The following "history" of West Hempstead consists of a series of anecdotes submitted by current and past members of our shul on the occasion of our recent Jubilee anniversary. A special thanks to Chaim Mechanic for providing the vital historical details and timeline. These submissions have been edited for the web format but are available in their original form from the shul office.
In the Beginning...
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." That well known opening line from Charles Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities" best describes the winter of 1955-56 in the life of the West Hempstead Orthodox community. Alluding to that handful of Orthodox Jews as a community might be stretching it from a sociologist's point of view, but it was indeed a community, once you get away from the semantics.
The names of this group of seven or eight families that banded together to form the nucleus of this Yishuv are not important at this time. The fact is that after the initial High Holiday services and the first Simchas Torah celebration by this small group, the Bereshis, the beginning of what is now a vibrant Orthodox community came into being; a community which has made its mark in the world of Orthodox Jewry.
Shall we talk about firsts? I would venture to say that on that windy, rainy Simchas Torah night of 1955, when seven men, two women and five children (one Bar Mitzvah) gathered in that old, unheated, ancient farmhouse, that served as the first Hebrew Academy of Nassau County and danced and sang with one Sefer Torah and ate honey cake and danced and sang some more – that could have been considered a "first." There was no minyan but we carried on never-the-less.
I imagine when, at the end of the evening, we carried the Sefer Torah to the home of the individual who owned it – that was probably a "first." The first time that a Sefer Torah was carried through the streets of West Hempstead (if not Nassau and Suffolk Counties). Services the next morning were held in the home of the owner of the Torah, on Evergreen Drive. The same group participated, but now with the addition of two men whom we abducted on their way to the JCC. We were overjoyed because we had a minyan
With the Holidays past, this small group now began regular Shabbos morning services, and I mean regular. We davened without a minyan but we davened. We drudged through the snow and foul weather of that winter, young and old alike. We huddled in the cold unheated ramshackle farmhouse Shabbos after Shabbos in our overcoats, boots and gloves. We read the parsha of the week without aliyahs. Some Shabbosim, we were fortunate: some of the group invited guests to West Hempstead for Shabbos and we could daven and read the parsha with a minyan.
The next few years saw a gradual increase in membership and the Ruach of this original handful permeated the community and created a warm and friendly atmosphere which has lasted to this day. We who were part of this original group can look about us, particularly at this time of dedication of our magnificent shul and its beautiful kehila and say it really was the "best of times."
-- by Murray Goren ז״ל
"Minutes" from Inaugural Board Meeting
The Challenge of Suburban Orthodoxy
The early 1950s were a challenging period for American Orthodoxy as the new generation struggled to maintain their Jewish identity. Among other factors, some blamed the cheder model of Jewish education which focused on supplementing standard schooling with afternoon classes but did not succeed in maintaining the level of youth participation to which their parents were accustomed. The risks to Orthodox youth were considered even greater in the suburbs which were far from the "Heart of Yiddishkite" in the urban areas. An organization called Torah U'Mesorah sought to address the problem through a relatively innovative dual-curriculum yeshiva day school model which they brought to the hinterlands of America. With this backdrop, many Jewish communities across the suburbs were ripe for a change, including Long Island. However, a catalyst was often needed to trigger such a change.
-- Submitted by Chaim Mechanic
From Levittown to the "Haunted Mansion"
That catalyst for change on Long Island was a phone call from a parent seeking a day school near the newly developed suburb of Levittown. Rabbi Meyer Fendel of Torah U’Mesorah agreed with the caller's premise that a day school was needed in Nassau County and accepted the challenge of building a yeshiva from scratch. A 75-year old, three-floor house in West Hempstead called the "Oppenheim Collins Estate" was chosen as the location. In the absence of funding for renovations, the living and bedrooms were converted into classrooms and Rabbi Fendel served as Principal without remuneration. The first teacher, Anne Abelow, taught 1st grade in both Hebrew and English while an untiring secretary named Ruth Provda managed the paperwork, served as nurse, den mother and confidant of the children. Thus in 1952, the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County (HANC) was born on the property which now houses the Bass Golding Elementary School. The old 'haunted house', as it was called, was used for four grades until 1956 when a new wing was built to expand the fledgling institution. The names of key contributors and those present at the ground-breaking ceremony are inscribed on a large piece of parchment that hangs in the elementary school office.
-- Submitted by Chaim Mechanic
Welcome to the West Hempstead Synagogue, What time should we expect you?
