Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation

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The theme of the March/April issue of The Bulletin was “Jewish Heroes and Heroines: Inspiration for Our Times.”   I’m pleased to share my column featuring brief profiles of two inspiring but forgotten figures of Union Temple. “Ask the Rabbi” sessions, which I held with our Second Grade, and Sixth/Seventh Grade classes, follow.   

Adolph M. Moss

In 1929 the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression.

Union Temple was, at the time of the crash, just a few years old, having formed in 1921 from the merger of Keap Street Temple (1848) and Temple Israel (1869).

1929 was the year that Rabbi Simon Cohen—Temple Israel’s last rabbi/Union Temple’s first rabbi —retired, and a new rabbi, Dr. Sidney Tedesche, took over. The Union Temple community had settled in to its recently-completed community house building at 17 Eastern Parkway, and Rabbi Dr. Tedesche was just starting to get to know everyone—everyone excitedly poring over the architect’s plans for, and the sketch renderings of, the magnificent classical sanctuary, with its enormous colonnade and high vaulted ceiling which they planned to build on the corner lot next door.

And then the bottom fell out.

Adolph M. Moss was, at the time, Union Temple’s Executive Secretary (the equivalent of today’s Temple Administrator). He’d started out in his uncle’s metal fabrication business, then sold Studebakers, met Brooklyn’s movers and shakers as a young leader at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, accepted an offer to be the treasurer at the groundbreaking Brooklyn Jewish Center (forerunner of all Jewish Centers in Brooklyn today), and was ultimately persuaded to take the key lay staff position at burgeoning Union Temple, two miles down the road from the BJC, also on Eastern Parkway.

Devoted to civic as well as Jewish causes, Adolph was, in 1929, focused on ensuring a smooth transition from Rabbi Cohen to Rabbi Tedesche. But when the market crashed that Sukkot, thoughts of a smooth transition—indeed, thoughts of a smooth anything—had to be abandoned.

Adolph was, physically, a deceptively frail man, having been sick as a child. And by August 1931, not quite two years after the crash, he was dead. But over the course of those first two critical years following the stock market crash, he helped hold Union Temple together, helped it raise funds where it could, helped it reimagine itself without its spectacular, never-to-be-built sanctuary building next door, helped it prepare itself to weather a financial storm which would not clear for years.

Rabbi Tedesche, for his part, would go on to serve Union Temple for 25 years until he retired in 1954; and he held the title of Rabbi Emeritus for another 12 years after that. All of Union Temple’s dreams were not realized over his long tenure: the corner lot remained empty; no grand sanctuary building was ever to rise there; the community house’s auditorium was converted into a sanctuary in 1942. But by the time Rabbi Tedesche retired, Union Temple was one of the preeminent synagogues in the country, with membership in excess of 800 families. Adolph M. Moss (who was, by the way, my grandmother’s brother) would have been proud.

Rabbi Dr. Chaim Essrog

Union Temple was a house divided.    

At a contentious congregational meeting in May 1964, Rabbi Alan Friedman—who for the ten years following Rabbi Tedesche’s retirement had been Union Temple’s rabbi; and who in 1957 had founded Union Temple’s Social Action Committee—was effectively fired by the Board for defying its order that he cease his activities in support of Civil Rights. Forty percent of the congregation opposed the Board’s action.

After the cobbled-together High Holiday services that fall, Rabbi Dr. Chaim Essrog was brought in as Union Temple’s Interim Rabbi. Dr. Essrog was a brilliant scholar. Born in Israel, he had been educated in Israeli, European, and American yeshivas, had a Ph. D. from Harvard, and rabbinic experience on the pulpit to boot. Beyond that, his managerial skills were exemplary: he’d held directorship roles with American Jewish Congress and the Brooklyn Jewish Community Council. And beyond that, he enjoyed a national and international reputation as a world-class Jewish educator, having travelled widely in the United States and Canada in his capacity as the head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregation’s Department of Adult Education and Teacher Training. Working for the UAHC, he was very well known to UAHC Board Chairman Judge Emil Baar—the same Judge Baar who, in 1964, was the longtime leader, former president, and at that point honorary president of Union Temple. Dr. Essrog was persuaded to come on board.

More important, perhaps, than all of his many accomplishments outlined above, what seems to have made Dr. Essrog such a good fit for Union Temple at that moment in our history was that he was a “people” person. A trained social worker, Professor of Social Group Work at Yeshiva University Graduate School, Dr. Essrog was able to hold the fractured Union Temple community together until a new rabbi—Rabbi Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus—could be appointed in 1965.

