Mildred and Joseph Stern Ballroom Dedication
October 31, 2004
Comments by Barara Burstin


The following are comments made by Barbara Burstin daughter of Mildred and Joseph Stern at the dedication of the Farmingdale Jewish Center ballroom on October 31, 2004.  Her comments provide a history of the early days of Jewish life in Farmingdale and of Farmingdale Jewish Center.

 

About a week ago I started to think seriously about what I would say here this morning aside from expressing my appreciation on behalf of the entire family for this honor. I knew my mom was excited and that this truly was a lovely thing to do to honor my parents. But I wanted to say more. When I popped over to see my mom, I casually asked her if she had any files or information on the F/dale Jewish Center. She took me over to her file cabinets and as I looked, I really couldn’t believe my eyes- for there were a whole batch of files marked Farmingdale Jewish Center. As a historian, I knew there was a real treasure trove here. I packed them up in my car and took them home and eagerly started going through them. But as I did, I must admit it became quite difficult for me. For I was seeing my father’s work, his life and it only served to remind me how much I still miss him even after these eight years since his passing. So preparing this was a little more than I bargained for, but as the Farmingdale Jewish Center was a labor of love for both my mom and dad, so too are these remarks today.

I know that by this point in time you have some of the bare essentials of the history of the Farmingdale Jewish Center and of my parents’ role. But let me talk about some of the things that I came across which can add to that picture. As you know, my great grandfather, Aaron Stern, was one of the first Jews to settle in Farmingdale. He started manufacturing pickles at the Sterns Pickle Products in 1899, perhaps even earlier, at a factory off Melville Avenue which went out of existence in 1982. Some of you undoubtedly remember that place. Actually, I have a letter that was written around 1932 by my Aunt Ethel, Aaron’s daughter and my dad’s half sister to my dad congratulating him on winning a scholarship from the NYU School of Law for the highest marks in his class. The letter was written on the stationery of A. Stern, Packer of Pickles and Sauerkraut, Farmingdale, New York.

My father wrote that he remembered as a child when the family would come to Farmingdale from Brooklyn to spend some time, he remembered High Holiday Services being held at the home of a Jacob Kranzler at the southwest corner of Main and Front Streets, and then in the former Masonic Hall on Main Street and later on at the Veterans Hall on Richard Street and the American Legion Hall on Eastern Parkway. (I don’t know if any of those places still exist today.) My father remembered that the services were conducted by Rabbi Alter Brauer, a friend of his father’s who would come out from Brooklyn with his long white beard and flowing black robe. He must have made quite a sight on Main Street . The services in those days were in the Orthodox tradition and my dad remembered men and women crying and swaying as they prayed.

The Jewish businessmen whose stores lined Main Street were dedicated to establishing some sort of Jewish congregation. In 1926 the First Hebrew Congregation of Farmingdale was founded. My dad because of his great interest in history and his legal background hunted down the certificate of incorporation which I have a copy of dated November 19, 1926 The by- laws had been drawn up just four days earlier at the home of Morris Karp.. Among other things they stated that the board of Trustees shall consist of six members and that if any trustee does not attend three consecutive meetings (provided he is not sick or out of town) that that should be considered grounds for resignation. Dues were $2 and a total of $57 was collected in 1927. Osias Karp was elected the first president and Aaron Stern was elected secretary. I have a copy of the meeting’s minutes written in Hebrew and translated from July 7, 1927.

In 1935 when my folks first moved to Farmingdale, the congregation used to hold monthly meetings at the Fulton Hotel which was at the corner of Fulton and Main Street . The money was tight as always and there used to be dances for fun and fund raising. I actually have a card that was printed announcing that the Farmingdale Hebrew Association Spring Dance was to be held on June 19, 1938 at the Bethpage Park Clubhouse. The cost was $1.00. Two years before that in 1936 my dad submitted a financial report in which he reported that the entertainment committee had collected a grand total of $205 and that their net profit on the dance was $92.00.

My mom remembers that services were held in the downstairs of a two story apartment on Columbia Street . Fannie and Duke Richter lived on the second floor. In 1944 a new corporation was formed for the purpose of formally changing the name of the congregation to the Farmingdale Jewish Center. My dad was listed as the presiding officer. The congregation bought that building at 4 Columbia Street in Farmingdale for $8,000. But the building was not very satisfactory and it was sold the following year. The congregation was struggling to find a new site. Fortuitously, my dad at that time had a client who was interested in selling his property at Prospect and Cobb to a developer for housing. Seizing on this opportunity, my dad convinced his client that he ought to sell to the Farmingdale Jewish Center. He agreed, but then the congregants had to get a mortgage. Now my grandfather, Aaron Stern was a director of the First National Bank of Farmingdale and the bank president, Ernest Hackwitz was a friend, but even so, they had to come up with the money. According to my mother, that was no easy task. My dad had to get 10 men to sign for the mortgage which most were very reluctant to do. But dad prevailed and the first Farmingdale Jewish Center was built and funded.