The local Orthodox population grew considerably by the time HANC had a 2nd grade and the need for a shul became apparent. The first minyan at the newly dubbed "West Hempstead Synagogue" occurred in the HANC school building and Rabbi Fendel, who served as Rabbi in addition to his principal duties, often invited talmidim from Chofetz Chaim for to ensure that a minyan would be present. In fact, years later shul members were asked to complete a postcard size form that indicated which days of the week, morning or evening, they would be available for shul though many phone calls were still required to get the job done. Unbelievable considering that we currently have a Shacharis minyan almost every half hour in the morning.
-- Submitted by Chaim Mechanic
Zichron Daniel Dovid
After joining the Young Israel movement, the shul attracted a broad base of support and soon required a larger property, preferably independent of the school, which could accommodate the overflow crowd. After an opportunity on Lester Court fell through, another nearby private house with substantial property became available and that is where the Young Israel building stands today. Under the guidance of shul president Dan Shachter and his brother Ralph, a builder, the members embarked on the new construction. Tragically, Dan died before the building was complete and the community renamed the synagogue in his memory, Zichron Daniel David. The Hebrew dedication was specially designed with letters from the Jewish Museum which are still affixed above the front entrance of the main shul. Despite the tragedy, the Young Israel of West Hempstead - now an impressive seventy members strong - had a new home.
-- Submitted by Chaim Mechanic
Beauty and Symbolism: The Shul Paroches
The beautiful Paroches in the Main Sanctuary are not just a physical part of our Kehila but a symbol of the unity and spirituality of the congregation as well. The Sisterhood decided to collectively needlepoint a Paroches and over twenty volunteers offered to contribute their time. The women gathered every Tuesday evening to work together and each took a section home to work on individually. Out of fear of speaking loshen hora during those meetings, others were invited to offer divrei torah and talks on topics of general interest. The total number of participants, including the speakers reached around 50, an impressive turnout for a congregation of 200 families. The sense of pride of those who finished motivated the others to work more swiftly, though the magnitude of the project often made it feel that there was no end in sight. The beautiful Paroches was finally completed and a wonderful dedication ceremony followed as it was placed on a brand new Aron Kodesh. A portrait of the women involved with the project still hangs in Rabbi Kelemer's office to this day.
-- Submitted by Shirley Goldberg
A Warm Community with a bit of a Cold Streak
Before our current building was built over 20 years ago, the shul was essentially a converted Dutch colonial house. An un-insulated side porch had been converted into a Bais Midrash and an ancient gas heater was later installed. The heater warmed the room nicely but, unfortunately, didn't fully kick in until 20 minutes after it had been turned on. No volunteers could commit to come in early so the inside temperature was no different than that on the outside during and, most wore winter coats during shacharis in the winter. It was finally replaced when the current shul building was built and the entire old Bais Medrash was razed and replaced.
-- Submitted by Irving and Carol Gertel
Brooklynites, Long Islanders and Beverly Hillbillies
Over 50 years ago, my parents moved from Brooklyn, the center of Yiddishkeit, to West Hempstead, the potato and vegetable farm capital of Nassau Country. My siblings and I grew up on Western Park Drive and I remember being awakened by a rooster from a neighboring farm that ran from Nassau Blvd (behind the High School) to Dogwood Ave. The owner was a Beverly Hillbillies type character who wore an old brimmed felt hat and did not appreciate the children trespassing on his farmland. He would occasionally shout at the kids shooting his rifle in the air and frightened us halfway back to Brooklyn. One Shabbos morning, we were unexpectedly visited by a resident of the farm who poked his nose into the kitchen window. It was not a member of the farmer's family but rather his horse who was enticed by the aroma of my mother's cholent which he preferred to a bucket of oats.
-- Submitted by Ray, Alan and Robin Goren (siblings)
A Casual but Elegant Community
Almost every Shabbos during the early years of the shul, our close knit band of pioneers made Shabbos Kiddush at each other's homes. One member lived just beyond the West Hempstead High School yard which was surrounded by a high wire fence. Naturally, one of our brave members decided to take the short cut by climbing over the fence. He was hooked by the short cut, literally, as his suit pants were left hanging from the fence. Not surprisingly, the kiddishes became a more informal affair from that point on.
