TEMPLE SINAI — 50 YEARS OF AFFILIATION
For those who don’t know me, my name is Shelley Trub Riley. I was born in the Bronx in 1943, a stone’s throw away from Yankee Stadium, a conservative Jewish congregation, and a tiny Orthodox shul where no English was spoken. I was sent to Sunday school when I was about 8, but didn’t like it, so my parents let me quit. All I remember are a few songs and prayers.
My maternal grandmother lived with us, kept a kosher household, and lit the Sabbath candles every Friday night. Then we would feast on her homemade chicken soup and matzo balls. She would spend the evenings and entire days of the High Holy Days at the Orthodox services. My job was to go in a few times a day and make sure she was OK.
My brother was too young and my parents never stepped foot in any synagogue unless it was to attend a Bar Mitzvah. Funerals were held at funeral parlors.
Two months shy of my 13th birthday, we moved to our very own house in Jackson Heights, Queens. Ethnicity was split equally between Jewish and Italian, with a handful of Irish.
Naturally, when the High Holy Days rolled around, my grandmother spent her time at services…an English speaking/Hebrew praying Conservative congregation…and I begged and pleaded my way inside to check on her several times a day. The rest of the time, I and the other teenagers spent standing outside the building talking. Without a ticket, we were not welcome inside.
In fact, we never had any connection with the rabbi, which was equally fine with him and the teenagers. Nor did my family have any tie-in with other members of the congregation, even when my brother studied there for his Bar Mitzvah. There was no such new-fangled notion as a Bat Mitzvah.
When I was 21 and a senior in college, I married a non-Jewish fellow. A Reform rabbi, provided by the catering hall, officiated after my husband-to-be assured him we would raise our children as Jews.
Fast forward two years. We were transferred upstate; rented a house in Glenville for almost a year, and then bought a house in Ballston Spa. The High Holy Days rolled around. I checked the Yellow Pages and found a listing for one synagogue in Saratoga Springs. Let’s just say it was the most unpleasant experience I’d ever had in a house of worship of any religion.
In the meantime, I resumed my career as a newspaper reporter and joined the Saratoga Springs chapter of the American Association of University Women. Just before the High Holy Days, I asked a member, who had a Jewish-sounding name, if she knew of a Reform congregation in town. Yes, she did. Her name was Mildred Beck, and although not Jewish herself, she was married to a fellow named Israel. They and a handful of others had founded a small Reform congregation a few years earlier. They’d just acquired a building on Broadway but no listing in the telephone book. Would I like to come to a Friday night service?
That was Sept. 1968…50 years ago this month.
I received a warm welcome. No one batted an eye nor shunned me when I said my last name. I met people who were to become lifelong friends…Selma and Gil Harwood, Rita and Dan Balmuth, Nat Oppenheim, and of course, Mildred Beck.
I was pregnant at the time, and as my due date neared, I was invited to have my baby named, and officially welcomed, into the Temple Sinai community.
Over the next few years, I and my husband Geof, became more active in the Temple community, but not official members until our daughter Jennifer, started kindergarten. We wanted her to have a Jewish identity, to make Jewish friends, and not feel like an outsider. Temple dues became a part of our limited budget.
For many years, members conducted Friday night services and did all the maintenance…plumbing, wiring, repairing and painting walls, scrubbing floors, washing curtains and drapes. Geof and I pitched in on every clean-up day because we took membership in Temple Sinai seriously.
Years went by. The Temple hired student rabbis from the rabbinical school in Manhattan. They would come up every other weekend, dine at our homes. We made friends our age…the Gunthers, the Doyles, the Pinsleys, the Smiths…and they remain friends although decades have passed, some have moved away, and others did not maintain their Temple membership.
Our children grew up together and became friends on their own and maintain those friendships although none of them live near one another.
For decades I’ve shared the holidays with Norm and Natalie Smith, their children, and Norm’s mother. When my grandson was about six months old, and by far the youngest at the Seder table, he sat on the lap of the next youngest, Melissa Smith, and nominally recited the Four Questions. Years later, when Melissa was living in northern California and Jennifer and family were living in Berkeley, they shared another Seder. And several years after meeting the Smiths through Temple Sinai, Norm and I learned we actually share cousins.
Raising funds was…and is…an ongoing challenge for Temple Sinai. For several years, we held service auctions. Mostly, people offered their skills. I baked cheesecakes to order. Any my husband successfully bid on the services of Gil Harwood to serve as cantor at our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.
There were only 3 other students in her Bat Mitzvah class…Debbie Pinsley, Rachel Seligman and Kim Fenton. Ruth Sohn was the student rabbi who came up from NYC every other weekend to teach them as the actual Bat Mitzvah day got closer, she and Jennifer spent hours on the phone at night going over the Hebrew prayers and rituals. Nowadays, with full-time rabbis living locally, Bat and Bar Mitzvah students are expected to do a lot more.
For a decade or more, I served on the Temple’s board of directors, including the year Rabbis Linda and Jonathan were hired. We played pass Baby Rachel as other board members spoke one-on-one with her parents.
When my husband became ill and subsequently died of cancer at age 50, Rabbi Linda and Rabbi Jonathan were there to support all of us and to officiate at his funeral. Although he never converted to Judaism, Geof considered himself a member of Temple Sinai and is buried in the Temple’s cemetery.
Although I don’t regularly attend Sabbath services or participate in other Temple programs, I take my Jewish heritage seriously. And, given the current political climate, Temple Sinai’s welcoming stance is a bulwark of civility.
Temple Sinai is important to me and its continuing existence is essential to the Saratoga Springs community.