Newly released book celebrates 80-year history of Central Synagogue

Former Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt carrying out Sabbath services at Central Synagogue in 1956.
Former Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt carrying out Sabbath services at Central Synagogue in 1956.
Courtesy Joy Gluzman

Central Synagogue’s 80-year history is captured in a recently released book that celebrates the Jewish community of Rockville Centre, and then some.

“Covenant and Community, Central Synagogue at 80,” by historian Richard Skolnik, was released on April 13, and documents the Rockville Centre synagogue, now known as Central Synagogue- Beth Emeth, from 1936 to 2016.

“It was a natural project for me,” said Skolnik, an author and retired history professor at the City College of New York that has been a member of the temple since 1975.

“Most of the old-timers passed on, and then it occurred to me that I am one of the old-timers,” Skolnik laughed. “It was time to put it all together.”

He compiled the book in about a year and a half, taking his information from the bulletins handed out at congregation every two weeks throughout the 80 years, as well as from minutes he collected and interviews he conducted. “The good thing was [the bulletins] never stopped,” Skolnik said. “They were a very rich source of material, and speaking to people helped. I captured a lot of what went on, and a lot did go on. It was a very vibrant institution in its heyday … a beehive of activity.”

One highlight of the book discusses the congregation’s first rabbi, Roland Gittelsohn. In 1945, he, the first Jewish chaplain ever appointed by the U.S. Marine Corps, gave a powerful sermon in Iwo Jima, Japan during World War II for the fallen soldiers. He addressed only the Jewish soldiers at first, but eventually captured the attention of non-Jewish service members.

Aside from serving as a place for Jews to connect to their community over the years, Central Synagogue also hosted a number of highly regarded speakers, the book points out, such as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, and former White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers. “They came here because it was a preeminent, reformed synagogue in this area for quite some time,” Skolnik noted, adding that hundreds of people attended each speech.

“The people who have lived here a long time, especially those who have been members of [Central Synagogue] for a long time, will find it very interesting,” said Sheila Rosenberg, Central Synagogue’s office manager for the past 32 years. “It is from a different perspective than what they usually read.” She said the contents about Rockville Centre’s rich Jewish history seemed spot-on, and that Skolnik was the right man for the job.

“[The book] is a labor of love,” said Rabbi Marc Gruber, adding that the time and effort Skolnik put in shows his “affection for the community,” which “underscores the message of the history itself.”

Gruber, who has served Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth for 16 years, said he discovered things he did not know about the congregation in the book’s pages. He believes it plays an important role in not only the Jewish community, but in Rockville Centre as a whole.

“It’s pretty good,” said Buddy Meyer, 71, a self-proclaimed “lifer” in Rockville Centre, highlighting Skolnik’s thoughtfulness and humor. Meyer was born and raised in the village — his parents were members of Central Synagogue — and he served the Rockville Centre Fire Department and the local Boy Scouts troop for decades.

He recalled that his confirmation class at Central Synagogue had 97 people in it, yet now there are significantly less that get confirmed each year, noting the decline in the Jewish population. “Lifestyles have changed,” Meyer said. “What can you do?” He concluded, “What [Skolnik] put into the book was unbelievable.”

“If we’ve been there this long then we should give an effort to maintain the institution and its members,” Skolnik said of Central Synagogue, mentioning people often attend an institution without much knowledge of its past. “It gives a depth to the experience, and places people in a larger context.”

He added that the congregation serves the community’s religious and spiritual needs, but also their social needs. Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth also provides aid for those in need and those grieving. “It’s a rather unique undertaking for them to provide all these various functions,” Skolnik said. “It’s a special place.”