SOMERS, N.Y. - It’s been quite a year so far for “the little temple in the woods.”
In May, the Hebrew Congregation of Somers celebrated its 75th anniversary. This month, it will welcome a new leader, Rabbi Shoshana Leis.
In 2016, the congregation bid a fond farewell to longtime Rabbi Fred Schwalb, who retired. Rabbi Halina Rubinstein followed Schwalb and was with the synagogue for about two years.
In the interim, services were conducted by Cantor Ruth Ossher.
The congregation is confident that Leis will continue to uphold its values as well as help it reach its long-term goals of growing membership, keeping its school vibrant, and continuing interfaith outreach, said co-president Vicki Prusnofsky.
Rabbi Leis officially starts on July 15 and will lead her first Shabbat on July 20.
According to member Diane Karsch, the Shenorock synagogue was founded in 1944 as a summer “shul” (the Yiddish for school/synagogue). At the time, there were about 20 Jewish families participating.
Its first Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services were held in the homes of members Samuel Schuckman and Irving Lasher.
Finding a permanent place to worship got off to a rocky start.
Its founders bought land on Route 118 and put up a wooden sign saying, “This is the site of the Hebrew Congregation of Somers.”
A week later, the sign burned down in an apparent anti-Semitic act.
After its replacement was chopped down, the founders decided to purchase land off Cypress Lane in Shenorock where a “House of Gathering and Worship” was built through the efforts, Karsch said, of “dedicated and determined families.”
The synagogue started to operate year-round in the 1970s. It now offers weekly Shabbat services as well as Hebrew school and adult education.
The synagogue “has been through many changes since its inception,” said Prusnofsky.
It’s because of its “caring and supportive” community that the synagogue not only has been able to survive “the pain of anti-Semitism” but also to thrive, Prusnofsky said.
As Northern Westchester’s only Reconstructionist synagogue, its members “strive for ethical lives with common attitudes, interests and goals as we share traditions and lifecycle events,” Prusnofsky added.
Reconstructionist Jews share a strong commitment to both tradition and the search for contemporary meaning.
“Our 75th anniversary celebrates our history and our future, our changes and our constancy, our flexibility, and our resilience,” Prusnofsky said.
It draws its approximately 200 members from Somers, Yorktown, North Salem, Mahopac, and Goldens Bridge.
Rabbi Leis, a Rabbi Without Borders fellow, comes to Somers from Romemu in New York City, where she was the synagogue’s director of youth and family education.
Prior to that, she and her husband, Rabbi Ben Newman, lived in Fort Collins, Colo., where they served as rabbis at Har Shalom Center for Jewish Living.
A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Dartmouth College, Rabbi Leis also studied at St. Petersburg University, the Conservative Yeshiva, and the Drisha Institute for Jewish Studies. She also has a degree in Russian studies.
Rabbi Leis was also a rabbi and educational director at Congregation Tehillah in New York City. She was the recipient of the Legacy Heritage Innovator Award for developing “Shira Hadasha,” an intergenerational initiative.
She said she hopes to use her love of nature, music, and contemplative practice to enhance services and expand programs at her new gig in Somers.
Rabbi Newman, a singer-songwriter and children’s book author, is the founder and spiritual leader of Shtiebel (meaning little house or little room), a “new paradigm” Jewish community in Westchester.
He holds degrees in religion and culture and Jewish studies and previously served as an associate rabbi for the JRF Congregation M’vakshe Derekh in Scarsdale.
The couple, who live in Dobbs Ferry, have two children: Sophia, 11, and Isaiah, 8.
Mentioning Ossher and Jill Liflander, the director of its school, Rabbi Leis said she was really impressed with the strength of the lay leadership in Somers and how it has always supported the spiritual needs of the community, especially when it was in-between rabbis.
“I’m truly inspired by the work of Cantor Ossher,” Rabbi Leis said.
Prusnofsky agreed. “It could have been a difficult year, but it was a great one. Everybody pulled together.”
(Also at the HCS helm are Robert Fischer and Gloria Calderella, a Mahopac resident and retired speech pathologist. Fischer, whose background is in civil engineering and construction, spent two years in Israel helping build a base for the Israeli Air Force. Prusnofsky is a retired social worker, psychotherapist and teacher. Liflander, a teacher, has a multi-disciplinary background in the arts, including dance and puppetry.)
Thanks to an influx of young parents and Liflander’s enthusiasm and creativity, the school’s population is booming. “That’s a good thing, too,” Prusnofsky said.
Informal services that feature music, discussion, humor, and food as well as potluck dinners, “lunch and learns,” and adult education programs are also helping to keep HCS “vibrant,” Prusnofsky said.
Social action drives have included helping to provide food and clothing for the needy, providing prom clothing for kids who can’t afford it, putting together packages for US troops overseas, visiting the elderly, supporting a girls orphanage in Israel, and helping to build a library in Lesotho, Africa.
“We’re community oriented. We’re a family,” said Prusnofsky, adding: “We like to say we’re the little temple in the woods with a big heart.”
All religions seem to be undergoing “paradigm shifts” nowadays so it is important to hold onto Jewish values such as kindness and compassion, while looking for ways to adapt to exterior changes, Rabbi Leis said recently.
She hopes to start off by building relationships with, and earning the trust of, the congregation.
Her next goal is to reach out to the interfaith community for help with social justice projects.
The aim is to “inspire our current members and attract new ones,” Rabbi Leis said. “I think we’re going to grow.”
New spiritual practices, including meditation, and music, could be part of those efforts, she said. And holding services outdoors would be a great way to connect with nature.
Jewish spirituality celebrates diversity, and Rabbi Leis said she is “very committed to radical inclusivity.”
The congregation welcomes all people regardless of marital status, age, race, family composition, sexual orientation, or disability.
It also encourages inter-faith families to participate.
Prusnofsky said HCS has a good relationship with the folks at the Hudson Valley Islamic Center and many local churches. It plans to do more interfaith youth groups, too.
“When you know each other, there’s no more hate, no more misunderstanding,” she explained.
As for the future? “Our goal is not simply to perpetuate Jewish traditions, but to use spirituality to make us better persons as we face the challenges of our time,” Rabbi Leis said.
Rabbi Leis said she’s awed by how HCS has “evolved” and is “excited to be a part of it.”
For more information about HCS, call (914) 248-9532, send an email to email@example.com, or visit hebrewcongregationofsomers.org. Its mailing address is P.O. Box 40, Shenorock NY, 10587.