About Cantor Fred Scheff
A Brief History of the Temple
The History of Temple Shalom -- known to some as the "Other" Congregation on Aquidneck Island.
For almost two hundred years, if asked to name a Jewish congregation on Aquidneck Island, or specifically in Newport, Rhode Island, the name most universally mentioned would be that of the venerable Touro Synagogue. The small Orthodox synagogue, Ahavis Achim, or the Bull Street Shul, was known only to local residents. It was at Ahavis Achim, however, where the initial effort to meet the needs of the non‑Orthodox Jewish community of the Island was born. On May 16, 1961, a meeting of the Jewish community was held at Ahavis Achim to consider the possibility of founding a Conservative congregation. At this pivotal meeting, a committee was formed and charged to study the feasibility of such an undertaking.
At the Muenchinger King Hotel on July 6, 1961, Dr. Simon Greenberg of the Jewish Theological Seminary addressed a gathering about creating a Conservative congregation, following a favorable report delivered by the feasibility committee. At this meeting, thirty-five families pledged to form such a congregation; thus Temple Shalom was born.
The wheels of progress began to turn quickly. The first meeting of the congregation was held less than two weeks later at the Viking Hotel.At that meeting officers were elected and committees established. Although this new congregation was without a name or a place to worship, those involved were ecstatic about their undertaking, and pledged to have their congregation "up and running" by the High Holy Days with both a name and a place to assemble and pray.
On August 7, at Cliff Walk Manor, a most exciting meeting was held. Committee reports reflected that sixty families had pledged to support the newly-established congregation, that a site had been found for worship, and that a rabbi and a cantor had been hired for the forthcoming holy days. It was at this meeting that a name was chosen: Temple Shalom, the Conservative Congregation of Newport County.
The Temple charter was quickly filed with the Secretary of State of Rhode Island, with seventy‑five individuals and families making up the list of charter members. After almost two hundred years of exclusively Orthodox Judaism on Aquidneck Island, the conservative movement became a presence in the Jewish community.
The first High Holy Day services were held at the John Martin Memorial Center, also known as the Aquidneck Hut, in Newport, conducted by Rabbi Harry W. Katchen, Director of Community Relations at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and by Cantor Murray Pine. After the exhilaration of these first High Holy Days, the members of Temple Shalom had to confront a problem. The fledgling congregation had little money, not nearly enough to hire a rabbi, so students from the Jewish Theological Seminary were brought in on a bi‑weekly basis.
A turning point in the history of Temple Shalom came in 1967 when the congregation purchased the Birdland Cafe, located at 196‑198 Thames Street in Newport. The membership was enthusiastic and delighted to finally have a facility which they could mold into a permanent house of worship. Through the physical labors and financial support of its members, the Birdland Cafe was fashioned into a beautiful sanctuary, social hall, kitchen, and study. The Temple had finally come of age with a home of its own. The new building also brought a new spiritual leader, Rabbi Emanuel Goldsmith of Brandeis University, who served the congregation on weekends for one year. For the next six years, the pulpit was filled by students from the Seminary.
In June, 1974, the Temple asked one of these students, Rabbi Marc S. Jagolinzer, to become its spiritual leader. The congregation rejoiced in its new rabbi and looked forward to building a strong and vibrant membership for the future. However, this joy was to be interrupted when calamity struck early on Sunday morning, October 14, 1974, Columbus Day. Temple Shalom was completely destroyed by arson. A headline on the front page of the local newspaper, The Newport Daily News, stated: "Blaze Destroys Synagogue; Jews Mourn Sacred Tablets. "The fire devastated not only the members of the Temple, but the entire community of Newport County. At the height of the blaze, the fire was fought by ninety firefighters and eight trucks. For over two hours, those involved fought valiantly to extinguish the flames and prevent them from spreading to adjacent buildings. This tragedy, however, brought together a strong and dedicated membership, who met that evening with more than one hundred local families to plan for the future. After much deliberation and consideration of offers from other houses of worship and civic organizations, it was decided that the congregation would use the facilities of Congregation Ahavis Achim, the site of the birth, and now the re-birth, of Temple Shalom. The members worshiped at Ahavis Achim for three years until 1977. Although Friday night services were conducted independently, the traditional service at sunset and a later evening service (both led by Rabbi Jagolinzer), the two congregations united for services on Shabbat morning, festivals, and High Holy Days. A warm and enduring bond was forged between the two groups.
On Sunday, October 20, the Jewish community, as well as the general community, joined the members of Temple Shalom for a moving and emotional burial of those religious objects destroyed in the fire. Adults and children assembled to mourn the loss of their temple building and their artifacts, and to gain support and strength from one another.
After a period of loss and recovery the Temple began once again to grow and prosper. Membership began to increase. With this increased membership came the need for additional space. Quarters became cramped at Ahavis Achim and parking was at a premium. In 1977, the Temple commissioned the architectural firm of Urban Design to design and supervise the construction of a new building on land purchased by the congregation on Valley Road in Middletown. A design was submitted to and approved by the congregation, and ground was broken in July, 1977, by the Sullivan Construction Company of Newport. Construction continued until August, 1978. The first shabbat service in the new building was held on Friday evening, September 7, 1978, with a standing‑room‑only crowd in attendance. Rabbi Jagolinzer began the service by reciting the Shecheyanu, and giving thanks for reaching this milestone in the history of Temple Shalom.
