What The Reform Temple of Putnam Valley Means to Me by Carol Rapport-Sommer
I believe in signs. And I’ve been blessed by receiving many in my lifetime. This is one of them:
A few weeks after Marty and I were married, the condo we had been trying to sell for a long time finally had a buyer. We had a very tight timeline to find a new home and searched intensely. We looked at houses in Putnam Valley and other towns but struggled to come to a decision and stressed as our deadline to move out quickly approached. It was fall, right around the High Holy Days and that Yom Kippur; we joined Marty’s parents at their large Orthodox Synagogue located down the street from their apartment building in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Upon taking our seats, we realized that there were no prayer books to be had so Marty and his Dad went to the Torah Study Room and returned with additional Siddurs for us all to use. Upon opening the prayer books, we gasped – as stamped on the inside cover were the words: “Property of the Reform Temple of Putnam Valley”.
From across the aisles of our segregated seats, Marty and I exchanged incredulous glances, awestruck that a large, prestigious Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn could be in possession of prayer books from a tiny Reform Temple 75 miles away in Putnam Valley! To Marty and me – it was a clear sign that we were to move into the white house that sat on the pond just off Church Road in Putnam Valley and that the little Temple down the road from that house, would become our home too. And so it came to be.
That was almost 30 years ago and we’ve been members of RTPV ever since. This is where Georgia was named and where both Georgia and Amanda were Bat Mitzvahed (and me too!). And even though the path to this Temple was clearly laid out for us, the journey wasn’t always easy for me.
You see, I grew up in a Jewish community where just about everyone belonged to one of the local Temples and all of my classmates went to Hebrew School and were Bar or Bat Mitzvahed. But not my family…we didn’t fit the neighborhood mold. We didn’t belong to a Temple and I didn’t go to Hebrew School. When I asked my parents why, the answer was always: “We don’t believe in organized religion.”
Politically speaking, my parents had a fierce Jewish identity, highly sensitive to any hint of anti-Semitism. And culturally we were clearly Jewish, observing the holidays with family and traditional foods. My identity as a Jew was undeniable yet my understanding of Judaism – sorely lacking.
Marty, on the other hand, was raised in an Orthodox home. He attended Hebrew School 5 days a week at Congregation Sons of Israel, the Orthodox Synagogue where years later, we were to discover the prayer books that sealed our mortgage! Our marriage introduced me to many more Jewish customs. And on many a Friday night, we recite blessings, light candles and enjoy a Shabbat dinner. We embrace the holidays, cooking our grandparents’ recipes from scratch with the hope of passing on meaningful family traditions to our children and grandchildren.
Over the many years as an RTPV member, I’ve served as a class mother, participated in various committees, ran a Youth Group, helped out at Attic Sales, participated in many a Hanukah Hootenanny, Folk Music Coffee House nights, and Hammantaschen Bake-Offs. And yet, despite all this, I continued to feel uncomfortable, awkward and conflicted at Temple, secretly yearning to better understand my religion and my heritage.
With some reluctance, 2 years ago, I enrolled in the adult B’not Mitzvah class hoping only to fill a bit of the void, never planning on being a Bat Mitzvah. Under the tutelage of our esteemed Rabbis, I was exposed to the teachings of the Torah, the mystical messages of the Kabbalah, the ethics of everyday living, the history of pre-war Poland, the teachings of Victor Frankl and so much more. In our sacred classroom, stories of our ancestors, family tales and our most private ruminations about aging, death, spirituality and God were shared with intimacy, compassion, tears and laughter with 4 special women, AKA, the Golden Girls. And thanks to the generous guidance of Roni Rodman, I also began to break the Hebrew code.
Over the years, my involvement in the Temple has ebbed and flowed, and even though I may not regularly attend services on Friday nights, this little Temple has great meaning to me. It has become an extension of my family, and with few extended family members left, that means quite a lot. It‘s the source of cherished friendships; a circle of comfort and caring, it’s the heartfelt support from members when a loved one in our family has passed, and the cards from the Sunshine Committee when there’s been an illness in the family. Last month, when our little grandson experienced on-going health issues and was hospitalized, the concerned calls, emails and texts from the Rabbis, Lisa and other Temple members truly helped us get through a most challenging time.
To give so little and yet, to get so much back – to always be welcomed at the door even if you’ve been long absent – this is the Reform Temple of Putnam Valley.
Recently, I met a former member of our Temple who, years ago, joined a larger and more established congregation elsewhere. She was asking how things were going here. I told her we couldn’t compete with the resources and programs that she found in a larger synagogue – but I defied her to find a more welcoming and caring community guided by Rabbis who are outstanding educators, counselors and spiritual leaders who lead much more than services – giving of their time to nurture bodies, minds and souls; teaching yoga, leading workshops on aging, guiding us through healing meditations, sharing poetry, sharing their beautiful home, and leading us on “soul strolls” through the magnificent Hudson Valley.
I believe in signs.
If you are looking for a sign from God – you’ll find one right outside in the parking lot.
It reads: “Reform Temple of Putnam Valley”.
