On February 6, 1950, a small group of dedicated and enthusiastic people gathered in the home of Arthur and Carol Freedman under the auspices of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, – their purpose to discuss the possibility of forming a “House of Living Judaism”, a Reform Jewish congregation in the City of Utica. At that time there was no representation of the liberal Reform Movement between Albany and Syracuse. Utica was one of the largest cities in the country without a Reform congregation. At this meeting, a committee of sponsors was chosen to call a public meeting at the Hotel Utica for Sunday afternoon, February 12, 1950. This committee was comprised of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond F. Brown, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Shayle Gladstone, Mr. and Mrs. Morton Goldberg, Mr. and Mrs. Harold Solomon, and Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Freedman. The meeting of over one hundred people that Sunday was held under the guidance of Rabbi Daniel Davis of the UAHC and Rabbi Samuel Wolk of Temple Beth Emeth in Albany. Out of it arose Temple Emanu-El.
On March 5th, a meeting of the fledgling sixty-member congregation was held at the Hotel Hamilton on Bleeker Street. Our first constitution was adopted. The preamble stated “In order to perpetuate Judaism, to serve the Jewish people by providing a place where they may worship and where the teachings of Judaism may be known, and to advance the welfare of all those who may come under its influence, we do dedicate ourselves to the task of establishing a Congregation in Israel.” The members overwhelmingly selected Temple Emanu-El (meaning God is with us) from a list of five proposed names. We might otherwise have become Temple Avodah, Temple Sinai, Temple Shalom, or Temple of the Valley!
On March 31st, about two hundred members and friends attended the inaugural service with Rabbi Davis presiding and Cantor Sol Altschuller of New York leading a Temple choir directed by Mrs. Josette Stern. Rabbi Davis spoke on “A Creative Faith for American Jewry”. Art Freedman was literally speechless seeing the response of the community. He regained his voice only after Rabbi Davis had him partake of wine from the Kiddush cup. The following day, April 1st, marked the beginning of Passover. A very successful Congregational Seder was held at the Hamilton, sponsored by the newly organized Temple Sisterhood. Following the seder, a special meeting was held and the first permanent officers and board members were elected. They were: Arthur B. Freedman, President, Harold I. Solomon, 1st Vice President, Ira M. Ball, 2nd Vice President, Raymond F. Brown, Jr., Secretary, and Morton Goldberg, Treasurer. Trustees included Julius Rothstein, Mitchell Small, Hoard Seld, Dr. Charles M. Greene, Herbert Krohn, Michael Yust, Dr. Julius Ribyat, Dr. Philip Gold, Nathaniel Abel, and Shayle Gladstone. Sisterhood officers elected were: Doris Brown, President, Jane Greene and Carol Freedman, Vice-Presidents, Janet Small and Frances Savett, Secretaries, and Lucille Eckstein, Treasurer.
From March 31st through June 1950, weekly Shabbat services were held at the Hotel Hamilton on Friday evenings. Mr. Leo Oppenheimer, former owner of the hotel and Mr. Tom Freedman (no relation), the managing director, generously provided the use of the facility free of charge for meetings, worship, and religious school for the duration of our stay there. Each week, the UAHC arranged for a Rabbi and sometimes a Cantor to travel to Utica and conduct services. A torah was provided for us by Temple Society of Concord in Syracuse. Many early anecdotes survive regarding the housing and transportation of the torah. A breakfront donated by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Samuels was converted into an ark to hold the torah. Velvet lining and curtains were installed by the Utica Fabric Shop (owned by the Browns and Freedmans) and an eternal light was installed by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Basloe of Herkimer, parents of Leatrice Golden and grandparents of Michael Basloe, donated our first organ to enrich the musicality of the services.
Over the summer of 1950, much was accomplished. Having established our legitimacy in the community, our congregation grew. We became a member of the UAHC, the parent body of Reform congregations in North America. We reach a membership level of ninety-five families by the High Holy Days of 1950. We were fortunate to be able to engage Rabbi Julian Fleg of New York City as “permanent part time” rabbi. Rabbi Fleg continued to reside in New York. He traveled weekly to Utica by train in order to conduct our services. Rabbi Fleg was renowned for his engaging sermons. Kil Nidre services were reportedly attended by three hundred twenty-five people. We were most fortunate to have Lawrence Davidson, one of the leading baritones of the Metropolitan Opera, as our cantor. A shofar was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell Small. Religious School classes were begun with an initial enrollment of forty-two children. Parents of the students served as volunteers and teachers. Still with us today from that initial studny body are Mark Levitt, Barbara Goodman, and Dr. Peter Freedman. The first temple family baby from early 1950, Joanne Zimmerman (now Golden), also remains an active member today!
