In Judaism, the holiday Shavuot celebrates the Israelites receiving the Torah after trekking for seven weeks through the desert — an arduous journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai, as the tale goes.

And so, it was only appropriate, and complete happenstance, that the groundbreaking ceremony for Temple Adas Israel’s renovation — a project decades in the making — fell on the same day this year.

Dozens of congregants gathered under a tent outside of the Sag Harbor temple on Sunday morning — many for the first time since COVID-19 landed on the East End — to commemorate the start of a new era for the oldest synagogue on Long Island, standing since 1898 as a symbol of resilience, but now much in need of a renovation.

The nearly $7.3 million project — funded entirely by the congregation, which includes primary benefactors Ronald and Jo Carole Lauder — is the largest capital campaign the synagogue has seen in its 123-year history, according to Rabbi Daniel Geffen, who immediately found himself verklempt when he took to the podium at the groundbreaking.

“The first time in more than a year to see all of your faces,” he said, his voice breaking, “it’s overwhelming. I should have brought tissues. Today is a day of light and of joy, certainly for Adas Israel, but also for the entire people of Israel — past, present and future.”

Led by Water Mill-based firm Chaleff & Rogers Architects, the renovation and restoration of the temple — which will include a new Hebrew school and social hall, and handicap accessibility — will wrap up by fall 2022, allowing its 270 families to move back into the space that many have called their spiritual home for over a century.

“It’s so wonderful to see that, today, the membership is thriving so much so that the walls, literally, cannot hold what is happening inside,” Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming said at the ceremony. “Temple Adas Israel is going to begin a new chapter of its history, just as our world begins to anew after more than a year of sacrifice and challenge and loss, and we will all need places of reverence and sacred places to go to heal and to reunite with others.”

When 50-odd families built the synagogue from the ground up in the late 1800s, it was for a similar reason. They were craving Jewish community in what was, then, a whaling village, Mr. Lauder pointed out during the groundbreaking.

They named it Temple Mishcan Israel.

“I’ve never known any Jews to be involved in whaling,” Mr. Lauder deadpanned. “So I could never figure out how Jews came here.”

As it turns out, it was a conflation of two key events. The first was watchcase manufacturer Joseph Fahys moving his factory from New Jersey to Sag Harbor — bringing hundreds of desperately needed jobs with him, following the collapse of the whaling industry — and the second was a massive wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States.

Temple Adas Israel Rabbi Dan Geffen. Michael Heller photos

Chief among them were, serendipitously, watchmakers and fine metal craftsmen, and their top priority was to build a synagogue — a temple and congregation that has since survived two World Wars, the Holocaust, multiple recessions and depressions and now a pandemic, Mr. Geffen said.

“There is a responsibility and the incredible honor of being a steward of something,” he said several days before the groundbreaking. “There are definitely days where I wake up and the magnitude of realizing that I am at least partially responsible for the present and the future of this congregation is an overwhelming idea.

“But the reality is that it’s never alone,” he continued. “It’s a remarkable congregation.”

The dream began with an offhand conversation between the Lauders and Neal Fagin, who served as president of the temple for over 30 years, during the High Holy Days in the early 2000s.

“During this chat, they suggested remodeling the temple,” Mr. Fagin recalled during the groundbreaking. “It has been a long journey, but here we are today.”

He turned his attention toward Mr. Lauder. “Your hands-on involvement made it so,” he continued. “Are you sorry you gave me your personal number? He says, ‘Yes.’”

The project moved slowly until Mr. Geffen joined the synagogue in June 2014 and began working on the visioning phase with architect Lee Pomeroy, who drew up plans before his death in 2018.

“He was taken far too soon,” the rabbi said at the ceremony. “He put his heart and his soul into his vision of what our temple could be, and while I will always have a heavy heart knowing he did not see his work completed, I know that he knows that his spirit will always be connected to this sacred place that he loved so much.”

About six months later, Mr. Chaleff took over the project — and found himself uniquely qualified to do so. First, he had been Mr. Pomeroy’s student during his sophomore year at Cooper Union, and second, his area of expertise was public realm buildings, such as schools, firehouses and libraries, after ditching his original plan to design avant-garde houses for the wealthy.

That was nearly 50 years ago, and he’s never looked back.

“I quickly figured out that was not really a mission that suited me,” he said on Tuesday morning, adding, “This building cements that position.”

The weight of this project is not lost on him, Mr. Chaleff said, and after getting the green light from various village boards — most of which was accomplished during the pandemic — the complex project is officially a go.

The original 1898 structure will remain as is — outside of replacing the vinyl and aluminum siding with more authentic clapboard and some minimal sprucing of the interior — while its additions will, essentially, be removed and rebuilt after excavating 2 feet under the lower level to allow for more headroom.

“The biggest issue is the excavation going all the way down, deep below the existing footings of the historic building, and doing that without endangering the historic building and adding these other levels,” Mr. Chaleff said. “And once we get that foundation, we’ll all breathe more easily and then the issue of finishing will not be so difficult.”

A new social hall will sit on the upper level, flush with the existing synagogue, with a retractable wall that can accommodate overflow seating for larger services. Underneath it will be the Ronald and Jo Carole Lauder Jewish Learning Center, as well as an adjacent, split-level addition with a new kitchen, bathrooms and handicapped access to the entire building, complete with an elevator.

“Our hope is, really, that this will be the last major building project, certainly of my lifetime,” Mr. Geffen said, “and we’re really trying as best as we could to hit all of the notes in terms of the what the building itself would stand for.”

Outside of education and accessibility, the temple will continue to stand for openness to all people, said Mr. Lauder, whose philanthropy efforts have supported Jewish schools and education around the world. That commitment attracted both him and his mother, Estée Lauder, to the synagogue, he said, noting that she was quite particular when it came to her temple.

“Frankly, one of the things that I have found too often in the Jewish world is that we forget that we’re one people, from the most religious to the most secular, from the most conservative to the most liberal,” he said. “We’re one people, and too often we forget that as one people, we can do miracles. But as many different people that fight among ourselves, we can’t.”

Halfway through the groundbreaking ceremony, congregants removed the four Torahs from the synagogue’s arc, symbolizing the start of their journey and temporary home at the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor.

“As we remove the Torahs, we’re not leaving our past behind, but rather commemorating its role in helping us get to this point,” explained Ron Klausner, who serves as co-president of Temple Adas Israel alongside Alan Leavitt.

The ceremony ended with moving the Torahs once more, this time a celebration of growth, marking the path forward and the congregation’s bright future on the East End.

Then, one by one, wearing either a hard hat or yarmulke, the Lauders, Mr. Fagin, Mr. Leavitt, Mr. Klausner, board member Richard Hemley and John Golden, a member of the campaign and building committee, each dug a shovel into the dirt outside of the synagogue, scooping up piles of soil that officially kicked off the renovation.

“Today, we celebrate the bright future of this incredible congregation — a future that we will all help to bring and build together,” Mr. Geffen said. “But let us also not forget the past and not forget the moments of joy, of sadness, of celebration and consolation that took place between the walls and halls of the building standing behind me.

“While we look to the future, let us never forget our obligation to carry the memories of the past with us,” he continued. “And so, dear friends, from past, to present, to future, may we only go from strength to strength. Can I get an Amen?”

“Amen!” the congregation recited back, the rabbi meeting them with a wide smile.

As published in the Sag Harbor Express and the Southampton Press

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