The Social Action Committee which Rabbi Friedman founded—and which was disbanded by Union Temple’s Board at the end of his tenure—was, in time, reinstated (one cannot think of Union Temple today without its deep commitment to Social Action). But the whole period had been so painful, that memory of it—indeed, memory of Dr. Essrog—was repressed. He dropped from the temple’s collective memory. Nowhere does he appear in its official history. In time, the community came to “misremember” the year of Dr. Dreyfus’s arrival. The obituary which Union Temple placed in The New York Times upon Rabbi Dreyfus’s death—as well as the official timeline of rabbis in Union Temple’s “Historical Overview”—shows a seemingly seamless transition from Rabbi Friedman to Rabbi Dreyfus in 1964. But in fact, Rabbi Dreyfus was serving a congregation in Texas in 1964; he did not arrive at Union Temple until spring 1965. Too painful to speak about for so many years, we can now speak of that time again. And we can remember and honor Dr. Essrog—with his deep understanding of synagogues as complex emotional systems; with his great capacity to hear his congregant’s very strongly felt and sometimes very strongly expressed emotions; Rabbi Dr. Chaim Essrog—the Social Worker—who set Union Temple on the path toward its eventual healing.

Rabbi Mark Sameth

“Ask the Rabbi”

From the Second Grade Class:

Raine: Who wrote the Bible? Rabbi Mark: Well, we know who wrote some of the books in the Hebrew Bible, because their names are on them: The Book of Jeremiah was written by Jeremiah (mostly). The Book of Ezekiel was written by Ezekiel (mostly), etc. But if you’re asking who wrote the Torah—the most important part of the Hebrew Bible—the Torah does not say, and we don’t know. I would say it was written by people who were inspired by God. Raine: And how did God split the sea? Dashel: It was like in Egypt, a copy of that! Rabbi Mark: Ah, yes. So one answer is that it was a miracle, like one of the “signs and wonders” that God did in Egypt. Some say it was low tide. And some tell a story that it split when one of the Israelites—Nachshon ben Aminadav—had the courage to go into the sea. Even if that’s not what happened, I love that story—because it tells us how important it is to have courage, and how good things can happen when we’re not afraid to jump in!

Isaac: Can God die? Rabbi Mark: No. Everything on Earth that lives eventually dies. But God is immortal. God does not die. Isaac: Actually, there is a kind of jellyfish that doesn’t die. It’s also immortal. Rabbi Mark: Wow, Isaac, that’s great! So let me say, then, that God is the only thing which will live even when the Earth and the universe and everything in it are gone.

Daisy: If all people on Earth were created by other people, who created the first people? Rabbi Mark: The story of evolution is that before we were humans, we were apes, and before that lemurs, and before that amphibians, and before that fish, and before that amoeba, and before that—all the way back—we were all just a tiny dot of energy. We—all of us, and everything on the planet and everything in the universe—are one.

Jack: You know what I think? I think God has a humungous soul, and we’re all a part of that soul. Rabbi Mark: Jack, that’s beautiful! Thank you so much!

 

From the Sixth/Seventh Grade Class:

Leo: What’s your favorite part of being a rabbi? Rabbi Mark: This! My favorite part is having conversations with people—with adults, with children—about important things they have on their minds; studying Torah, teaching Torah, and helping people—whether at a grandparent’s funeral, or at a baby naming, or with a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Those are my favorite parts about being a rabbi.

Amy: What’s your least favorite part? Rabbi Mark: Oh, that’s a great question, Amy. I need to think about that. … OK. My least favorite part is hearing disrespectful disagreements. In Judaism, it’s OK to disagree, in fact we’re encouraged to learn from each other, meaning including people we disagree with. No one has 100% of the answer, ever. But we’re supposed to disagree respectfully. When I hear people being disrespectful it pains my heart. I try to help people disagree in a more respectful way.

Max: Do you believe in God? Rabbi Mark: Great question, Max. Do you? Max: I don’t believe in an all-knowing being who controls everything. But everyone has their own interpretation of God. Rabbi Mark: I do believe in God. But my belief in God is probably a lot like yours. Some of the greatest rabbis in the history of Judaism said that if there is a conflict between science and the Torah, we believe … science! And then we try to figure out what the Torah meant to teach. We believe in evolution. So when the Torah said that God created the first human being “zachar u’nekevah,” male and female, it meant to teach us that boys and girls, men and women are equal.