Sag Harbor is perhaps best known historically as a rough-and-tumble whaling town. Though as cheaper sources of fuel were discovered to replace whale oil, and after gold was discovered in California, siphoning off would-be whalers to that state, and after the Great Fire of 1877, the village sought new industry to make Sag Harbor great again. Joseph Fahys was the man to do it, relocating his watchcase factory to the village from New Jersey in 1882.
Fahys, like most American factory owners at the time, relied heavily on immigrant labor. Many of the workers—Jews of Polish, Russian and Hungarian ancestry—came from Fahys’s New Jersey factory, while the rest—also mainly Eastern European Jews—were recruited from Ellis Island before ever setting foot on Manhattan. Eventually Sag Harbor’s Jewish community built what is one of considered today Long Island’s oldest synagogue, one of less than 100 built in the US in the 19th century that is still standing.
Beginning at sundown on April 10, Rabbi Daniel Geffen and the congregation of Temple Adas Israel will celebrate Passover, the holiday commemorating the Jewish people’s coming out of slavery from Egypt. “When a holiday like Passover comes around,” Rabbi Geffen says, “in which we think of our ancient past and running from something that would otherwise destroy us and coming to freedom, it’s surprisingly easy to forget what that experience was like.” He notes that many American Jews have been in America for several generations, “but all of us came to this country, and more often than not under a certain amount of duress.” So the story of Passover isn’t only about escaping slavery, but about the Jewish experience of having to move from one place to another for centuries.
Our conversation, perhaps unsurprisingly, turned to current events. “Part of the lessons we are to take away from Passover is to remind ourselves that it may not be us experiencing this right now, but in the present world many other peoples are going through the exact same experience we did.” Rabbi Geffen firmly believes that when celebrating Passover “we need to be cognizant of the struggles of others around the world—of all peoples who live under the yoke of oppression, all people who yearn for freedom.” He adds: “There’s a sacred kinship between the Jewish people and all those who fit into that category.”
When asked about the recent uptick in anti-Semitism, Rabbi Geffen was quick to point out that it’s not only Jews who are targets of bigotry and hatred. “There’s a lot of anger, fear and ignorance,” he said. “And throughout history those are the moments a society becomes more concerned for its identity or longevity and becomes more secluded and isolated. It’s counter intuitive,” he says. “It’s my belief that in moments like this, we’re meant to do exactly the opposite, to reach out and connect with people who are different. The only answer to all forms of hatred is to get to know each other.”
He cites Maureen’s Haven as one such example. Their homeless outreach program coordinates local houses of worship to act as homeless shelters. “The program requires the interaction not only of clergy but also of the congregations,” Geffen, who works with Christ Episcopal Church and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton, says. “It’s one of those examples in which, instead of focusing on the differences between our religions, we focus on the more important commonalities.”
“In Judaism,” Rabbi Geffen says, “we don’t talk about the past to look backwards, but to inform what our decisions ought to be now; to take lessons of the past and apply them to the present, and more importantly, to the future.” As for that future, Geffen and his wife, LuAnne, welcomed a baby daughter into the family last year and hope to see her graduate from Pierson High School. So stop in and say hello—he plans to be here a while.
Temple Adas Israel, 30 Atlantic Avenue, Sag Harbor, 631-725-0904 templeadasisrael.org