The history of Temple Beth-El on City Island during the past 80 years is the history of the Jewish community on this unique island off the eastern shore of the Bronx. It is more than the story of a small house of worship in a small community. It’s also the story of a community that extended its assistance to help us get started and become an integral and contributing part of that community. Without the whole-hearted support of the churches, organizations and people of City Island, there would be no Temple Beth-El today.
“The Congregation Temple Beth-El” was founded in 1934 by 17 men of the Jewish faith. They met at the home of Mr. Jacob Katz on Orchard Street (now Hawkins Street). The men purchased a handful of prayer books and held services in members’ homes.
At first, only men were admitted to membership and permitted to hold office. Women were permitted to join as “associate” members and were encouraged to form a “Women’s Auxiliary.”
By 1936, the number of members increased and the congregation began renting space to hold services and meetings. The most popular location was a store at 385 City Island Avenue (which was also being used by the American Legion at that time.)
In February 1942, Temple Beth-El organized the first Jewish Religious School on City Island. Classes were held in the Methodist Church classrooms. By 1942, Temple Beth-El was well-established on City Island. Services during the year were led by individual members. On the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur a Rabbi was obtained, usually a recently ordained student of the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York.
It was also in 1942 that the members felt that the role of the organized Jewish community should be more than a solely religious one. Occasionally, individuals and families were experiencing problems and needed guidance or other assistance. Some members felt that Jewish culture and tradition were being ignored.
Also, World War II was ablaze, and the Jewish Community felt it had a responsibility to aid in the war effort along with the other City Island organizations. Thus, in October, 1942, the Temple began to widen its scope of activities and officially changed its name to the City Island Jewish Center.
With the end of the war, there was a further increase in the number of Jewish residents and serious consideration was being given to acquiring land on which to build a temple. In 1947, a parcel of land was purchased. In that same year, the name of the organization was changed back to Temple Beth-El of City Island.
Services continued to be held in various locations, including the Methodist Church meeting rooms, the Masonic Temple, and the American Legion Hall. Finally, in 1956, the dream became reality as ground was broken for the erection of a Temple building on City Island Avenue.
In September 1957, a large gathering of City Islanders joined with local and city dignitaries as dedication ceremonies officially opened the new Temple, to this day providing us not only a sanctuary for worship but also a center of Jewish education and a meeting place for social and cultural activities.
The Temple has hosted such groups as the City Island Civic Association, CIVAC (City Island Volunteer Ambulance Corps, now disbanded), the Girl Scouts, etc. After the unfortunate fire that gutted the Masonic Hall, the Temple became the temporary meeting hall of the Masons and the Eastern Stars.
In recent years, Temple Beth-El has fully embraced its trans-denominational heritage while serving as a “training synagogue” for the Jewish Renewal movement, whose rabbinical seminary (ALEPH) is associated with the current rabbi and past and present staff. The temple has also received national attention through trans-denominational groups such as Rabbis Without Borders, national Jewish bloggers such as Velveteen Rabbi, and an especially helpful Twitter post from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff when the beloved synagogue was vandalized in 2011.
Temple Beth-El of City Island is proud of its decades of community building on City Island and across greater New York and the blogosphere.