Our first torah was presented to the congregation by the Sonne brothers, Otto, Nate, and Philip, on Succot 1950. On October 20th, Temple Emanu-El was officially incorporated as a religious institution under the Religious Corporation Laws of the State of New York. In the beginning, Josette Stern undertook the training of a volunteer choir from amongst our members. She not only trained the hard working amateurs, but also played the pedal-pump organ, led the group, and sang herself, -practically our own one-woman band!
The 1950s continued to be extremely busy and productive in both religious and social respects. An early Temple bulletin in December 1950 indicated that an average Shabbat evening attendance at service was sixty to eighty-five people. This was quite impressive for the small congregation and certainly indicative of our early members’ enthusiasm and commitment. A supper dance held at the Hamilton Ballroom on February 11, 1951 celebrated the first anniversary with the music of the Lawrence Luizzi Orchestra. A commemorative ad book was published for the occasion, the first of twenty annual fund raising journals. Community support generated over two thousand dollars from that first ad book, quite an accomplishment for 1950!
Early in 1951, Moe Harris along with our Sisterhood and Brotherhood generously donated our first electric organ, a portable Hammond. In the autumn of that year, we were most forunate to obtain the services of Mair Owens to organize and train a professional choir. Mrs. Owens served our congregation with unsurpassed devotion for twenty-three years, retiring in 1974. The tradition of our outstanding choir as been carried on by a number of music directors since 1974, most recently by Mr. Jerry Peccorello who has been with us since 1988.
Rabbi Mordecai Podet was elected our first full time rabbi in August 1951. In 1952, the membership decided that it was vital to leave the hotel and secure a permanent place of worship. Our children were attending Sunday School amidst empty beer bottles of the “night before parties”. With the tireless efforts of Otto Sonne, Mitchell Small, and Dr. Charles M. Greene, beautiful old home on the northeast corner of Higby Road and Genesee Street, directly across the street from our present building, as purchased. The house was extensively remodeled and served as our home for the next eight years. We were also able to purchase the land for our beautiful Temple Emanu-El Cemetery on Roberts Road in Sauquoit in 1952.
Rabbi Podet was called into the U.S. Navy in October 1952. We engaged the services of Rabbi Bernhard N. Cohn was remained with us from early 1953 until 1957. Rabbi Cohn led us at the dedication of the building on March 22, 1953, a service attended by many including Mayor Boyd Golder of Utica who congratulated the congregation on its fine progress. It was with great pride that the congregation seder was held in our own Temple building on Passover 1953.
In December 1954, two hundred people attended at Trinkaus Manor a tribute to Arthur Freedman who had been President since the Temple’s inception. Despite Art’s annual protestation that he had served long enough, he was encouraged to continue as President for six years! He finally stepped down in 1956 and was succeeded by Mr. Jerry Streicher. Under the leadership of Rabbi Cohn, the officers, board of trustees, sisterhood and brotherhood, the congregation grew in size and stature. The first Confirmation Class graduated in 1954. Rabbi Cohn became known in the community for a weekly “Hour of Israel” television program. The point was reached at which the building could no longer accommodate our membership or our religious school comfortably. High Holy Day services were held in two sessions, an early and late service. Both used the sanctuary and a separate room with audio piped in. Half of the religious school classes were held on Saturday and the other half on Sunday mornings. We were thrilled by our growth but again clearly required larger quarters.
Once more, our membership came to the rescue. A major campaign for a new building was started in 1958, co-chaired by Manuel Cominsky (father of Michael) and Dr. Charles Greene. Raymond Brown was our third President at that time. Rabbi Cohn had left to accept a larger pulpit in 1957 and were were blessed to find Rabbi Elliot D. Waldman who joined us in 1957 and served as our Rabbi for the next seventeen years. Rabbi Waldman encouraged us to provide “a home in which to fashion the future,” a seemingly lofty goal at the time. This was a very high profile energetic drive. Campaign divisional chairpersons were Art Golden, Shayle Gladstone, Mary Greene, Art Freedman, Robert Blank, Max Meyers, Hortense Alpert, Dororthy Klamperty, and Harold Hotch. The campaign motto was “Let’s oversubscribe the goal” (which was two hundred thousand dollars). At the official campaign kick-off rally at the Hotel Utica on September 30, 1958, it was announced that $170,200 had already been pledged! Six weeks later, over two hundred thousand dollars had been pledged.
