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WCT History: WOODLANDS' FOUNDING

The Place that Our Hearts Hold Dear

By Rabbi Emeritus Billy Dreskin
My name is Billy Dreskin. I’ve been around Wood- lands since 1985 when I came on board as rabbinic intern (a family affair, my wife Ellen was WCT’s cantorial intern at the same time). We’ve heard many of the stories about how Woodlands began. You are invited to read these stories in Makom.

The flyers posted around Westchester read, “This year maybe you won’t have to go to your in-laws for the High Holidays.” And this was how it all began. In August 1966, interested folks attended a meeting at the Chase Manhattan Bank in Hartsdale to discuss founding a new synagogue. 

By meeting’s end, it was decided. For fifty bucks you could be part of Westchester’s newest house of worship. And by the time we held our very first service on Friday, Sept. 9, 1966, at Calvin United Presbyterian Church in Hartsdale (now Christ Alive Ministries), the temple’s first bulletin listed 60 founding families. By October, a hundred children were attending religious school. We were a real, bona fide temple!

By December, membership had reached 130 families, and the temple had a rabbi, a cantorial soloist, and an organist (believe it or not). The decision had been made to practice Reform Judaism “with much enrichment on the Conservative side.” And for the High Holy Days, it was decided “not to interfere with the Rabbi’s choice of sermon.” Thus, a new chapter in Jewish history began, and it was called Woodlands Community Temple.

From the beginning of our history, we were known as “the crunchy granola temple,” a different kind of synagogue and we were proud of that. By that first December, discussions began about finding a building in which we could grow our community. There was great interest in the old Warburg Mansion (now Woodlands High School), but it wasn’t meant to be. So in 1968 they purchased the home of Elizabeth Ann Goertz at 50 Worthington Road (also known as “Pine Acres”). The house served as office space, religious school, and youth lounge.

The New Sanctuary

The founding families wanted to build a 700-seat, High Holy Days-worthy sanctuary that would include wall partitions which could reduce seating to 250 for regular Shabbat gatherings. When sufficient funding could not be secured, a less elaborate design was proposed, where the sanctuary does double-duty as our social hall. It was mostly economics driving the decisions, but there’s something very special about holding religious school, adult learning, social events, and social action events in the space we use to worship and to remind ourselves that all of life is to be lived fully, meaningfully, and with good intention.

The new building was dedicated on Oct. 28, 1973, and served our needs for three decades until size, HVAC, and a perpetually leaking roof persuaded temple leadership that it was time to replace it. (The sanctuary that you currently enjoy was built in 2002-2003. The smaller sanctuary that preceded it was remarkably similar in construct and spirit.)

There were a few truly innovative ideas that were of spiritual importance to the founders. Our sanctuary consists mainly of wood and glass. It’s partly why we love this place so much. The design immediately conveys a turn away from the glitziness of other temples, replacing it with a definite preference for informality and comfortability. The many windows remind us how fortunate we are to live in such a magnificent world, and that what we do inside this building must directly relate to how we live our lives out there. Further, the founders designed a bimah (which literally means “high place”) that remained at floor level because they wanted to emphasize the concepts of equality and democracy that would drive the spiritual and communal life of this new synagogue.

Founding member, former temple president, and still current member Jack Safirstein told me that the Ritual Committee wanted minimal separation between the clergy and the congregation. This referred both to the distance from the bimah to the front row and how high it rose from the floor. The original sanctuary— now the library—actually allowed the rabbi and his family to sit among the congregants, which soon became a cherished quality of our temple. This is why we have never had a raised bimah (except on the High Holy Days when one is necessary for everyone to see). These enduring design elements— referencing informality, democracy, and our connection with the outside world—reflected our community’s values in 1966 and they continue to reflect those values today. Jack, however, tells a somewhat different story. The truth is, he told me, “Glass and wood were cheap building materials…a homey, ski lodge feel because that was all we could afford.”

Which begs the question. Are we a synagogue community that was founded upon an uncompromising commitment to (what were then) radically new ideas of member-clergy partnership, a passion for social justice, and what a half-century later would come to be known as “audacious hospitality”? Or did our progressive, welcoming culture evolve over time, and subsequently find us rewriting our origin stories to reflect this holy, spiritual place we have all come to love? The chicken or the egg, we may never know. But thank God for all the generations of this astonishing, loving community that have built, and continue to build makom shelibi oheyv, “the place that our hearts hold dear.” 

A Sacred Community 

Our sanctuary was always more than its physical structure. What was always most important was what took place within that structure’s glassy walls. In the beginning, cookies for the Oneg were baked by temple families, religious school classes were taught by temple parents, and even our prayer books were created by temple members. Woodlands was carving out an identity for itself that would be defined by a profound spirit of volunteerism. Everyone helped build the community. This was, and remains, one of the reasons our “crunchy granola temple” is so beloved. Today, folks are busier than ever. Professionals now make our cookies and teach our kids, but our prayer books are still homemade, as is so much of what we create here. Volunteering remains the engine that drives the well-being of our temple. It makes belonging to Woodlands more meaningful for each person who asks, “How can I help?” 

The Talmud teaches us: Makom shelibi oheyv ... the place that my heart holds dear ... sham ragalai molichot oti ... there my feet will bring me near. 

The Hebrew word makom has layers of meaning. Yes, it does mean “place” but HaMakom (“The Place”) also serves as one of God’s ineffable names. A place, when it is imbued with the best of the human spirit, becomes more than a place. It becomes kehilah kedoshah, a sacred community. Such transformation happens when people come together, join hands in honoring the magnificent gift we’ve each been granted of living life in this awe-inspiring universe, and do the work to preserve and enrich that gift for all breathing beings. Woodlands Community Temple. What began in 1966 as a meeting at Chase Manhattan Bank has become a cherished home of the spirit, true for us today every bit as much as it was for those 60 founding families. 

Billy Dreskin served as head rabbi of WCT from 1995 to 2021.

First published in the Fall 2022 Issue of the WCT Makom Magazine. 
 

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784