“Hebrews and Christians from this and neighboring villages turned out in large numbers to attend the dedication. The new house of worship stands on the main street and a short distance from the rubber works, where the greater number of members are employed…The new building, known as the A Goodes Acherm [sic] synagogue of Setauket, was built by the society of that name, organized about five years ago. The building is not yet fully completed, but will be by another week. It is very plain, of simple design and costs about $1,500 complete. It is 24 x 36 feet and of frame. The interior is ceiled with pine and has a gallery extending across the end. It has sittings for about three hundred persons. Its members now number fifty-two…”
Dr. James H. Darlington, pastor of Christ Church in Brooklyn and a summer resident of Old Field, presented a “generous contribution” and addressed those attending. “I come here to-night on your invitation, twice declined in person, to greet you as a neighbor and friend. Not that I agree with you in all your views or am any less a Christian minster and sincere believer of the Christian faith, but I respect your venerable and most ancient belief as all Christians must who remember that the New Testament sprang out of and is based upon the books of Moses…We differ as widely as possible on many points of belief, but there are equally as many we hold in common…”
“And We’re Still Here” by Helene Gerard
“More than two million Jews left Eastern Europe and came to America between 1880 and 1914. Before 1900, some of them found their way to Eastern Long Island as peddlers, farmers and factory workers. Those who settled in the little rural villages struggled through the early years, establishing families, businesses and religious communities in an area where no Jews had lived for 250 years. By the 1930s, they were financially established and were accepted as respected, contributing members of their villages. In many ways, their stories are typical of other immigrant groups who arrived during the same period, yet they are different, for these people maintained their Jewish identity.”
“In the 1870s and 1880s, Long Island reflected the rest of the country as railroads threw sparks across formerly peaceful farmlands and flat landscapes were suddenly broken by the three and four story factory buildings of small industry. These companies advertised for help in New York’s foreign language newspapers, emphasizing clean air and healthy living conditions. Recruiters also went to Ellis Island, bringing families directly to factory towns by train or steamship.”
Ms. Gerard’s words are reflected in the history of Setauket and the roots of the Jewish community in the Three Villages.
The Setauket Rubber Factory
The Setauket rubber factory, located on Chicken Hill, opened in the 1870s and attracted a labor force of new immigrants arriving at New York. Initially the factory employed many Irish and German immigrants. Factory owner J. W. Elberson also recruited workers through the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Jewish immigrants arriving in New York from Eastern Europe (Russia, Poland, Lithuania, etc.) were offered jobs in Setauket. Jewish families relocated from the city to the “country” where factories were being built or to establish businesses to serve those communities. By 1887 the local rubber factory employed some 500 workers, the majority were people of the Hebrew faith. Multiple members of the same family, both adults and children, would be employed. The factory employed so many Jewish workers that the factory closed for the High Holy Days. As the population grew businesses such as a Kosher butcher, general store, etc. were opened which supported the Jewish community.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s the Golden family, David Pinnes and 15 other Jewish families, started holding religious services in their homes. By 1892 there were some 100 Jewish families in Setauket. Elias Golden is considered the founder of the Setauket congregation and was the congregation’s first president when Agudas Achim was incorporated on Nov. 28, 1893.
Marc Stern states “Samuel Golden…recalled in a 1980 interview that his grandfather [Elias], father [Isaac], mother, and sisters all worked in the rubber factory, on and off, from the late 1880s, before his father established a saloon for rubber workers. They came to Setauket at the beginning of Jewish migration to the area. Sam’s father, a young man peddling dry-goods from a sack, learned of a need for workers and brought this family to Setauket. Whether these workers supplanted or supplemented the original laborers, Jewish hands soon figured prominently for the firm and town.”
Soon a synagogue was needed to serve the Orthodox congregation. Herman Pinnes donated land on Main St. north of the Methodist Church for a synagogue. The shul of the Society of Agudas Achim (Brotherly Association) was constructed by John Deckman, a local carpenter and builder. This would be the first synagogue in Suffolk County and services were performed by members and an itinerant Rabbi. A cemetery was also established at Ridgeway Ave. and Mud Rd. founded by The Workman’s Circle, a benevolent organization, and given to the congregation.
This house of worship would serve the growing local Jewish community, but its future existence would be dependent on the local economy. As the labor movement grew and the local rubber industry suffered bankruptcies, mergers and several fires, by 1900 much of the workforce was leaving the area. The main rubber factory was destroyed by fire in 1904. With no employment in the area the remaining families looked elsewhere for work and moved out of the area, often back to the city. The Golden, Pinnes, and several other families stayed in Setauket and operated their own businesses-a general store, butcher, saloon, etc.
