The History of the Jewish Presence on Fire Island leading-up to the Fire Island Minyan.
Compiled from a combination or written sources & personal recollections.

The first Jewish “settlers” on Fire Island exhibited little religious identity (other than their names/heritage and liberal-oriented politics!), living in Ocean Bay Park and Seaview.  While predominantly Jewish today, Seaview was restricted to white/Protestant homeowners until 1928 when “the ban against Jews” was lifted.  Ralph Levy was the first Jew to break into
Seaview (in the 1940s), closely followed by Walter Weisman.

In the 1940s, 50s, & 60s there were many other Jewish families arriving on FI, with varying levels of Jewish identification (one subgroup of this time were actors, actresses, and entertainers in-and-around Ocean Beach, including Irving Berlin, Fanny Brice, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Lee Strasberg, Marilyn Monroe, and Tony Randall).

The most overtly Jewish-observant resident of Ocean Beach was Rabbi David de Sola Pool, Minister of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in NYC.  When he bought his first house in Ocean Beach (in 1938), a local Nazi-sympathizer burned a cross on his lawn.  [Ed. Note: This would likely conflict with current Ocean Beach Fire Regulations].

The congregation’s first organized services were held in 1952, and a Torah was brought to the island in 1954.  A painting currently in the Fire Island Synagogue captures the moment of the Torah’s celebrated arrival.  The Ten Commandments over the Ark in the FIS are from the initial portable ark seen in the painting.  Services were held in author Herman Wouk’s living room, Jack Miner’s house at 430 Dehnhoff in Ocean Beach (for High Holidays services), and later on the deck of Rabbi Pool’s house in Ocean Beach.

The first Jewish congregation that Dr. Charles Bahn (a recent FIM attendee) participated in, was on the screened deck along the side of the de Sola Pool home where there were regular Sabbath services (the only time when there was difficulty in assembling a minyan was apparently on Saturday evening, when the local parties tended to conflict with Ma’ariv schedule!).

After at least a decade or more of this arrangement, the group was large enough to become independent, and to bring out a Rabbi in a rented home that would double as a synagogue.  One was chosen which was large enough to hold Rabbi Moshe Tendler and his family, along with a screened-in porch that adequately held at least 12-18 men each Shabbat.

This minyan grew steadily.  A highlight (though not considered as such at the time) was that Rabbi Tendler’s father-in-law, Rav Moshe Feinstein, visited a number of times.  One year, Rabbi Tendler was apparently reluctant to remain on the island for Rosh HaShanah without a Cohen being there to Duchen (administer the Priestly Blessing); a congregant swiftly arranged for a Cohen to be flown-out by seaplane before the holiday, and all proceeded as planned.

Talk began to emerge of building a more-permanent synagogue.

A lawyer named Joe Gershman (who was a member of Rabbi Lookstein’s shul, Kehiliat Jeshurun in Manhattan) had just given-up his widower staus and remarried.  Walking around town with his new wife, Josephine (“Josie”), he noted the empty lot at the NE corner of Beachwold (“B” street) and Central Walk in Seaview.  “I’d like to buy this” he told her, “it would be a good place for a shul”.  He bought the lot, and a few months later passed away – Josie then bequeathed it as land for the shul.  The shul was built, with an initial campaign initiated on the deck of Herman Wouk’s home at “B” street and the ocean.  Wouk made a strong appeal for funds to erect a building.  Despite his eloquence (which moved many people to contribute), he also met enormous resistance, including one neighbor’s threat “to burn it down”.  [Ed. Note: Do things ever change?]  While being built, the synagogue also met with legal resistance from nearby Seaview residents who argued that, as a residential community, there was no right to build a religious center.  [Ed. Note: Ditto]

The shul group was allowed to proceed, and was led by Jack Miner (1909-1999), a self-made, European-born philanthropist.  The synagogue was designed in 1972 by Abe Silverman, an architect who was then saying kaddish (who reportedly did not charge for his services), and it opened as a “shul” in 1973 with traditional services, separate seating, and an aisle in place of a mechitza (a back deck was added in the 1980s).  Mrs. Tamar de Sola Pool – a founder of Hadassa – was a regular attendee of the shul.  After a few years, Herman Wouk moved to California, but the shul was blessed with good attendance, with a hired Rabbi, Cantor, and the strong financial support of Jack Miner.  Jack was very charitable, a supporter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and respectful of tradition; he considered himself a proud “Conservative Jew”.

Then, through a succession of summer-hired Rabbis, and an evolution of the shul’s constituency, service became less traditional.  Today the Fire Island Synagogue is “Egalitarian Conservative” and “Jewish Renewal” in its approach/philosophy.

Other towns in Fire Island have a lesser degree of organized Jewish involvement.  St. Andrew’s Church in Saltaire shares its space with the Jewish community so that they can celebrate the High Holidays (often in bare feet!).  “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt has noted that the kids from his second marriage weren’t raised with religion, but most of their friends happen to be Jews as a result of childhood summers spent in Fire Island where “they just fell in with a bunch of Jewish kids in Fair Harbor”.

Other famous Jewish residents of Fire Island have included Richard Meier (architect), David Duchovny (actor), Peter Greenberg (TV travel reporter), Nat Hentoff (columnist), Harvey Keitel (actor), Paul Krassner (writer), Tim Blake Nelson (actor/director), and Ally Sheedy (actor) [among many!].

The Fire Island Minyan (FIM) is the current incarnation of an organized Jewish Modern-Orthodox presence on Fire Island, holding organized services on weekends during the summer season.  The FIM originally went by the name “Rodfei Shemesh, Anshe Chof” (Seekers of the Sun, People of the Beach), founded in 1990 by Jim (“Yitz”) Pastreich in the living room of his (rented) house in Seaview, Fire Island.  By 1993 a modest house was rented nearby for directed use by the nascent congregation.  That house was purchased in 1999 using loan-guarantees by a number of congregants, and it remains the home of the FIM to this day.  A weekly/seasonal Newsletter has been published since 2002, and is accessible through a google-groups listserver; if one reads through the archives of this Newsletter it will give you some insight into current Jewish life on Fire Island.

Sources

  • Madeleine C. Johnson, Fire Island: 1650s to 1980s.  Shoreland Press, Mountainside, NJ, 1983
  • Lee E. Koppelman & Seth Forman, The Fire Island National Seashore: A History, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2008.
  • Gabriel Levenson, “Scarsdale-by-the-Sea: Former Fish Factory Site–Now Prestigious Fire Island Community”, Fire Island Tide, Jun 9-15, 1994
  • Abagail Pogrebin, Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, Broadway Books, NY, 2005
  • Personal recollections of Dr. Charles Bahn, Jerry Feldhamer, Brian Kaye, Richard Rodstein, Steven Granat  [with attempts to reconcile slight timeline differences therein]
  • Brief phone interview with Naomi de Sola Pool
  • http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/fiis/fire_island_eoa.pdf

See also: Fire Island Minyan mentioned in Images of America: Fire Island Beach Resort and National Seashore.