SPRINGFIELD – Sinai Temple, which was founded in 1931 as the first reform congregation in Western Massachusetts, celebrated its 90th anniversary.
“Looking Back, Looking Ahead” was the theme, and activities last weekend included a service that honored past clergy through music and testimonials, a social evening with Rabbi Bob Alper, a stand-up comedian, author and Vermont resident, and a time capsule created by youth to be opened in 10 years on the occasion of the temple’s centennial anniversary.
Lifelong member Judy Cohen, one of the organizers whose parents were among the 13 families involved in Sinai’s founding, also marked the occasion with the Hebrew phrase, “L’dor v’dor.”
“It means from generation to generation and is said during bar (and) bat mitzvahs when the Torah is handed from grandparents to parents to the child,” Cohen said. “Family ties continue through the generations here at Sinai and that is what makes the 90th so special.”
Cohen’s uncle and aunt, Samuel and Helen Simons, advocated for Sinai’s founding, and the original members gathered in each other’s homes before a house on Sumner Avenue was purchased and renovated for the growing congregation.
“My uncle’s wife was active at a reform congregation in West Hartford, and they wanted to bring that same kind of religious opportunity here,” Cohen said. “That is how it began. I was born into the family in 1943, and the rest is history. It has always been my temple.”
She remembers going to the Sumner Avenue location, but adds that most of her memories as a girl are from the current temple at 1100 Dickinson St. that opened in 1950.
“What I do remember is going to religious school to learn about our teachings, going to Friday night services to learn more there and having your name called out in recognition if you didn’t miss any of the religious classes on Sunday,” Cohen said. “Most of all though, I remember Rabbi Herman Snyder because he came on board in 1947 and retired in 1970. He was with us a very long time and through my formative years.”
She recalled how Snyder “officiated at my brother’s bar mitzvah, my confirmation and wedding.”
“All three of my sons were bar mitzvahed and confirmed at Sinai, and my oldest son, Andy, was married at Sinai by Rabbi Mark Shapiro,” Cohen said. “My parents, Abraham and Edna Simons, are buried in the Sinai Memorial Cemetery and a picture of my uncle, Samuel Simons, hangs in the temple. Sinai is part of the tapestry of my family’s lives.”
Cohen’s reflections were echoed by Linda Kay, another longtime member whose parents, William and Melba Altman, joined in 1947 and are also buried in Sinai’s cemetery.
“My life cycle events and those of my family have been at the temple.” Kay said. “When my father passed away, we had the funeral at the temple. I had my confirmation at the temple under Rabbi Snyder in 1961, and participated in all kinds of youth activities at Sinai. My husband, Robert, and I were married at Sinai 32 years ago. It has been important to my family and to me.”
She called Snyder a “brilliant man” whose interfaith work in the community helped to promote understanding.
“It was right after World War II, and he wanted to make sure everyone was able to communicate in their own way,” Kay said. “He was really the representative of the reformed Jewish community in the Springfield area.”
Cohen noted, too, the interfaith efforts of Snyder, who was Sinai’s fourth rabbi and the one who initiated, back in the 1950s, what became the annual one-day Institute for Christian and Muslim Clergy and Educators. The institute was continued by Shapiro, who was rabbi from 1988 through 2016 when he retired at the age of 66. Snyder died in 1992 at the age of 91; Shapiro in 2020.
Sinai’s first rabbi in the early 1930s was David Eichhorn, whose career including serving as a chaplain with the U.S. Army during World War II and organizing the first Shabbat service at Dachau when the concentration camp was liberated in 1945.
Cohen calls Sinai a “very welcoming community” that provided its earliest members with a “place to gather where they felt they really belonged.” It has had, in the tradition of reform Judaism, she said a “commitment to the community at large through its many committees” that “has been true through its history.”
“Rabbi Snyder wanted to involve other faiths with Sinai because the more you get to know each other, the better you get along,” Cohen said. “Shapiro was with us for the longest number of years of any rabbi. He was a strong and compassionate leader.”
She describes Rabbi Jeremy Master, who become Sinai’s spiritual leader in 2018, as “very caring.”
“He is really interested in what you have to say and doesn’t look around when you talk with him,” Cohen said. “His sermons are very timely and something you can relate to and I like that he includes people in services. He called a lot of members to take part in the High Holiday services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is so nice to be inclusive.”
When asked his feelings about being Sinai’s current rabbi, Master called the congregation “filled with wonderful, kind-hearted people.”
“The most any clergy person can ask for is to be able to work with, and serve such a good group of people,” Master said.
Jackie Neiman chaired the planning committee for the 90th celebration that was formed in April and praised committee members for their ideas and the realization of those ideas.
“We have a blessing in Judaism called ‘shehecheyanu’ for when you arrive at a new or milestone moment,” Neiman said. “I think I speak for the entire committee when I say we are all well aware of what a blessing it is to have made it to this shehecheyanu moment for Sinai.”
Neiman said her “favorite thing about Sinai is the people.” She describes herself as being a “relative newbie at Sinai” in her “20-plus years” of membership. “I love the sense of community and how I feel at home,” Neiman said. “I also love our commitment to social justice.”
Other aspects of the celebration, Neiman added, include a gift of 90 books purchased by Sinai’s Caring Committee for Washington School, the public elementary school nearest Sinai, for their community read for fourth grade, and gift of a tree-of-life themed bench and arbor for the Sinai Mitzvah Garden that recently celebrated its first harvest as a project to engage both children and adults in growing edible produce.
Richard Alpert, who has served as Sinai president amid the pandemic, said his focus has been on “guiding the temple through the pandemic, creating a technological capacity to reach congregants in their homes, providing security against potential threats and creating a new religious school in collaboration with Temple Beth El.”
Alpert said he is confident that Sinai will continue to “adapt and innovate” and remain “viable, strong and enduring.”
“All religious institutions face the headwinds of demographic change, a declining interest in religion, and a drop off in the willingness to join and volunteer,” Alpert said. “We remain strong financially and in the commitment of our members to the temple and its future despite these trends.”