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May 19, 2009 8:01 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

The Jewish Center of the Hamptons turns 50

May 19, 2009 8:01 PM

In 1959, when the Jewish Center of the Hamptons was founded, it had 23 individual members who met to worship in their homes. The entire Jewish community of East Hampton was not much bigger. This week, as the center kicks off its 50th anniversary summer jubilee, the congregation’s membership has grown to about 500 families, who meet to worship in a soaring building made of glass, cedar and limestone at the entrance to East Hampton village.

There is much to celebrate.

“It’s interesting, when you come to a special anniversary you do a lot of retrospective,” said Cantor Debra Stein, who has been the cantor at the center for 26 years. “For me it’s almost as though it’s come full circle and returned to a really warm, inviting atmosphere. Rabbi [Sheldon] Zimmerman is in his second year and he has just managed to re-create that community again where everybody is so watchful of each other and cares about each other and their Judaism and their search for knowledge,” she said.

In the 1950s, the East Hampton Jewish community consisted of perhaps 13 families, most of whom ran local businesses.

Bernie Zeldin, one of the Jewish Center’s founding members, moved to East Hampton from Nassau County in 1954, joining the handful of Jewish families already there, including Alan York, an optometrist, and Betty and Bradley Marmon, who owned White’s Pharmacy on Main Street. There was the Brill family, Oscar and Augusta, and their sons Robert, who owned a dry goods store, and Frank, who owned the five-and-dime store on Main Street. There was the Bohack “supermarket” on Pantigo Road, where Citarella is today, where Sy Karp, another founding member of the congregation, was the manager. Even the best pizza in the village was served at Ma Bergman’s on North Main Street.

Irving and Charlotte Markowitz, who is a cousin of Bernie Zeldin, moved out to East Hampton the following year from Brooklyn. “Everyone comes from Brooklyn,” Ms. Markowitz said. “It was a very long trip from Brooklyn, but it was a very exciting. We lived on Gay Lane in a little cottage. I was very pregnant with our second child. It was interesting coming from an 84-family apartment house to a tiny little cottage with guinea hens waking us up in the middle of the night.”

Mr. Markowitz joined Mr. Zeldin in starting an accounting firm that grew and split and merged many times with other firms, and still exists today, as Markowitz, Fenelon and Bank.

This small community worshipped at the Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, the oldest synagogue on Long Island.

“But we were anxious to have a temple in East Hampton,” said Ms. Markowitz, in an interview from her home in North Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. “Many of us went to the Sag Harbor temple and we wanted something in our area rather than having to travel to Sag Harbor. The thing was that we wanted our kids to have a better education than what Sag Harbor was offering.”

“The facilities were not adequate for our kids, and we had a lot of kids starting to grow in East Hampton,” added Mr. Markowitz.

Some members of East Hampton’s original Jewish community, like Joan Brill of the now disbanded Brill-Gaffney Trio, were opposed to the establishment of a new congregation, as they didn’t want to split apart the East End’s small Jewish community.

“I was not in favor of a temple in East Hampton because all my friends were in the Sag Harbor congregation,” Ms. Brill said. “I didn’t have the vision to know how it would grow once the Jewish Center of the Hamptons formed,” she said. But Ms. Brill said that nevertheless she was a key player in the founding of the center as she said she introduced Mr. Zeldin to philanthropist and developer Evan Frankel, who was becoming the Jewish Center’s benefactor and one of East Hampton’s largest landowners.

In the meantime, the small East Hampton group met in their homes to worship and also obtained permission from the First Presbyterian Church to use its session house for Friday night services. Mr. Markowitz and Mr. Zeldin had a regular pinochle game in East Hampton and during games with Danny Duberman and Jack Karp, they often discussed the need for a synagogue with its own religious school.

Soon, those four men and several others took out a loan and bought two acres on the Montauk Highway where they planned to build a synagogue. “But Evan Frankel said ‘if we’re going to build a temple it needs to be in a more prominent place,’” Mr. Markowitz recalled. So he bought the Borden estate at 44 Woods Lane, right at the entrance to the village and gave the congregation the deed. Jacob Kaplan matched Mr. Frankel’s gift with a cash endowment.

“There was a group that stayed in Sag Harbor,” Ms. Brill said, “and did not become active in East Hampton. But then we got a message saying ‘Would you please come and join East Hampton?’ and they couldn’t survive if we didn’t come over, so we did.” The Jewish Center of the Hamptons was born.

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the family that owned ma bergmans and helped found the center was Tessie Bergman, Johanna and Ben Larson why weren't their names mentioned?
By kk (1), cleveland on May 25, 09 8:05 AM
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