-- Submitted by Naomi Stemp
Abundance of Possessions, Abundance of Worry
Rabbi Gold generated a lot of excitement when he announced his intention to establish an eruv in the neighborhood. The story was even picked up in Newsday and the New York Times both of which, not surprisingly, labored to explain the meaning of an eruv. Some of us had other, bigger concerns on our minds, than the level or accuracy of the news coverage. As we understood it, for a few minutes during the transaction, our Young Israel would actually take title to most of West Hempstead. As the Times reported on March 28, 1972 "Hempstead Town today symbolically leased a square mile of West Hempstead to an Orthodox Jewish Congregation." Yes, this was just a formality but, on the other hand, if they didn't want it back our fledgling shul would be responsible for all associated taxes and would surely end up in bankruptcy. Luckily, we survived the transaction and a flag was set up in front of HANC which was raised or lowered every Friday to indicate whether the Eruv was up or down.
-- Submitted by Raymond Goren
...and the people saw the water and declared it was good
West Hempstead residents used to be limited to two choices for a mikvah – the closest ones were in Great Neck and Far Rockaway. A group was formed to assess the feasibility of building one locally but lacked sufficient financial support. The shul itself was asked to make a major contribution to ensure the mikvah's solvency but community members were concerned that the magnitude of the commitment was fiscally irresponsible. A meeting was called for a vote on the proposal. Rabbi Gold studiously avoided shul politics including membership or board meetings but he considered this a special occasion. After getting up to speak, Rabbi Gold told the congregation that he had been in the shul lobby while much of the disputation was going on. While he was waiting, one of the children came up to him and asked, "Rabbi, are the good guys winning?" He then sat down and needless to say, the proposal passed by a large majority.
-- Submitted by Irving & Carol Gertel
Zionism is Man's Best Friend
The Coopersberg family faced a major challenge when planning to make aliyah from West Hempstead. Their dog, Charlie, did not have his paperwork in order and could not go. The family made arrangements for a neighbor to care for him until the time when he would be able to join the rest of the family. At around the same time, Rabbi Gold had just returned from spending a sabbatical year in Israel and was pondering whether to make aliyah. The Rabbi would take walks at night, usually around 11pm, to consider all the issues involved. His neighbor happened to walk Charlie around the same time and the two would normally exchange greetings during their nightly walks. One evening, the neighbor ran to the Rabbi and excitedly reported, "Rabbi Gold, did you hear? Charlie is making aliyah!" Rabbi Gold thought, "That's it, if that mutt can make aliyah, then so can I!" Rabbi Sholom Gold was the third YIWH rabbi and became the third to make aliyah.
-- Submitted by David Greenberg
The Sisterhood's "Shidduch-Buddy" System
The Young Israel has always prided itself in its ritual of welcoming new members with Judaica gifts, pairing them with a buddy and hosting a New Members' Tea. In 1987 a middle age coupled moved in with their 19-year old son and a younger daughter. Since many of the newcomers were much younger my parents were asked to be paired with this couple. At the Tea, new members and their buddies socialized and at one point they all sat around and introduced each other. My father volunteered that their "buddies" had a 19-year old son and they themselves had 19-year old daughter. He asked where the Rabbi was because the two of them might get married someday. I hardly knew this boy and was mortified when my mother told me the story weeks later. This really could have put a strain on my relationship with my father but, good daughter that I am, I did my best not to prove my father wrong. I married their son, Richard, two years later. And the rest, as they say, is history.
-- Submitted by Sheri Feldman
Programming for Grown Ups: The Annual Trophy Game
A multitude of great athletes lived in town so the Young Israel had not one, but two Men's softball teams who played each other in a game that was dubbed the annual "Trophy Game." The captain of the winning team held the trophy, and associated bragging rights, for an entire year and the game gathered a decent crowd. One year, I mentioned to Rabbi Kelemer that the traditional softball game was coming up and to my surprise he asked about the starting time. I figured he was checking whether the game was starting late enough for the participants to make it to minyan. As the teams warmed up before the game, Rabbi Kelemer pulled into the parking lot at the Cornwell Ave School field. He proceeded to the pitcher's mound and asked for the honor off tossing the ceremonial first pitch. As we gathered around the mound, Rabbi Kelemer, in a black suit and black hat, threw a perfect strike then wished us all luck and waved to the cheering crowd. Form that day on the game was affectionately called "The Rabbi's Trophy Game."
-- Submitted by Shimmie Ehrenreich
The Future of the Young Israel of West Hempstead
Much has changed in West Hempstead as the population has exploded, with some estimates at 1000 Orthodox families in the neighborhood. Meanwhile HANC has spawned additional branches and now boasts a student population of 1200 students. In just over fifty years, West Hempstead has produced two and three generations of wholesome Orthodox Jews - B'nai Torah, professionals and Jews who are dedicated to Torah and to K'lal Yisroel. Under the guidance of Rabbi Kelemer, the shul has continued to flourish with a bright future to come.