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Larchmont Temple: The Building’s History

It should be remembered that when Larchmont Temple was organized over fifty years ago, Larchmont was very different from what it is today. While physically little has changed--the vast majority of the homes and stores, Village hall, the library and Chatsworth School were already built--there were very few Jewish families, and those who were here were mostly new to the community.

The Jewish families that moved to Larchmont after World War II were, for the most part, unaffiliated. Some had come to Larchmont to disaffiliate-to melt into the Westchester scene. Some were European émigré with Americanized names who, escaping the trauma of the war, wanted the anonymity of a non Jewish environment. Some just wandered in for the same reason that families move to Larchmont today; good schools, near the city.

However, as happened in suburban communities everywhere after the War, there were some who recognized the need to educate their children. The idea to start a Jewish Reform congregation and religious school in Larchmont was first introduced by our founder, Pearl Belchetz, who invited interested Jewish residents in the community to attend a meeting in her home on June 8 1948. About 60 residents responded. After many such gatherings to discuss the feasibility of implementing these ideas, the first official membership meeting was held at the Larchmont Public Library on August 17th. A constitution was adopted and officers and trustees were elected.

The early organizing meetings had an uneven quality. One participant said he would be interested "so long as Hebrew was not taught in the religious school," but calmer and wiser heads prevailed. Friday evening services were held at the homes of members, religious school classes in a music school and the first High Holiday services at the American Legion Post 347.

But soon it became clear that a larger house was needed, so the large house (designed by Stanford White in 1892 and now the Blum Building) fronting on Willow Avenue was purchased to accommodate all Temple functions including Friday evening services, the religious school, and all meetings.

 

A New Building

In August 1951, Maury Medwick sent out an invitation for the first "new building" meeting to the "ten busiest men." The Building Fund's goal was $250,000, modest in terms of today's dollars but a daunting amount in 1951. With more than 500 people attending High Holy Day services at the Weaver Street Fire House, the campaign kicked off with pledges of $75,000. By May 1, 1952 the goal was attained.

The campaign's brochure read, "We are privileged to bring into reality this shrine which will perpetuate the ideals of Liberal Judaism in Larchmont...This new Larchmont Temple will be a two-story structure of Georgian Colonial design, planned to integrate architecturally with the surrounding community." The building's groundbreaking followed on January 4th, 1953, with actual construction starting that summer.

 

Meeting the Needs of A Growing Congregation?

By 1991, the building was no longer meeting the needs of the growing congregation and a new Campaign for the 21st Century began. President Diana Finkelstein invited the congregation to participate, writing, "The responsibility for maintaining a growing and secure Reform Jewish presence rests with us. We need to build; we need to renovate; we need you to support our current plans for major reconstruction."

First priorities: a chapel for smaller life-cycle events and renovations to the Blum Building, which were completed in 1992. But more needed to be done, and President Michael Reichgott called on Fred Bloch to lead a new fund-raising campaign. By the fall of 1994, with enough money to begin but not complete the next phase, President Harry First called a special meeting to ask for congregational approval to begin construction of the connector building, which was dedicated at Chanukah of 1996.

Meanwhile, the temple’s leaders continued to work to raise the funds needed to complete the building’s renovation and the Building Committee, under the leadership of Ed Jacobson, recommended a new architect, Henry Stolzman, of the firm Pasanella & Stolzman & Berg Architects.

In June 2000, the congregation gathered for its last Shabbat in the sanctuary, and Larchmont Temple’s members became the wandering Jews, worshiping at Larchmont Avenue Church, the Jewish Community Center and the auditorium of SUNY Purchase.

One year later, In June 2001 the new sanctuary, now oriented to face the East, was dedicated, a dedication made possible through the generosity of almost 600 families who gave $8.8 million and because of the vision and dedication of the congregation’s presidents who served through a decade of fund-raising and building: Diana Finkelstein, Michael Reichgott, Harry First, Ken Gordon and Emily Grotta.