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Torahs’ Return Begins Next Chapter for Temple Adas Israel

Wed, 05/10/2023 - 20:59

Temple Adas Israel celebrates as a major renovation nears completion

Rabbi Dan Geffen led his congregation, singing and clapping, during the Torah procession from the Old Whalers Church in Sag Harbor to Temple Adas Israel.
Durell Godfrey Photos

Over three years ago, the congregation of Temple Adas Israel left its temple without saying goodbye. Rabbi Dan Geffen held the last Shabbat the Friday before the Covid lockdown began. Then, while Covid restrictions were still in place — on May 16, 2021 — Temple Adas broke ground on a massive renovation.

“When we left the building, one part of the process was removing the Torahs and other significant ritual objects,” said Rabbi Geffen. Because of Covid restrictions, there wasn’t much ceremony involved. The Torahs were placed in the trunk of a car and driven to their new home.

During construction, Cormaria and the Old Whalers Church became temporary homes for the congregation. Shabbat was held on the lawns of both locations until last year, when it moved to the inside of the church. It was a long journey, and Friday, on a perfect spring afternoon, the process of leaving was finally reversed. Rabbi Geffen was ebullient as he led a large group back to the synagogue carrying its holy books and artifacts, in what is known as a Torah procession.

“This being our first Shabbat in the new building, we felt we needed to do something to celebrate,” he said.

The congregation of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor has been waiting years to return home after Covid and then construction shut the synagogue’s doors. Now construction is nearly complete. Durell Godfrey

Over 100 people gathered along the west side of the Old Whalers Church before embarking on the quarter-mile walk to the temple. Along the way, the group made seven stops — seven is a symbolic number in Judaism, and at each stop, the temple’s Torahs were transferred to another synagogue member to carry a small distance.

“We have four Torahs,” said Rabbi Geffen. “One is a restored Holocaust scroll, but our oldest is a gift from Theodore Roosevelt.”

Over a murmuring crowd of people greeting one another, shaking hands, and hugging, he explained how the procession would work.

“The front of the line is going to be the cantor and myself and we’re going to be singing along the way. Once you hear the music playing and the people in front of you walk, just follow and we should all get there safely. We’re going to figure it out as we go. We crossed the Red Sea together, didn’t we?” he joked.

He cautioned that those holding the Torah should use their shoulders for most of the weight. “It’s like a child. You’re not going to drop a child. You’re not going to drop the Torah.” Should someone tire, they could hand the Torah off to a helper, who would walk alongside them.

“We’re going to have a great time tonight and a great time for the next 100 something years,” he said. With that, a light cheer rippled through the crowd as the procession began.

Looking on was Nancy Remkus, pastor of the Old Whalers Church.

“I must say that I have loved sharing our space with Rabbi Dan and the many friendly faces from the synagogue,” she said during an earlier farewell service. “I have grown in understanding and admiration of those of the Jewish faith who are so dedicated and loyal to their traditions. This will remain a time that we could all see how love and peace and religion can live harmoniously together under one roof.”

Ari Weller was in the first group of four to carry a Torah down Latham Street, toward “the big turn” at Division. “It’s always an honor to carry, touch, or read from the Torah,” he said. “The procession tradition is supposed to be about community. I’ve never seen a tighter community. They’ve worked so hard for this.”

Although the mood was light and happy, it was also full of meaning. “These are very important moments,” one man said to another.

Once at the temple, the Torahs were passed from the oldest generation to the youngest. “That’s symbolic of what Judaism thinks of the Torah itself,” the rabbi explained in a phone call. “It’s the responsibility of every generation to not only learn the Torah, but to pass it on to the next generation so they can do the same.”

With a Torah covered in scarlet fabric on his shoulder at the temple’s entrance he said, “Anyone who needs help getting into the building, let us know. The elevator won’t be working for a couple of more weeks. Who has the fourth Torah?”

Construction is ongoing. The crowd entered through doors under a circular window that will eventually be filled with stained glass. The congregation was founded in 1896 and the original building was finished in 1898. In the 1980s some rather forgettable renovations were completed, nothing like the $7 million-plus project that is nearing completion.

The building is now compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and windows add light to a downstairs level that is home to the Hebrew school. Extra space will ease the overflow crowds of the high holy days and a new sub-basement could allow for further future expansions if necessary.

“This is unbelievably sweet. I’m just going to say nice things to you as you walk into the building,” said Rabbi Geffen. “For some of you, this is your first time ever walking into the building. Welcome! This is your home!”

“Did you pay for your ticket,” joked one man to another as they entered.

“Many times over,” answered the man.

“It smells new,” remarked another.

Rabbi Geffen said a larger celebration of the new building will be held on July 9. “It will be more broadly accessible and we’re looking for ways to acknowledge the school and neighbors who have been so patient during our reconstruction process,” he said.

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