By 1914 with so few congregants the synagogue was closed and services were offered in private homes. With the outbreak of WWI the synagogue would reopen for several years to serve the sailors based in Port Jefferson and the soldiers at Camp Upton. Afterwards, the synagogue building was closed again. In 1921 the Torah scrolls were loaned by Isaac Golden to a congregation in East Northport. The cemetery was sold to Temple Israel in Riverhead with the provision that the families of Agudas Achim retained the right to be buried there. It wasn’t until the mid-1940s that the synagogue would then look to serve the community.
Samuel Golden recalls the history of the synagogue
Sam Golden, Elias’ grandson, reflected on the history of the synagogue in a 1967 interview conducted when the congregation of the North Shore Jewish Center planned for the construction of a new synagogue on Old Town Road. The interviewer summarized Sam Golden’s comments. Sam recalled that his grandfather [Elias], father [Isaac] and uncle helped build the synagogue. At the time of the interview, in 1967, he described that the temple on Main St. had not changed very much…the walls have never been repainted...still there was the balcony for the women of the congregation when this was an Orthodox Synagogue…the original pews in place…a cellar was added in the 1940s and used as a meeting room.
“The congregation dwindled away because there is no labor market here. Before the rubber factory burned down, around 1904, there were between 150-200 Jewish families here and on High Holy Days they used Mechanics Hall [now a wing of the Methodist Church] to take care of the overflow. Each year after about 1910 or 1911 there were so few Jewish families that the synagogue was only used on High Holy Days and they would ask someone from another town to conduct services. Finally only three or four families were left and the synagogue closed. Up to 1904 the Temple was active and crowded. As it closed down World War I broke out. At Port Jefferson there as a barracks there, an old building at the bottom of Fort Hill and the Synagogue was again opened for week-end services for the sailors. It stayed open until 1919. Mr. Golden’s dad kept it in good shape, painting, etc. until the weather and other elements took their toll. The locust poles on which the synagogue stood, rotted and the building fell over on its side and the cupola broke off. In 1942 or 43 Mr. Samuel Golden got a group of fellows together...they received money from the bank to restore a good part of the building. The building is forward about 12 feet from original place, closer to the road, and so it stands today…The Pinnes family presented a new Torah as a memorial to their father. Original Torah came from Russia; it is very old, possibly 200 years old…”
North Shore Jewish Center
In 1946 Samuel Golden looked into reopening the synagogue. Funds were raised to repair the old synagogue. On May 2, 1948 a new Conservative congregation was formed named the North Shore Jewish Center and membership was served by a part-time Rabbi and Sam Golden as president. The original Torah scrolls, which had been loaned to East Northport, were located at a congregation in Springfield Gardens, the East Northport congregation having disbanded, and were returned to Setauket. In 1958 the Pinnes store and butcher shop, located on the south side of the synagogue, was purchased for a Hebrew school. Marvin Bash was hired as the synagogue’s first fulltime Rabbi and Religious School Principal from July 1961-Sept. 1965.
In the mid-1960s with the university and the housing development boom in the area the small synagogue on Main St. could no longer serve the growing congregation and alternative locations were used. Plans were made for a new building. Property was acquired on Old Town Rd. and ground was broken for a new North Shore Jewish Center in September 1968. “The last religious service at the “small shul” in Setauket took place on August 29, 1971. Rabbi Lebeau, Cantor Rosenbloom, and Morris Remz led 300 members of the congregation in a processional march along Old Town Road. Singing and dancing, the congregants carried the Sifrei Torah under a huppa for the two and a half mile route to the newly completed sanctuary.” (see full article at the bottom of the blog)
The original synagogue was sold to the Methodist Church. It was renamed “Shalom Hall” (Hall of Peace) and was used as a Sunday School and social hall and later by other organizations. The original synagogue building still stands, now home to the II Acts Thrift Shop of the Methodist Church. The next time you drive by, are stopped waiting for the traffic light, or are in the thrift shop look around and think of the history and the fellowship and the families this building served.
Temple Isaiah, a reformed synagogue, has served the Three Village community since 1965. The first service was held at the Suffolk Museum and then the Stony Brook Community Church. In 1967 ground was broken on Stony Brook Road for their first building. Visit https://tisbny.org/about-ti/our-history/ and https://tisbny.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/65/2011/10/history.pdf to learn about the history of Temple Isaiah.
Further reading and blog resources
Celebrating 110 Years of Torah: A History of the North Shore Jewish Center 1893-2003.
North Shore Jewish Center, Port Jefferson Station, New York: 90 Proud Years : an Historical Perspective, 1982.
Gerard, Helene, "And We're Still Here" : 100 Years of Small Town Jewish Life :/ an exhibition sponsored by the East End Arts and Humanities Council; Hier Publications, 1982.
Stern, Marc J., The Social Utility of Failure: Long Island’s Rubber Industry and the Setauket Shtetle, 1876-1911, Long Island Historical Journal, Vol. 4, No 1 p15-34
Three Village Herald, September 2, 1971