From its very founding above a printing shop on East 125th Street, Temple Israel was an eclectic mixture of adherence to principle and reflection of the changing needs of its membership. Its mission: preserving the continuity of Jewish tradition, strengthening the Jewish community, and assisting those in need in the community at large. Remarkably, Temple Israel went through many transformations without varying its purpose. Equally remarkable is that through its long history it was served by only five Rabbis – including our current Rabbi David Gelfand.
Temple Israel was founded in 1870 as Congregation “Hand in Hand” (in the Hebrew, Yod b’Yod) in the then remote Jewish community of Harlem. According to early descriptions, its founders were “people of moderate circumstances, many of them having small stores on Third Avenue and living behind their shops.” The founders, of German origin, were traditionally observant Jews. It took more than a decade before progressive Judaism became the norm of the congregation.
Those who founded Temple Israel took their Jewish responsibilities seriously and understood the broad sweep of Jewish history. They devoted their energies and resources to ensuring that Temple Israel would become an enduring institution. One of their first acts was to establish a religious school called “The Gates of Learning” which grew as rapidly as the congregation. By 1876 the congregation was in its third temporary home on 116th Street between First and Second Avenues. Fund raising efforts such as a grand Chanukah dress ball held at the Harlem Casino in 1887 occupied a great deal of the energies of the leadership of the congregation. It was estimated that 2,000 ladies and gentlemen, elegantly costumed, attended the event. A great deal of money was raised for the Hebrew School of Harlem.
The Columbia College and Emanu-El Theological Seminary student, Maurice H. Harris appointed in 1882 as the congregation’s first permanent Rabbi turned out to be an inspired choice. Dr. Harris, over a 48-year rabbinical career, transformed Temple Israel into a major cultural institution and became one of the most prominent spokesmen of progressive Judaism. During his ministry, Congregation Hand-in-Hand became Temple Israel of Harlem and ultimately, Temple Israel of the City of New York. The dynamism of the rapidly growing community moved them first to a former church at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue, then to their own construction of a grand limestone building which still stands at 120th Street and Lenox Avenue; and, still during the Harris rabbinate to 91st Street and Broadway on the Upper West Side.
Rabbi Harris was highly regarded as a founder of many major reform organizations. A fearless advocate for progressive Jewish ideals he was an early supporter of the Allied side in the First World War, even though most of the congregation consisted of German Jews and whose loyalties were initially divided. Dr. Harris was fortunate in having Mr. Daniel P. Hays as President during his tenure (for 33 years). Mr. Hays became one of the outstanding laymen in American Reform Jewry, President of the YMHA of New York and well-known as the president of the powerful Municipal Service Commission. During their leadership the Temple attracted many prominent members of the Jewish Community and was progressive at every level of its many activities, electing their first woman trustee in 1921.
In 1930, just months before Rabbi Harris’ death, Rabbi William F. Rosenblum was appointed Rabbi to the enormously influential West Side congregation. Although the early years of Rabbi Rosenblum’s rabbinate were in the midst of the Great Depression, such was the prestige of Temple Israel that it continued to thrive. Its many activities provided relief to those who were so unfortunately affected. The next phase of Rabbi Rosenblum’s tenure was even more trying – the Second World War. These years brought into focus the mission of the congregation – to support their Nation loyally as educated, concerned, and informed Jewish Americans.
The establishment of the State of Israel preoccupied the Jewish Diaspora at the end of World War II, but Rabbi Rosenblum held consistently to his world view that Jewish interests were separate from the temporal issues of governing a state. He believed that the Jewish faith transcended national divisions and could never in good conscience advocate the establishment of a Jewish State. His outspoken idealism regularly captured the interest of the New York Times.
From its founding on E. 125th Street in Harlem in 1870 as Congregation Hand in Hand, Temple Israel’s mission has been preserving the continuity of Jewish tradition, strengthening the Jewish community, and assisting those in need in the wider community. Remarkably, Temple Israel went through many transformations and locations without varying its purpose. Equally remarkable is that through its history it has been served by only five Rabbis.
During Rabbi Zion’s tenure in the ‘60’s & ‘70’s, concerns for Soviet Jewry, support for the State of Israel during the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, and other mainstream Jewish issues soon were overwhelmed by the urgent national and secular uproar of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle. With him, Temple Israel became a welcoming home to those in interfaith marriages, and to the growing population of marginal, alienated Jews.
In 1991, Rabbi Judith Lewis became the fourth Rabbi of Temple Israel. A thoughtful, articularte intellectual, she responded to the needs of congregants with care and support and continued in the footsteps of her predecessors, while introducing the congregation to the modern egalitarian concept of female clergy.
The Jewish community was beginning to grapple with the essential character of American Jewish Identity. Jews in America had entered an extraordinaryily secure and successful period in their history and in broader American society. The threats to our existence were no longer external, but internal, as assimilation and secularization had become contemporary challenges. While perhaps half of the Jewish community had strengthened its commitments, many others appeared passive or disaffected. At the same time, radically conservative and even fundamentalist forces had grown within some quarters of the Jewish world, as they had in many other religious groups, in society and in politics at large.
In 2006, Rabbi David Gelfand became the 5th Rabbi to assume the Senior Rabbi position. He has brought a deeper spirituality and a commitment to Torah and life-long learning to our community. This is reflected in 650 of our congregational families sharing in the writing of a new Torah scroll, in enhanced programming, and in increased membership. There is a renewed vitality to our inclusive and pluralistic congregation. Affirming the prophetic call of social justice, tikkun olam, repairing the world and being a global citizen, the Rabbi has brought a deeper commitment to Jewish learning, for all from the youngest to the oldest. He has also fostered a greater appreciation for the warmth of Jewish tradition, passion for Israel and connection to world Jewry. The congregation continues a commitment to outreach and inclusion.
In the 21st century, as in the past, the doors and hearts of our Temple Israel clergy and educators are open to each and every member and to all who seek them out. Temple Israel is continuing its leadership role in defining a modern American Judaism which preserves the integrity and continuity of our tradition, even as it addresses the challenges of the next generation and the unfolding drama of the 21st century.
Our congregation is actively pursuing knowledge of our past, and direction for our future. Our leadership is firmly committed to a creative, serious, modern, pluralistic and egalitarian Judaism. We seek innovative rituals and celebration which fulfill the intent of our tradition in contemporary expressions. As a result, as participation and commitment are constantly growing, we are experiencing significant growth in recent years
The congregation of Temple Israel has never been afraid to change course, or even address, yet has always firmly kept focused on its ultimate goals. Each of us helps shape our collective vision, as we work “hand-in-hand” with our Rabbis, Cantors, and lay leaders to pursue our mission, to celebrate our past, to serve the needs of the present, while we vision and shape the future.
We encourage everyone to play a role in determining the direction of Temple Israel of the City of New York, as generations have done before us. We are the inheritors of a grand legacy that comes with a guarantee of an inspiring tomorrow. All we have to do is to stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us, acknowledging the past, living the present and working to insure a bright tomorrow. At Temple Israel each of us can make a difference!