“This is none other than the House of God: This is the Gate of Heaven” – Genesis 28:17
The Jewish presence in New Rochelle was slow in developing and it was fully one hundred and seventy-two years from the coming of the first Jew before the first house of worship was erected. The earliest recorded Jewish services in New Rochelle were held on October 1, 1873 in a tent on Mechanic and Huguenot Street, near the spot where the Avalon apartment buildings are going up. At the beginning of the 20th century, the first Jewish house of worship, Anshe Sholom, an Orthodox synagogue, was built in 1904. It was soon followed by Temple Israel, a Reform congregation. The Hebrew Institute was founded in 1908 by fifteen Jewish families. Its objectives at that time were simply to “foster, encourage, promote, induce, and advance the study of the Hebrew language and its literature.” It started as a Hebrew school, and ten years later was reorganized as a synagogue with “modern orthodox leanings.”
The first Hebrew Institute building was a converted private dwelling on Anderson Street (near New Roc City) in downtown New Rochelle. In order to accommodate the growing numbers, at various times the group occupied eight different rented premises, including a loft on Mechanic Street, the Metropolitan Hall Building and the former YMHA building on Lincoln Avenue. The synagogue then rented larger quarters on Huguenot and Church Streets.
After World War I, the Jewish population grew rapidly and the Hebrew Institute members felt it was necessary to build a permanent home. By 1923, a lot had been purchased at 31 Union Avenue and plans were prepared for a new, modern synagogue building. On March 6, 1927, more than 200 families dedicated the new building, and on October 29, 1931, they officially changed the name to Beth El Synagogue of New Rochelle. The Depression saw membership drop, but as it rebounded during the forties, our congregation approached over 500 families. Soon a new building was envisioned, which would house a synagogue, as well as a community center.
In 1946, Dr. David I. Golovensky, of blessed memory, became Beth El’s spiritual leader. Beth El’s modern era as a conservative synagogue began in 1948, when there was a large influx of conservative Jews to New Rochelle. There were two groups – the original congregants of Beth El from the Union Avenue building, and the young group of conservative Jews from the north end congregation. The camaraderie among those pioneering families was special. Even today, many Beth El members remember the elegant break fast after services at the home of Hannah and Solomon Shamoon. In 1949, the two groups merged and purchased the Ernst estate, a four and one half acre site on Northfield Road, for the purpose of building a community center and eventually a sanctuary. On December 12, 1957, the community center portion of the building was dedicated, and in 1961, the school wing was completed. By that time, the membership had increased to almost 1,000 families.
The building of the sanctuary was authorized by the Board of Trustees in 1966. It is important to note that our honorary president, Stanley Batkin, with a talented and knowledgeable building committee, helped formulate the designs of our unique synagogue, making it both a house of worship and the realization of an artistic ideal. He traveled to Israel to seek the fine artists and beautiful ideals, which inspire and adorn this very special building. The architect for the sanctuary was Edgar Tafel, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. Integrated into the structure are aspects of Jewish lore in the form of bas relief sculptures, stained glass, and ceramic murals, as well as a specially designed ark, menorah, and furnishings. All combined to create a harmonious whole, reflecting both the religious history of our people and contemporary life. The first High Holy Day services were held in the new sanctuary in 1970. After twenty years, the culmination of the cherished dream of the completion of a new synagogue was realized.
Today, the Beth El Synagogue and Community Center is alive with a full range of spiritual, educational, social, and recreational activities. The years ahead look bright and promising, as Beth El continues to be a flagship among the conservative synagogues of this nation.