Ground breaking at 2710 Genesee Street took place in June 1959. The cornerstone was laid that fall. The Temple community excitedly followed the construction of our beautiful modern building. Most regretabbly, on April 2, 1960, just six weeks prior to the scheduled dedication of the new building, one of the few very low points in our history occurred. Our community awoke that morning to find the outer walls of the building extensively desecrated with anti-Semitic graffiti. The entire community was stunned and outraged. The incident received national attention as well as extensive attention by the local press. After an intensive investigation the Utica Police Department apprehended the three high school youths who were involved. The emotional support from the non-Jewish and Jewish community alike was heartwarming. Dozens of letters (many including personal contributions) from organizations and private citizens remain in our archives. The greater Utica community was clearly brought closer together. The damage was repaired completely in short order. The building dedication was held on May 15, 1960 as scheduled. An open house was held for the community on May 22nd. Over seven hundred people attended the dedication and observed as Rabbi Waldman kindled the Eternal Light. The new sanctuary provided seating for two hundred forty people. By opening the permanent wooden folding partition in the back of the sanctuary, seating could be expanded to eight hundred. Double sessions became just a memory.
Through the sixties, Temple Presidents Shayle Gladstone, Dr. Charles Greene, Milton Halpern, Nathan Chazan, Samuel Edelstein, and Dr. Irwin Alper led the congregation. Under the guidance of Rabbi Waldman, we continued to mature as a congregation. Programs were sponsored by Brotherhood, Sisterhood, and Youth Group on a regular basis. Our youth group (T.E.Y.) held and attended conclaves with other groups. They contributed to Temple life by building a sukkah each year, producing an annual Purim carnival for the younger children, ushering at High Holy Day services, studying with the Rabbi, and during some years holding weekly Saturday morning Shabbat services. An annual adult Kallah weekend become very successful by bringing in prominent visiting scholars to lead participants in study. Sisterhood initiated its annual Rummage Sale, which has continued as a major fundraiser to the present time. In the early days it was held in a small storefront on Columbia Street in downtown Utica. Once it moved into our spacious social hall, it became and has remained one of the premier annual “Nearly New Thrift Sales” in the area with hundreds of loyal patrons eagerly awaiting the opening of the doors each year.
The Temple purchased a house on Arlington Road in 1965 to serve as a parsonage for our rabbis and their families. This was retained until 1982 when it was no longer desired by our rabbi. In 1968, the congregation produced a major variety revue with guest star Corbett Monica at the Proctor High School Auditorium. It featured an all star cast of Temple members in skits and production numbers. This was so successful that it was followed in 1969 by Temple Emanu-El’s production, “Lullaby of Broadway”.
Our lay leadership through the 1970’s included Presidents Harold Hotch, Murray Segal, Donald Spector, Dr. Albert Simerman, and Charles Schecter. We had been saddened in 1969 by the sudden death of Sam Edelstein during his Presidency. Sam had been a Temple stalwart since the beginning. His wife Helen and family donated the funds for the construction of the only addition to the building to date. Those who use our building on a regular basis cannot imagine how we could function without the Edelstein Room for meetings, classes, and Onegs.
A dinner program to celebrate our Twentieth Anniversary featured visits and remarks by Rabbi Cohn as well as Rabbi Daniel Davis who had been so instrumental in our establishment. In December 1973, one of the Temple’s most ambitious projects, an Israeli Art Show and Trade Fair, attracted over one thousand attendees. A large committee co-chaired by Stephen Eisland and Charles Schecter. The fair featured Israeli produced food products, jewelry, pottery, wine, artwork, wall hangings, and books, all arranged in booths and stalls constructed within the Temple. The response was overwhelming. It introduced Israeli and Jewish culture to many people from our region.
In 1974, the Temple family and our community were shocked and saddened by the untimely death of Rabbi Waldman after seventeen years of devoted service. He has been lovingly remembered by many as a Rabbi and a friend. His wife Irlene has remained in contact with our Temple and has visited often from her home on Cape Cod. A fund established in his memory has provided an annual Rabbi Elliot D. Waldman lecturer since 1977. We have had the privilege of hearing numerous speakers and soloists, many of substantial stature, during this series which is open to the community.
Rabbi S. Howard Schwartz served our congregation from 1974 to 1976. A special Shabbat Service written by Milton Halpern in 1975 commemorated our first twenty-five years. Rabbi Sherwood Weil was installed as our spiritual leader in 1976, joining us from a congregation in South Africa. During that year, under the guidance of President Donald Spector, a successful campaign was started to retire the Temple mortgage. The burning of the mortgage was celebrated at a dinner dance in 1979.