What The Reform Temple of Putnam Valley Means to Me by Nicole Berglas
L’Shana Tova. First I would like to thank the Rabbi’s committee for inviting me to speak to you about what this temple means to me; an honor that I am humbled to have been offered and nervously accepted. When I listened to Betty’s message she said she had a quick question. I thought it was about a recipe – not this. I was told I have three minutes to speak. Go ahead and time me because it looks like you are getting two speeches for the price of one.
Growing up in Great Neck there was no shortage of synagogues. I loved the old sanctuary at Temple Beth-el. It was warm and intimate. I remember hanging onto the words of Rabbis Rudin and Davidson’s sermons. They made me aware of ourselves and injustices going on around us in the turbulent 60s and 70s and that we were obligated to take action to fix them.
For the 4½ years I lived in West Berlin I was also part of the temple in the Pestalozzi Strasse. Women sat apart from the men, the voice of the Hassan was nothing short of breathtaking. I also learned that by sticking cloves into apples on Yom Kippur and just smelling them it would help to stave off hunger. The scent was sweet. I went every Friday night because I knew that I could be a part of this community. That was important to me.
Maybe the good measure of a synagogue is how children come to learn. Maybe the measure of a synagogue is how one is welcomed. Certainly a measure of a synagogue is the knowledge, wisdom, and warmth of the rabbis and the music of the cantor. It is measured by the warmth and dedication of the congregants. This synagogue may lack size but it does not lack any of these.
It was my mother’s intention to be a part of my children’s Jewish learning but she sadly passed when David and Isabelle were 4 and 2 years old. I had no family nearby. No connections. I did not know how I was going to impart to them who they are without her and without a community. It felt overwhelming and sad but also critical and urgent.
Even though I passed this temple all the time, I first came to this temple by way of a former member who raved about RTPV. My former neighbor and friend, Elaine Sanders, then told me about the history and suggested I call and go to a holiday workshop. It didn’t hurt that it was only four minutes from my house. However, joining and belonging are two different measures and the latter was not a slam dunk. It was made smooth by the likes of Ed. It was after a potluck dinner that I attended with David and Isabelle that I left feeling disappointed and apart. Ed happened to come outside to the parking lot as we were leaving and asked me enthusiastically how I enjoyed it. He did not expect my earful. His response was an inimitable Ed response. He asked me if I wanted to join the education committee. It is hard for me to be taken aback but I looked at him flabbergasted and gave him the only response I could think of and said “sure.” Immediately I felt connected. I felt like I belonged. Committees, teaching, Chanukkah Hootenannies, the board and mitzvah projects, friends, regular Friday night services, a bar mitzvah and the bat mitzvah that followed, all became the threads that wove our lives together. I can only describe RTPV as a community like no other.
The most effective way to speak about this temple is to include David and Isabelle because my life here is certainly entwined in their experiences.
RTPV is a House of Learning: David and Isabelle were never pressured to attend school. They were never pressured to attend Friday night services. They just attended. Maybe it was because they could stay up late. Maybe because during family services they could dance in the aisle and play instruments and hear Rabbi Darnov’s stories and watch him act them out. Maybe it was in anticipation of what was going to be on the oneg table. Anyway, at first David would promptly fall asleep at 8:00 pm and he would wake up just in time for the oneg. That was always a miracle. They came because they wanted to. They came because they were able to meet other Jewish children in an area where Jewish children are not a given. They came because their teachers motivated and inspired with art projects and Mr. Pollock’s strange and unusual plays that were always the highlight. Isabelle learned her lessons so well, in no small part thanks to Faith, that she continued to come on Yom Kippur without me to read her parshat.
RTPV: Fixing the World: David and Isabelle came because they were able to learn that doing mitzvot was a way to learn about the greater community. It was time spent volunteering at the food pantry, and animal shelter for Isabelle and for David asking people to sign the back of their driver’s license for organ donation, or simply baking an apple crisp for the homeless shelter. Maybe in part all of this inspired David’s sense of volunteerism beginning with the junior ambulance corps and now his enlistment in the Navy. I believe it has also inspired Isabelle to be a leader in her anti-genocide club at the University of New Hampshire.
RTPV: House of Gathering: I had always told David and Isabelle that by belonging to this community and understanding their place in the world as Jews that they could be anywhere in this world and if there was a synagogue they could be a part of a community and they would know what to do, just as I did in Berlin. They know this now.
One more quick story… On a Saturday morning last year in Cold Spring, I bumped into Dan Sussman. We were talking and he told me how great the new rabbis are and suggested/told me to come back and that I was expected. I did my homework and checked with my sources, Tia and Scott, who verified this information. I was told that we have two new rabbis who were approachable and creative and that they felt strongly that the temple was in good hands. So to finally answer what this temple means to me is that it is not only a house of worship and spiritual growth and development, it is a home with roots. It is a home where if you leave as I did for a few years to go back to school and to figure things out, it is there to welcome you back with open arms, kindness, belonging, community, and friendship. It is a home where people’s lives unfold in both joy, fear, and tragedy and during those times each of us can be embraced and supported. I am grateful for the direction, ideas, teaching, and love that Rabbi Levy and Rabbi Altarescu provide for our home and spirits as well as Annece’s music that enhances our services. I am completely confident that my mother would be so pleased. I want to again thank the Rabbi’s committee for this incredible honor. L’Shana Tova. May all of you and your loved ones be inscribed in the Book of Life.