expectations, different ways of dealing with each other.”

Also, the rabbi says, “over the years the ongoing national controversy around church/state separation has meant the lessening of connections between the religious community and the community at large.” When he first came to Westport, Orkand was often invited into the public schools, as a resource person to talk about Judaism. Fellow clergy talked about their religions, too. “None of us get asked anymore,” he says.

“Exposure to religion in public education is practically nil. The best neutral place to teach about religion is public schools. But there are no Comparative Religion courses there.”

Orkand is now the longest-serving clergyperson in town. (Unitarian minister Frank Hall — who arrived a year later — also retires next month. He’ll be profiled soon on “06880.”)

Orkand calls his fellow clergy “extraordinary. We have a lot of respect for each other, and we work well together. It’s a remarkable relationship.” With “1 or 2 exceptions,” clergy of all faiths get together once a month. They go on retreats together, talk often, and learn from each other.

As he leaves the synagogue he’s served for 31 years, Orkand reflects on his career.

“I come from a generation where my life is, and always has been, my work. Others who are younger have found ways to better balance their lives. But I was taught that being a rabbi is a 24/7 job. I have no complaints about that.”

Rabbi Robert Orkand, in the Temple Israel library.

Rabbi Robert Orkand, in the Temple Israel library.

Orkand and his wife Joyce are moving to Natick. Their son Seth lives with his wife Kate –both are attorneys — in Boston with their 22-month-old daughter Noa.

“I owe Joyce more of my time,” Orkand says. “And I owe myself the opportunity to expand my world.”

He plans to volunteer, travel and “continue to learn.” As he has always done, he will work on issues related to Israel. At some point, he may teach.

This Friday (May 31, 8 p.m.), Temple Israel holds a service in Orkand’s honor. The next day, there’s a “fun musical event.”

The last week in June, a moving truck arrives. And Rabbi Orkand leaves the place he knew nothing about when he interviewed for a job, 31 years ago.