I have pictures and the program from that dedication which took place on November 30, 1948. My dad as master of ceremonies and chair of the building committee gave the key to the building to the president at the time, Joseph Holzman. If you look carefully, you can see me sitting proudly in the front seat.! Addresses were given by the mayor of the village as well as several ministers of local churches. My dad who had been president of the congregation from 1937- 1939 just a few years after arriving in town, was again prevailed upon to become president from 1949- 1951. He was again drafted to serve as president in 1957 to guide in the building of a new addition when new classrooms were added. And when by 1967 there was contemplation of an 3 fold increase in facilities, my dad was the building program co-coordinator.

Every milestone along the way, my parents were there as cheerleaders, planners, doers. It was very important that Farmingdale should have communal space to accommodate their needs.

But my dad was not solely interested in the bricks and mortar aspect of synagogue building. What he really cared about was what went on within the walls, what adults and children were learning and thinking about. Listen to his remarks on the dedication of the brand new classrooms in 1957 that everyone was so proud of. He acknowledged the accomplishment of the classroom addition, but he was sure to add that “our ultimate aim is not to build better classrooms, but better minds and characters. It is much too easy to assume that because we have better classrooms we will automatically have a better religious school” He urged the congregation to examine and re-examine our curriculum to see that our children are taught to become more ethical individuals, more understanding of the value of their religion in relation to contemporary problems and modes of living, more appreciative of their heritage, more earnest in their spiritual devotion”

And at the dedication ceremony in 1968 after the torah scrolls had ceremoniously been carried from the old to the new building, dad rose to address all the assembled guests. He argued that what had been transported and placed in our Holy Art that day was much more than a text, as holy as that might be. What had been transported in his opinion was a concept of torah which transcended the five books of Moses placed in the art. It was actually the embodiment of Jewish law, history, customs, religious observances and the fundamental ethics of Judaism, all of which had been lovingly and valiantly carried by the Jewish people throughout their existence and wherever they had gone. He went on to say that what happened today was just one brief scene in an endless drama, and the short processional we saw was but a continuation of a journey which has spanned many centuries and encompassed many lands . When we placed our Torahs in this Holy Art, we effected a symbolic transformation for no longer was this structure just an addition to our Center. No longer was it merely an expanded social hall, or a larger youth center, or a more spacious classroom area. It had now become the new focus of the spiritual and religious activities of this congregation so that now I can truly and with propriety welcome each and every one of you to our new Beit tefelah, our new house of worship.

In one of his many kol nidre appeals, this one in 1951, dad talked about the meaning of the yiskor prayer. “How better can we honor those who have passed on and whom we remember, how more truly can we show our respect and devotion to their memories, than by seeing that this chain of Jewish tradition remains strong and unbroken. How more effectively can we imbue their lives and our lives with meaning, with a sense of the eternal than by carrying on the Jewish religion and the culture. We can do this by supporting our temple, for here is where we are constantly striving to afford Jews the opportunity of participating in a Jewish way of life. A contribution to the temple, in reality our spiritual, educational and cultural home, was not any more charity than was the payment of taxes or mortgage interest. It was an obligation. Beyond that it was an investment in our future and that of our children. He concluded by citing the epitaph of an ancient Jewish sage : “What I spent I have no more; what I kept, I lost, but what I gave, I still have.”

In truth dad might have had some problem with a social hall being named in his honor. That certainly was not where he put his emphases, In a 1971 occasion in which he was asked to speak dad in his inimitable fashion suggested that if we really wanted members to come to the synagogue as eagerly and willingly as they came to the social hall, we should change things around. For starters he suggested moving the two magnificent crystal chandeliers from the social hall into the synagogue; and then he quipped that another change might be instead of offering a choice of six different caterers in the social hall and one choice of Rabbi in the synagogue, that you reverse the options.

