At the end of World War II, returning soldiers and their brides needed places to live and to worship. Many were children of the great Jewish immigration of the early century. These Americanized young people had just faced the horrors of war and genocide. They sought havens of tradition within a liberalized atmosphere. In the largest growth spurt in the history of Conservative Judaism, Conservative synagogues arose in cities across America. Norfolk was one of those cities, and Temple Israel was one of those synagogues. Its history is the family history of that generation.
Norfolk’s boundary was moved north from Wards Corner to the Bay. Rustic Restmere Riding Academy near the old JCC gave way for new homes in the Wards Corner area. Homebuilders along with new residents realized that this new Norfolk comprised a third of the city and had no synagogue.
Coming together in the early 1950’s Jacob Brody, Hyman Swartz and his wife Beulah, Al Fleder, Sam Sandler, Calving Breit, Sam Rosenblatt and others began to brainstorm. They drew others into the planning and fundraising. Their dream was to provide a spiritual home for people who had none, but some founders already belonged to other synagogues. Charter members recall feeling torn: Harry Weisberg, who belonged to B’nai Israel, remembers his grandmother Gussie Fleder urging him on, “How many times in your life do you think you’ll have a chance to start a synagogue?” Another of her grandsons was founder Al Fleder. Julian Rashkind, Brody’s son-in-law and a founder, remembers Rabbi Mendoza of Ohef Sholom saying to him, “It’s all right, we love you, but they need you more.”
The fledgling “Wards Corner Synagogue Committee” passed out mimeographed flyers announcing a planning session on December 11, 1952, at Granby High School. Widow of the temple’s first President, Beulah Swartz remembers Norris Halpern suggesting the name “Temple Israel.” And so it was. Scarcely a week later, on December 19 the first Friday evening service was held at Benmorrell Chapel at 8 pm with Dr. Murray Kantor from Suffolk conducting services on the theme “The Macabbees.” When Shabbat was over the fundraising started.
To get a rabbi, the young group put an ad in the Brooklyn Jewish Examiner newspaper. Rabbi Joseph Goldman answered. On Friday evening July 10, 1953, at Granby High School he spoke as a visiting Rabbi and the match was made. For 30 years Rabbi Goldman was the congregation’s beloved leader.
A city block on Granby Street came from the holdings of M. Dan Dalis. Rashkind recalls, “We didn’t know anything about building a synagogue. But Charlie Leavitt was chief engineer of 5th Naval District. He said he’d do it, and we said fine.”
On September 12, 1954, Hyman B. Swartz laid the cornerstone assisted by Jacob Brody and Rabbi Goldman. Inside the stone is a copper box with Siddur, Tanakh, the minutes from first congregational meeting, and the names of the 175 charter members. By then there were 450 members. Governor Thomas B. Stanley addressed the crowd at the behest of founder Calvin Breit.
The next milestone was acquiring a Torah. One was commissioned through the generosity of Jules and Rose Zelinger. On October 11, 1954, Harry Reckonty, whose name is legend in the annals of Hebrew pedagogy, flew to New York to get it. A party of congregants was on hand at the airport to meet his return. The Torah was to be paraded back to temple like royalty in a convertible led by a police escort and followed by a cavalcade of dignitaries. Children on hand had been prepped with word of the holiness, beauty and wonder of the hand-written scroll of the Torah. But the story goes that when the plane door opened, Harry descended the steps empty handed. Alarm greeted him. What had happened?! “It was heavy,” he said, “so I checked it.” Retrieved from baggage claim, the scroll was taken to the synagogue where its sacred text was ceremoniously completed by Rabbi Kleinbart of B’nai Israel in the presence of the congregants, who dedicated the scroll at Simchat Torah 1954.
The congregation affiliated with the United Synagogue and incrementally completed the dream of the founders. Brody Auditorium was dedicated in March 1956. The sanctuary was dedicated in June of 1960. Through years, Temple Israel’s physical needs were met as the building was renovated in the early 1970’s. Bingo helped pay for the enclosure of the atrium, which links the sanctuary to the classroom wing. In the early 90’s, further renovation included installation of beautiful stained glass windows in sanctuary.
The education program grew with the baby boomers. Dr. Barry Einhorn, president 1968-70, recalls upward of 400 children enrolled in the Sunday religious school. “We were using every classroom. We even partitioned off Sandler Hall into six additional classrooms.” It was also during his tenure that a bat mitzvah was accorded the full honors previously reserved for males. The girl was his daughter Wendy, who two decades later would be the congregation’s first woman president. Always a teaching temple, Temple Israel’s school program extended to graduate its first Hebrew High School class in 1978.
As the children grew up, in the 80’s the temple was offering a regular Friday night singles service. This was expanded to create the Sun ‘n Fun Jewish Singles weekend, one of the premiere Jewish singles programs of the country.
As city population shifted to the Beach and Chesapeake, Temple Israel became increasingly a regional synagogue. In 2000 it reached out to form a partnership with KBH (The Kempsville Conservative Synagogue) to develop joint programming for the far-flung constituency. Meanwhile it still provides twice-daily minyanim, full holiday services, educational programming that begins with Torah Tots for toddlers and their parents and extends through school years to a full range of adult classes in Hebrew language and sacred text study as well as exploration of modern Jewish thought. Life-cycle attention extends from brit milah celebrations to kindly care provided by the men and women’s Chevrei Kadishah.
For the first 30 years of its life, the congregation’s spiritual leadership remained in the hands of Rabbi Goldman. Following his death Rabbi Saul Hyman served for three years before the arrival in 1986 of Rabbi Stuart Altshuler. Rabbi Michael Panitz has led the congregation since 1992. Sharing the bimah over the years has been a longer list of cantors beginning with Cantor Israel Breitbart followed by Bernard Matlin, Richard Smith, and Charles Freedland, till in 1975 Cantor Isaac Danker took the post he would hold for 20 years.
Of his congregation’s future, Rabbi Michael Panitz says, “While still serving our long-time members and enjoying their participation, we are increasingly engaging a new and younger generation—a generation interested in a Jewish life of learning and caring, of socializing as well as of spirituality. Thus our past gives us direction for our future.”