It all started in the late 1940's when two separate groups of people held meetings with a goal of forming a religious school to educate their children.
Eventually, these two groups came together under the guidance of Rabbi Daniel Davis, Director for New Congregations in the Reform Movement in the New York area. Out of this first meeting came a vote to form a Temple and the name Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester was chosen. Organizing a religious school was one of the first orders of business. In the mid 1990's, a nursery school named Beginning Years was started.
Rabbi Solomon Kahn Kaplan was selected to be the first rabbi to lead the newly formed congregation. The formal inaugural service was held on Rosh Hashanah, September 23, 1949. Stanley Merkin, the first Temple President wrote that, " We are rich in important ways. We are now an organized congregation...(with) a rabbi who is devoting his full interest and time to our spiritual needs, to our children, to the development of our congregation. We have excellent facilities for our Sunday School at the Pleasantville Cottage School...and more important than anything else, at long last the liberal Jews of Northern Westchester...are proud to take part in their own religious faith and culture."
From the beginning we had an active Sisterhood, then called The Woman's Guild. The Guild was organized using the outline of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, now called Women of Reform Judaism. Mildred Rosen was the first in a long line of wonderful leaders of our Sisterhood.
By 1953 we purchased from the Congregational Church the first building to house our growing congregation. An ark was constructed using some of the interior Moorish panels saved from the old Temple Emanuel in New York City. (This ark is still in use during High Holy Day Services.) Community second night Seders were held at the Pleasantville Cottage School for many years, providing us with a congregational observance of Passover, and a time to socialize as a family of families. Rabbi Kaplan remained our Senior Rabbi until 1960. In 1962, Rabbi Murray Saltzman, whose interest was in promoting social justice, became our rabbi, and remained with us for six years. After that, a search committee headed by congregant Richard Laster found a young rabbi who had studied at Oxford and was then serving as Interim Rabbi at Westminster Synagogue in London. His name was Chaim Stern and he began his long and fruitful leadership of Temple Beth El in 1968.
During his time at Westminster Synagogue, Rabbi Stern met and began a liflelong collaboration with Rabbi John D. Rayner. According to Rabbi Rayner, these two friends and colleagues embarked upon what became a major prayer book reform in the English speaking world. In the early 1940's, after the CCAR adopted the Columbus Platform, there was a demand for a similar shift in the Movement's liturgy. In the post World War II years, as the significance of the Holocaust and the newly established State of Israel sank into the Anglo-American Jewish consciousness, Rabbi Rayner proposed and wrote a first draft for a new prayer book. Rabbi Stern began working with Rabbi Rayner on this first draft in 1962. This was the beginning of Chaim Stern's lifelong interest in poetry which lead to his writing of Reform liturgy. In 1967 their collaboration culminated with the publication of Avodat Ha-Lev, Service of the Heart. Rabbi Rayner has characterized Chaim Stern as one of the foremost liturgists of our time, a man of immaculate intellectual integrity. Rabbi Stern continued to write prayer books throughout the remaining days of his life. Those of us who attended Rabbi Stern's Saturday morning Chug Shabbat service came to be his trial users and editors of his works in progress.
Gates of Prayer and its companion volumes were edited by Rabbi Stern and published for the American Reform movement by the CCAR beginning in 1975. As his gift to Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester upon the occasion of our 50th anniversary, Rabbi Stern presented us with a prayer book specifically for our Temple. Titled Le Dor va Dor, From Generation To Generation, which became the theme of our 50th Anniversary celebration. This prayer book contains passages from Jewish literature, poetry, modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature among other sources. Our congregation adopted Rabbi Stern's prayer books for use at our services, as did most of the temples in the Reform Movement.
Shortly after Rabbi Stern became our Senior Rabbi, our growing congregation voted to build a new Temple building. Louis I. Kahn was chosen as the architect. His design is stunning in its simplicity. Constructed of poured concrete, wood, and glass, it is situated on seven wooded acres. The building was modeled after the wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe that were destroyed in the Holocaust. It was completed and dedicated in 1972.
The theme chosen on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary celebration in 1979 was tapestry which evokes images of the magnificent art work that adorns our Temple building. The Women's Guild adaptation in tapestry of Vasarely is the work of many people, and has 350 brightly colored blocks to signify each member family in 1972. The work hangs in the central stairwell of Temple Beth El as it has since the Temple was dedicated.
In July of 1982, Cantor Dana Anesi joined our congregation as a vital member of the clergy team: as an educator of our children and a teacher of new songs of worship throughout the years.
By 1989, when the congregation considered a project which would be significant to memorialize our 50th Anniversary celebration, it was decided to commission a Sefer Torah. This sacred project was begun by Torah scribe Rabbi Eric Ray on Sunday, March 14, 1999. Today, our new Torah occupies the central space in our ark.
Following his retirement in July of 2001, Rabbi Stern and his wife Lea Lane Stern took up winter residence in Florida but remained a presence in our Temple as our Rabbi Emeritus and through his many prayer books in use here at Temple Beth El. Unfortunately Rabbi Stern became ill in Florida and passed away in November 2001 at age 71. The entire congregation and the community at large remembered our beloved rabbi with a public memorial service held at the Temple on November 11, 2001.
In July 2001, Rabbi Alan Fuchs joined the Temple Beth El family as Interim Senior Rabbi. During his year with our congregation we benefited from his guidance in the successful search for a new senior rabbi. Once again, this congregation called upon Richard Laster to chair a search committee. And that search committee brought us a rabbi from Central Synagogue in Manhattan, Joshua M. Davidson.
Rabbi Davidson assumed Temple Beth El’s pulpit as Senior Rabbi in August 2002. Under his leadership, the temple added more accessible and creative services for families, created an adult Institute for Jewish Studies, offered yearly congregational trips to Israel and expanded its interfaith dialogue programs with Antioch Baptist Church and the Upper Westchester Muslim Society.
As our membership grew and the program expanded, our need for new space for learning, prayer, celebration and action became more apparent. And so, with great joy, in the summer of 2010 Temple Beth El broke ground on its new Center for Jewish Life, which opened its doors to the congregation and the community in September 2012. Designed by architect Alexander Gorlin, the new building offers expanded classroom space, a new Nursery School wing, a large and attractive social hall, and an entranceway that enhances the beauty of both the original and new structures. In addition, renovation work was completed on the Sanctuary, including new lighting and a handicap accessible bima.
Rabbi Davidson served as the temple’s Senior Rabbi until July 2013, when he was called to become the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emmanuel in New York City, a considerable honor. With great sadness the temple bade him farewell and invited Rabbi Alan Fuchs, once again, to serve as the congregation’s Interim Senior Rabbi for the 2013-2014 year. The temple also welcomed Star Trompeter as its new Senior Cantor and Rabbi Maura Linzer to serve as the congregation’s Rabbi Educator. Together with Associate Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, the clergy injected excitement and a great spirit of joy into our worship services, educational programs, and other offerings.
In July 2014, Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe joined our congregation as Senior Rabbi. Rabbi Jaffe, along with Cantor Trompeter, Rabbi Linzer and our congregation, have created a vibrant community with creative services, activities and teachings.
During the past 68 years, Temple Beth El has grown and diversified. Yet, we remain a family of households, joined together by our commonality of faith, community and purpose. We are constantly revitalized by our variety and our commitment to our ethical, spiritual, and cultural heritage.