My dad always spoke with wit, with a twinkle in his eye. I loved when he would stand up on various family occasions to make remarks. Perhaps the highlight was on the occasion of my last child’s bat mitzvah when he brought down the house. My friends still remember that. He infused humor into temple matters too. I read that once when he was making his usual appeal for money and the temple was short of funds which of course it was habitually, he pointed out to the congregants, undoubtedly with a grin on his face, that as far as he had been able to determine, there was nothing in the Jewish religion, and particularly in the Conservative Movement, that prohibited a synagogue from operating on a surplus.” On another occasion when the temple was struggling to pay the mortgage, he suggested that perhaps they should go by the Jewish calendar so that maybe by the year 5000 and something, they would have the money to pay the mortgage. And on the occasion one summer when there was a program to give each past president the opportunity to serve as the rabbi, he quipped that the Farmingdale Jewish Center was accumulating “an alarming surplus of ex-presidents”. Regarding the two year term for a president, he mused that either the majority of the congregants just can’t stand having the same president for longer than two years, or that two years was the absolute maximum that any president could endure.! Dad prepared some remarks for Michael Freiman who was president of the temple at the time on how to conduct synagogue meetings. Along with his other advice he cautioned- You must be able to recognize the difference between people who have something to say and people who have to say something. He warned that the people who talk the most do not necessarily do the most. After all, as Sam Schrieber (one of the old members who sold eggs and cheese door to door) can tell you he said, the rooster often makes more noise than the hen that lays the eggs.”

Or take his comments on the occasion of a testimonial dinner in his honor in 1969. He started by pointed out that there are two occasions when an individual is referred to with such lavish praise- one is at a testimonial dinner, the other is at his eulogy. Given the choice, he was happy to be at the testimonial dinner.. He went on to joke that he was particularly happy that tonight’s dinner was known as the Stern Testimonial Dinner, because the only thing that had ever been named after him before was the rear end of a ship. And he noted that somebody had referred to him as the Squire of Farmingdale. But then he quipped that that title really made him very apprehensive because he realized that if anybody goofed up or wanted to , they could very easily substitute one small letter, and he would be instantly transformed from the Squire of Farmingdale to the Square of Farmingdale.

Whether Squire or Square my dad during all his years in Farmingdale, brought a certain sense of fun as well as dignity and grace to the running of the synagogue. And of course throughout all those years my mom was at his side, doing her own synagogue business. They were totally devoted to one another and to the Farmingdale Jewish Center their second home. My dad wrote that it was second only because they slept in their other home. For 61 of their 63 years together they worked to build and sustain Jewish communal life in this town. While my dad did his thing, my mom did hers. She started the Israeli Gift Shop, organized and staffed the early rummage sales, arranged Oneg Shabbats, and was an active member of many Sisterhood and other committees, and of course the bowling league which I remember she loved so much. She was the financial secretary of the synagogue for a very long time. I remember the ledgers spread out on the dining room table and the cabinet where she kept the records. My dad joked how he always knew when a member was in arrears because my mom wouldn’t talk to them. Their heart and soul were tied to the Farmingdale Jewish Center. They and it were inseparable. And that continues for my mom to this day. Just ask her.

I came across a letter that my mom had saved from Sol Nash, a former president, who many of you knew as a long time member of this congregation. There is no date. He wrote: dear Mildred and Joe, your deep involvement in our synagogue has been a torch of light to those of us who have been mired in darkness. Your inexhaustible efforts on behalf of our Jewish Center must remain forever an inspiration for those who will follow here. I have appreciated the tremendous impact and impression that your personalities have stamped upon us. May God bless you and yours…..

Before I close, I want to make sure to mention some names of people who my mom remembers who were also founding fathers and mothers of this synagogue. After all, as committed and active as my parents were, they were part of a community, of a small number of Jewish families in the Farmingdale area who were determined to establish organized Jewish life in their community. The names my Mom remembers are Sam and Nettie Smiles, Phila and Ella Rappaport, Joe and Nettie Holzman, Harry Schneidkraut who was part of the Kranzler family, Leo Cohen and Goldie, the Richters, Michael and Dora Freiman, Jack Frieman, Bill Frieman, Murray Werner and Sadie, Ben and Rita Berk, the Karp Family, Morris and Lee, the Wolly’s, Sam Schreiber, Sam Bernstein, Bernie Feigenbaum, Dan and Beverly Kanfer, Sheldon and Ann Porte, Dr. Albert Meyerstein, Ben and Rosa Marks. I also need to mention in addition to Aaron Stern and my dad, his daughter Ethel and her husband Willy Steuer, Aaron’s son Sidney and his wife Evelyn were old time members. I apologize if I have left somebody out. They are all people who gave of their time, their energy and their dollars to help grow the Farmingdale Jewish Center. This is a celebration today of all those people who helped establish the Farmingdale Jewish Center.

Today’s dedication is very special for my mom, for my dad who is up there undoubtedly smiling, embarrassed by all the fuss. It has been very special for me and for my four children, my parents beloved grandchildren, and for the next generation- all the great grandchildren who hopefully as they grow older, will come to appreciate and emulate my parents and their commitment, their dedication, their acts of loving kindness on behalf of the Jewish people. Thank you very much for making this all possible.

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