November 2009: Alexander Weiss

Now, that you are retired, what do you do all week?


What do you do on the weekend?

Rest up.

Okay, it’s a joke–a joke quoted from Alexander Weiss. Retired for a while now, but, still has a lot to say. Sitting up on the Bimah during the High Holidays, Al leaned over to me and said, “You know, I was president 50 years ago. This year is my anniversary.”

A little over 50 years ago, a building on Whitney Avenue had a sign posted on it that read “Hamden Jewish Community Center.” Looking for a place to settle their young family, Al and Elane Weiss figured that there must be Jews in the area and they knew would never feel alone. Once moved into the neighborhood, Al and Elane were invited to join the Hamden JCC. If it weren’t for the foresight of a group of men and women whose names are posted in our halls, Temple Beth Sholom would not be a viable, caring community as it is today. Back in 1982, Al decided to write a brief history of our Temple to share with its congregants. Through  this interview, Al’s booklet and research from Dr. Martin Laskin’s thesis, An Ethnographic Study of an American Conservative Synagogue, I hope to give you a sense of what it was like being a member of a newly formed synagogue in Hamden through the eyes of Alex Weiss.

Even though it was called the Hamden JCC, it really was a synagogue. The organization went through several rabbis for various reasons. Some changed careers and some moved on to larger synagogues. But one man, Sol Freed, was the key player early on. Al said, “Sol was the man who everyone relied on.” According to him, Sol was always available to conduct services. He was the first Hebrew teacher, Torah reader and acting Rabbi when there was no one else.

When Sol was ready to retire, the new synagogue was lucky to have Charlie Gelman step in. Al wrote in the booklet that, “Charlie Gelman was our Cantor for many years, had a beautiful voice, and was always available when we needed him for services, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and any other religious ceremonies.”

Al recalls that in the late 1950’s, the group decided it was time to change the name and join the Conservative Movement. Board meetings often lasted into the wee hours of the morning. Good thing that doesn’t happen anymore! People left the organization because of the change. But, more meetings were held until it was finally voted to call our synagogue Temple Beth Sholom. Phillip Bear became the first president of the newly formed synagogue.

Our sanctuary was named in honor of him and his wife Gladys. Gladys was named the first women president of the Temple years later.

The major fundraiser, fifty years ago was an Annual Ball. A large committee was necessary, which became a social event in itself. The ball was held at several venues- the Hamden Town Hall Auditorium or the Goffe Street Armory. The profits from these affairs kept the Temple functioning.

Another fundraising event was recognizing congregants who go above and beyond the call of volunteerism. The program was called “Man and Woman of the Year.” At one time, the honorees photos were hung in the halls of the Temple. One story Al remembers is when the congregants decided to purchase a home for the Rabbi and his family to live in. While Rabbi Bershtein was living in this home, it was in dire need of painting. So, one spring Sunday morning, everyone came down to the house with supplies in hand and completed the task in a couple of hours. “A real fun day and the job was done,” Al recalled.

Rabbis continued to come and go through Temple Beth Sholom. In between, the lay group always did a great job. Just to name a few, Al remembers that, Julie Hyatt and Harry Kramer kept the kids busy with the Biddy Basketball teams; Phil Bear continued to fix something in the building; and Men’s Club and Sisterhood were involved in one way or another.

Al mentioned that for about a year, he had the role of Rabbi and was responsible for giving weekly sermons. He chuckled as he told me during the interview that he used the Salada tea bag quotes as the basis for his messages.

In the early 1960’s, some of the older members were interested in owning a cemetery. Another organization in New Haven, B’nai Israel, was looking to have a group take over their Alling Street cemetery. Louis Lackman, an active TBS board member, assumed the responsibility of having  TBS take ownership and working out the legality of the transaction. “A Cemetery Trust Committee was set up to insure proper and continuous operation into perpetuity,” Al said. Al served on that committee for over 30 years.

Time passed and Al and Elane’s family grew to three children Then the children marry and next thing you know they are grandparents to 6. Temple activities run in the family. Al informed me that his father was president of his own synagogue in Newark and each of his siblings were presidents of their synagogues at one time or another. This was a “family trait” his father was very proud to share- I am sure there wasn’t a lack of topics to discuss at family dinners!

So, 50 years later, and Al doesn’t rest- even on weekends. He enjoys photography and computers. And yes, he and Elane are still active members of our community.  Thanks for spending some time with me on the Bimah, Al.