In 1955, a handful of adventurous couple pioneers -- the Kellmans, the Bergmans, the Jacobsons, and the Roberts -- embarked on a journey to find a different, more personally enriching and inclusive Jewish religious experience. What started as an itinerant study group under the guidance of an early Reconstructionist Rabbi from the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), soon joined with another independent gathering of some long time Reconstructionists living in Westchester, including Sylvia and Emanuel Dannett. Sylvia Dannett was the second recorded Bat Mitzvah, a wonderful ritual created through the Reconstructionist movement.
These two groups of pioneering individuals (about 20 member households) represented a wide range of Jewish experience, ranging from ultra Orthodox to ultra Liberal, but shared a common goal -to find an interpretation of Judaism for modern times. Reconstructionist Judaism was the answer. The group incorporated as Beth Shalom Synagogue in March 1956 and, with the help of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, the groundwork was laid for a new Synagogue - although they did not have a building. The first Friday night service, on March 2, 1956, was held at St. Paul’s Church in Hartsdale with torahs on loan from Mount Vernon’s Free Synagogue and a velvet bimah cover from the White Plains JCC to mask the cross on the pulpit.
The synagogue was without a home for several years. The members collected prayer books and kippot, traveled to members’ homes for Hebrew School and held Shabbat services in a variety of locations.
The nomadic period ended in 1958 with the purchase of a beautiful old mansion, "Clovelly", in White Plains. The budding congregation hosted Rabbi Kaplan and Dr. Ira Eisenstein, another early Reconstructionist leader, at the first service in their new home.
In 1967, Beth Shalom and Bet Ami merged to create Bet Am Shalom Synagogue.
Membership grew slowly (to 185 member households) until 1989, when Rabbi Lester Bronstein, and his wife, Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller, became our spiritual leaders. In that year we also undertook our first renovation and expansion to build a new simcha room, library and classrooms to accommodate the growth in our membership. In 1991 our membership was 244 households. In that year we dedicated our new space with an inscription from the book of Nehemiah (3:38), "For the People's Heart Was in the Work".
While we continued to grow, our membership stayed true to its special intimate character and its sense of community. But our physical space couldn’t accommodate the life of the community. In 2001, a Long Range Planning Committee was given the go-ahead to expand the synagogue once again. An ambitious capital campaign was begun in early 2003, which eventually raised almost $5 million.
On September 9, 2003, while planning for the expansion, an electrical fire destroyed the stone and wood structure that had been the original shul building. The community survived for 18 months holding services in the gym at Temple Israel Center, Hebrew School at Solomon Schecter, the offices at UJA and then in a trailer on our property.
We returned to a partially restored building in December 2004 with a candlelight parade of Torahs. Several months later, work was completed and we returned to an entirely rebuilt synagogue including new offices, classrooms, library and a bet midrash.
Three years after the fire, on September 10, 2006, the new sanctuary was dedicated.
We now have a beautiful communal home in which to hold weekly Shabbat services, simchas, holiday celebrations and our Judaica craft show. We held our Jubilee Celebration on December 16, 2006 and the 20th Anniversary of our Rabbi and Cantor’s arrival at BAS in May 2009 and many more events and programs.
To read Joey Kellman's personal reminiscences of the founding of Bet Am Shalom, click here.