Our Presidents in the 1980’s included Gloria Schaeffer, Julius Reiner, Dr. Scott Silver, David Goldenson, and Dr. Susan Blatt. In 1982, the Temple’s organ was no longer reliable or reparable. A successful fund drive in the form of our first ad book in twelve years allowed us to purchase a new state of the art organ. The culmination of the drive was noted by a dinner dance in June 1982. Later in 1982, Rabbi Weil left Utica to take another pulpit in South Africa. We were most fortunate to be joined by Rabbi Henry Bamberger who was to remain as our spiritual leader for the next seventeen years. I 1984, T.E.Y. received the Kavod Annual Award from National Federation of Temple Youth recognizing outstanding programming in the areas of Jewish study, worship, and service. June 1984 began a highly successful series of annual gala-raffle parties that were held each spring through June of 1998. The annual Galas were noted for imaginative themes and decorations, extraordinary food, music, and good times for the whole community. In 1986, Rabbi Bamberger received an Honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in recognition of his serving twenty-five years in the Rabbinate. In 1991 he was given a distinguished service award by SUNY College of Technology at Utica-Rome and in 1993 he became editor of the CCAR Journal. The congregation held a Double-Chai celebration, marking our thirty-sixth anniversary in 1986.
Our Fortieth Anniversary was celebrated at a Shabbat Harishonim (Shabbat of Beginning) Dinner recognizing fifty-one of our founding and early members including our second-generation members. Rabbi Paul Menitoff, Director of the Northeast Region of the UAHC was pulpit guest for the evening. An Honor Roll Plaque created as a special Fortieth Anniversary fundraiser was fully subscribed. Through the nineties, there has been an emphasis on updating our building including the social hall, the sound system, a security system, a major update to the decor of the Sanctuary, landscaping, and recently a long overdue redecorating of the Temple office where Sandy McCarthy has served as our all purpose secretary since August 1991. In addition a beautiful decorative gate and fence for our cemetery was donated by Dr. Eliot M. Friedman. Our Board has been led though the nineties by Presidents Dr. Peter Freedman, Dr. Arthur Margolis, Millie Eisland, Ron Kamp, and Dr. Rory Tropp.
Rabbi Bamberger announced his planned retirement in early 1998 to be effective in July 1999. His seventeen years of devoted and much appreciated service were recognized by many from the Temple family and the outside community at a retirement dinner held at Alfredo’s Restaurant on April 18, 1999. Rabbi Bamberger has been widely recognized for his many areas of community service including the Utica Community Food Bank, medical ethics committees, Munson-Williams Proctor Institute Board, Samaritan Counseling Center, Hospice Care, Inc., the Institute for Applied Ethics of Utica College, and Interfaith Bridge Builders. His accomplishments have reflected very positively on our congregation’s reputation in the community. We are most fortunate that Rabbi Bamberger and Sheila have chosen to remain with our Temple upon their retirement. Rabbi Bamberger has been elected our first Rabbi Emeritus, a honor richly deserved.
Rabbi Harry Dr. Rothstein joined us in August 1999 and was installed as our eighth Rabbi at an inspirational service on September 3, 1999. Rabbi Stanley Dreyfuss, past president of the New York Association of Reform Rabbis and long time friend of both Rabbis Bamberger and Rothstein, performed the installation. Rabbi Rothstein and his wife Ann are already being warmly embraced by and integrated into our community. He has come to use as we begin the official celebration of our Fifieth Anniversary year, a year during which a number of events are planned. We have already had an enjoyable Israeli dancing instructional program attended by many enthusiastic participants, young and older. A Shabbat dinner was held in January to honor charter Temple members Wolfe and Ilsa Stain who have recently moved to Maryland. Shabbat services on March 31st marked the exact fiftieth anniversary of the first service of Temple Emanu-El in 1950. Over one hundred people attended a spirited Shabbat dinner featuring singing and dancing and recognizing Shabbat Across America and our anniversary. Rabbi Rothstein revisited Rabbi Daniel Davis’s initial serman titled A Creative Faith for American Jewry. A beautiful new Tree of Life has been donated and dedicated in our main hallway in honor of founders Arthur and Carol Freedman. A major focal point of this anniversary year is the June 10th Gala Dinner Party. This Commemorative Journal, our first in eighteen years, has also been produced to recognize our first fifty years.
We have been most fortunate through our first half century. Much has been accomplished thanks to the courage and foresigt of our founders and continued strong leadership with supportive and interested congregants. Given the complexity of Rabbinical-Congregational relationships, we have indeed been blessed to have two extraordinary Rabbis lead us for thirty-four of the first fifty years. Over the past several years, we have been able to maintain a fairly level membership of two hundred families in the face of unfavorable population demographics in our area. We depend on the strength of our members. With the enthusiasm being generated by the activities of our Fiftieth Anniversary, we are seeing new active participants. Given the congregation’s continued commitment, we are optimistically looking forward to the challenge of our second fifty years.