The new facility consisted of a sanctuary, a social hall, a combination board room/chapel, a library, a rabbi's study, and a kitchen. A formal weekend of dedication ceremonies was held from Friday evening, October 27, through Sunday afternoon, October29, 1978. The Friday evening service was conducted by Rabbi Jagolinzer, with Fannie Nemtzow, the oldest female member of the congregation, lighting the candles, and Steven Perry, New England Representative to the National Board of the United Synagogue of America, as the featured guest speaker. On Shabbat morning, an interfaith worship service was held. Participants joining in the celebration included The Reverend Canon Lorne Coyle of Trinity Church, Newport; The Reverend William C. Graham of Middletown Baptist Church; The Reverend Brian Robcrge of the United Congregational Church, Middletown; The Reverend Thomas Lindeman of St. Paul's Methodist Church, Newport; and The Reverend H. Nils Berg, Chaplain of Newport Hospital. Torah Aliyot were extended to past presidents of the congregation, and Harry Nemtzow, the oldest member and a charter member of Temple Shalom, read from the Torah and chanted the haftorah. A celebratory kiddush followed the worship.
A highlight of this weekend was Sunday afternoon. A colorful and joyous procession of officers, trustees, past presidents, presidents of Temple affiliates, guests of the congregation, and members of the Building Committee followed Rabbi Jagolinzer and President Michael Mendell as they carried the scrolls into the new building up to the holy ark for placement therein. After the Torahs were housed, the eternal light, designed by Professor Walter Feldman of Brown University, was kindled as a prayer was recited. Edward Goldberg, founding president of the Temple, served as master of ceremonies. Rabbi Theodore Lewis of Touro Synagogue offered the invocation. A host of local dignitaries brought greetings: Mayor Humphrey Donnelly, III, Newport; Council President Robert M. Silva, Middletown; Council President Paul Poirier, Portsmouth; The Reverend Gilbert Taverner, Calvary United Methodist Church, Middletown; Captain Hebert Bolles, CHC, USNR, Senior Chaplain, NETC, Newport; The Reverend Robert Williams, Community Baptist Church, Newport; The Reverend John Theodore, St. Spyndon's Greek Church, Newport; The Reverend Timothy Gillen, St. Lucy's Roman Catholic Church, Middletown; and The Reverend Thomas Lindeman, St. Paul's United Methodist Church, Newport. The Dedication Message was delivered by Rabbi Jagolinzer and the Presentation of the Keys by Edward Rose, Chair of the Building Committee. Rabbi Jagolinzer and his wife Barbara led the congregation in the Prayer of Dedication and the Responsive Affirmation. The benediction was delivered by Rabbi Ely Katz of Touro Synagogue. This afternoon of dedication was one of beauty, fellowship, and joy. A collation concluded the ceremonies.
In the years that followed, the Temple enjoyed growth and activity. A Men's Club, Sisterhood, Tree of Life Seniors Group, Couples Club, Adult Education Program, Social Action Group, and a wide variety of services have been offered and supported by the members of the Temple. With Rabbi Jagolinzer as a leader of interfaith activities on Aquidneck Island and surrounding areas, the members of Temple Shalom have participated in a wide variety of programs with members of other faiths.
In 1988, Mrs. Beatrice B. Bazarsky came to meet with Rabbi Jagolinzer to discuss the possibility of building a religious school on the grounds of the Temple, dedicated to the memory of her beloved husband, Samuel Zilman Bazarsky. After a vote by the membership of Temple Shalom, Mrs. Bazarsky erected a brick building adjoining the Temple, with four fully-equipped classrooms. The School, open to all students from Newport County and surrounding areas, was formally dedicated in September, 1989, as The Samuel Zilman Bazarsky Religious School, with 39 students enrolled, and a faculty of four.
Through the years, both the the Temple and the School have continued to prosper and flourish. The congregational membership has more than doubled since its inception, and the School, at its height. boasted an enrollment of 75 students.
During its 42 years of existence, Temple Shalom, the Conservative Congregation of Newport County, has become well-known for its services and its multifaceted activities. The Temple serves as a beacon of spirituality, collegiality, and education to the Jewish community.
On December 6, the United States Postal Service designated Temple Shalom as the site for the reissue of the Chanukah Stamp. A framed poster of the United States Chanukah Stamp, as well as the same stamp issued in Israel, was presented to Rabbi Jagolinzer at a ceremony attended by a standing‑room‑only crowd. Second‑day covers with the Stamp and the Temple logo were cancelled at that time.
On January 9, 1998, after a long and concerted effort on behalf of Rabbi Jagolinzer and the Temple, a kosher meal site was established at the Temple for the seniors of Newport County in partnership with Jewish Family Service and the State of Rhode Island.