A Photographer Documents Long Island’s Jewish History In Bittersweet Pictures
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A Photographer Documents Long Island’s Jewish History In Bittersweet Pictures

Over four years Brad Kolodny documented every synagogue building touching on the area's decline and the ‘memories lost.’

Temple Emanu-El in East Meadow
Temple Emanu-El in East Meadow

The only synagogue on Long Island adorned with onion domes in the Moorish architecture style is pictured on the cover of a new book. And inside there is a brilliant color photo of a synagogue sanctuary built in the round whose walls are made of concrete and multi-colored stained-glass windows.

These are just two of the images in this new coffee table photo book documenting the more than 400 buildings that are or at one time were used as synagogues on Long Island. Its author, Brad Kolodny, said he got the idea for the book, “Seeking Sanctuary, 125 Years of Synagogues on Long Island” (Segulah Press), when in March 2015 he photographed the sanctuary of the Midway Jewish Center in Plainview (“the worn seats and all”) the night before it was to be demolished and rebuilt.

“It made me think about what memories are lost when you do this kind of renovation,” said Kolodny, 49, an advertising executive from Plainview, L.I. “And then I started to think about what memories are lost at other synagogues on Long Island.”

During the next four years, Kolodny visited every synagogue on Long Island to photograph them and in many cases tell a little of their history. In addition, he points out synagogue buildings that are now used for another purpose, were destroyed by fire, sold and now used for a church or other facility, or torn down to make way for new housing developments, office buildings and parking lots.

Brad Kolodny’s book includes photos of the mid-century-modern gem Temple Emanu-El in East Meadow, which was torn down in May, below, and former Nassau Community Temple in West Hempstead, now a laundromat. Courtesy of Brad Kolodny

For instance, the synagogue built in the Moorish architecture style was the former home of Congregation Beth David, a Conservative synagogue in Lynbrook. It was converted into a church after the congregation merged in 2001 with another in Rockville Centre to form B’nai Sholom Beth David.

And the synagogue whose sanctuary was built in the round was Temple Emanuel in East Meadow. It merged a year ago with another Reform synagogue in Wantagh. The property was sold and the synagogue, which had opened in 1957 and which Kolodny described as a “mid-century modern architectural gem that was very progressive at the time,” was torn down last May. In fact, it had been cited in an exhibit at The Jewish Museum in 1963 because of its architectural style, which broke the mold of virtually every other synagogue built on the Island. Prior to World War II, just about all synagogues were built as two-level rectangular structures with the upper floor used for the sanctuary and lower for meeting space and classrooms.

Although he does not specifically address it, Kolodny has also indirectly provided a window into the continuing decline in Reform and Conservative synagogue membership on Long Island. He notes that there were 219 active synagogues when his book was published in June and that since then one synagogue has closed and another two merged.

The book includes not only photos of virtually every standing synagogue — there are more than 350 photos of current and former synagogues — but even mentions synagogues that were never built.

For instance, in 1967 there were plans drawn up for the construction of Temple Beth Joseph in Great Neck. But it never got off the ground because the congregation disbanded three years later. And then there is a brief mention of Darchei Emet in Great Neck, which was located on the second floor above a Dunkin’ Donuts and is no longer active.

Kolodny not only points out that Congregation Tifereth Israel in Glen Cove is the only congregation organized in Nassau County in the 19th century that is still active, but he also includes photos of the opera house the congregation used in 1899, the building used beginning in 1928, and a photo of the congregation’s current sanctuary.

Former Nassau Community Temple in West Hempstead, now a laundromat. Courtesy of Brad Kolodny

There are photos of other sanctuaries as well, but Kolodny said in an interview that not every synagogue was so welcoming about opening its doors for him to come inside — a few refused him entry without prior board authorization.

The first section of the book contains a history of Jewish life on Long Island. It notes that Nathan Simon is believed to have been a shopkeeper in Brookhaven in 1705 and the “first Jew to call Long Island home.” And it points out that Solomon Simson, a merchant who owned two houses in Oyster Bay in 1775, fled with his family to Connecticut during the Revolutionary War to escape British control of New York but supplied a cannon to the New York militia and lead for making bullets.

The first congregation formed on Long Island was Neta Szarchea in what is now Lindenhurst in 1874. It wasn’t until 1896 that the first synagogue was built — Agoodis Achem (that was the spelling as it appeared in Suffolk County records) in Setauket for its 52 members. The congregation disbanded around 1914 and the building was closed. But it reopened three years later to serve Jewish soldiers stationed in Port Jefferson and Yaphank during World War I. It then lay dormant for three decades before being reopened in 1948 for use by the newly formed North Shore Jewish Center, which used it until it moved to a new building in 1971.

The building is now owned by the Setauket United Methodist Church — and is used as a thrift shop.

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