Fire Island Minyan Mission Statement

The Fire Island Minyan (FIM) is the current incarnation of an organized Jewish Modern-Orthodox presence on Fire Island.  We are a synagogue that holds organized services on weekends during the summer season, as well as facilitating Jewish-related cultural/religious programming and working in harmony with our neighbors and sister congregation, The Fire Island Synagogue (currently Egalitarian Conservative).  The FIM originally went by the name “Rodfei Shemesh, Anshe Chof” (Seekers of the Sun, People of the Beach), and we strive to live-up to the sentiment implicit in that name.

The FIM was founded in 1990 by Jim (“Yitz”) Pastreich in the living room of his (rented) house in Seaview, Fire Island, and 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 our home to this day.

Philosophically, the FIM is (modern) Orthodox in its approach, decidedly non-judgmental, and with a casual, laid-back style.  The prayer-format is “Ashkenaz”, while the manner has a “Sephardic” flavor in that all ranges of religious observance are welcomed/encouraged, whilst being true to Orthodox tradition/practice.  In keeping with the easygoing nature of Fire Island, the FIM has no “dress code” (congregants may be found wearing anything from suits to shorts/t-shirt to bathing suits and everything in-between) and services are self-organized, with no official Rabbinical position (therefore no accompanying weekly sermon!).  The FIM is very cognizant of the location/culture in which we operate, with a (relatively) late start time and efficient operation, so as to allow people to maximize their rest and leisure hours.  In fine Jewish form the FIM also has a strong emphasis on food, and we strive to have good “kiddush lunches” after Saturday morning services.  A weekly/seasonal Newsletter has been published since 2002, and is accessible by all interested parties through a google-groups listserver; other FIM-related news is disseminated through that mechanism, as well. The FIM welcomes both regular attendees and guests, and strives to present an inclusive place for interested parties to participate in prayer services in a traditional (yet casual) environment.

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 Ethel Merman, Mel Brooks, and Tony Randall).

The most overtly Jewish resident of Ocean Beach was Rabbi David de Sola Pool, Minister of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in NYC.  The first Jewish congregation that Dr. Charles Bahn (a current 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 there was usually difficulty in assembling a minyan was apparently on Saturday late 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 (after the death of R. de Sola Pool [1969]), 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 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.  Talk began to emerge of building a more-permanent synagogue.

A lawyer (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, he noted the empty lot at the corner of “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.  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”.  [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.  [Ditto]

The shul group was allowed to proceed, and led by Jack Miner (1909-1999), a self-made, European-born philanthropist.  The synagogue was designed by XXYY, an architect who was then saying kaddish, and it opened as a “shul” with traditional services, separate seating, and an aisle in place of a mechitza.  Mrs. Tamar de Sola Pool – a founder of Hadassa – was in regular attendence.  After a few years, Herman Wouk moved to California, but the shul was attended by many people 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 “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” 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.  A weekly/seasonal Newsletter has been published since 2002, and is accessible through a google-groups listserver.

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
  • 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.