“All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to fear at all. If you won’t be better tomorrow than you were today, then what do you need tomorrow for?”
~Rabbi Nachman of Breslov
In 1962, a handful of Jewish “pioneers” followed their vision of creating a religious community that would better fit Reno’s progressive Western culture. Seven families (Louis and Ruth Dickens, Leah and Bill Garell, Jake and Mary Garfinkle, Gene and Bea Brown, Milton and Becky Gumbert, Sam and Judy Cantor, and Stanley and Fran Fielding) approached Rabbi Joseph Glaser of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to establish a Reform Congregation.
Temple Sinai’s first president was Louis Dickens, and other families soon joined the congregation. Among the earliest members were George and Ethel Jaffe, Paul and Lillian Rubin, Lucien and Louise Zentner, Rube and Nan Goldwater, Harry and Hannah Chernus, and Bert and Esther Goldwater.
On September 8th, 1962 “The Nevada State Journal” reported that Rabbi Joseph B. Glaser, the Regional Director of UAHC, would speak on the “Place, Purpose and Practices of Modern Judaism in our Community.” This marked the first official gathering of the congregation. Six days later Temple Sinai celebrated its first Shabbat with Rabbi Alfred Barnston, also of San Francisco, conducting. “Membership is open,” the Journal announced.
In the beginning, services were held on a regular basis in the Virginia Room of the Masonic Building at 40 W. First Street and were conducted by the members themselves, with Milton Gumbert leading the choir from the back of the room. Since there was no full-time rabbi, UAHC sent representatives to celebrate various life cycle events.
The temple needed a Torah, so Gene Brown, a local realtor, was dispatched to San Francisco to find one. Rabbi Julius Liebert, one of the earliest rabbis to conduct services at Temple Sinai, contributed his personal Torah to the congregation where it is used, to this day, as the Sefer Torah. The first portable ark was built by Louis Dickens and was eventually replaced with one crafted by artisan and member Harry Weinberg.
Our affiliation with the UAHC required providing religious instruction to our youth. Congregant Ethel Jaffe volunteered and taught not only son Stephen, who became Temple Sinai’s first Bar Mitzvah in 1964, but Jeffrey Zentner and Dan Garfinkle, beginning a 50-year career as a Hebrew teacher to students young and old.
B’nei Mitzvot were held on Friday nights in conjunction with Shabbat services. Once Temple Sinai had its own building, the ceremonies moved to Saturday morning. Among the first daytime B’nei Mitzvah at Temple Sinai was that of Mark Davis, son of Sammy Davis, Jr. The ceremony was held in 1973, attended by many well-known entertainers, with Rabbi Morris Hirschman of the San Francisco office of UAHC presiding.
Early Passover seders were held in the El Cortez Hotel, but once the building was completed on Gulling Road small mealtime celebrations could be held in the sanctuary. Growth within the congregation required more room for the seder and a return to commercial venues, including the Elks Lodge, Sparks Nugget, the Peppermill, and, later, the Atlantis.
The lack of building space affected High Holy day observances as well. Fire regulations restricted the occupancy of the sanctuary to 165 persons. By 1996 the congregation had grown beyond that number and the services were moved to Reed High School’s auditorium. For the next ten years, Temple Sinai celebrated the High Holy days as guests of Holy Cross Catholic Community.
In 1965 the Masonic Building had a fire, causing Temple Sinai to move from the Virginia Room to the Reno Musicians Hall at 124 W. Taylor St. Louis Dickens located and purchased a three-acre plot of land in Northwest Reno and sold it to the temple at cost for $8,000. This was to become the permanent home of Temple Sinai.
On February 26, 1970, a “Nevada State Journal” headline declared, “Temple Sinai Congregation Announces Plans for Building Its New Temple.” Described as “the first Jewish temple built in Reno in the past half century,” it was to be a “modern building of wood and brick…with considerable attention paid to the details of the Holy Ark.”
R.C. Johnson was the contractor for the new temple and the facility was planned with expansion in mind. The building committee consisted of Louis Dickens, Eugene Brown, Milton Gumbert and Sam Cantor. Several members contributed materially to the construction project. Louis Dickens provided material and George Jaffe provided labor for the plumbing installation. Sam Cantor procured the light figures and Wes Levin provided electrical contractors. George Sirott, a developer from Philadelphia, donated a set of bronze ten commandments to the project.
Several non-member businesses contributed as well. Osborne-Dermody provided cabinetry for the kitchen at a reduced rate. The cost of the entire project, land and building, was $53,000, and was paid off in 1975 with a celebratory mortgage-burning event.
While that was the first construction project for Temple Sinai, there were two major expansions and renovations to come. In 1990 construction began on a new addition to add four classrooms, a dividable library/multi-purpose room, and an outdoor patio. Through annexation, the temple was also able to connect to city sewer, which allowed for expanded restroom facilities. This project was completed at a cost of $250,000, and again, the loan was paid off in a relatively short amount of time.
In 1997 Harry Weinberg, a congregant and noted woodworker, completed a three- year project of designing and renovating Temple Sinai’s sanctuary. Beginning with the design and installation of the “Tree of Life,” Weinberg hand-tooled extensive paneling and new doors for the Ark, a new lectern and chairs for the bima, and created a unique Torah mantle holder to accommodate the Torah dressing.
In July of 2007 construction began on a $1.5 million project that would include a large social hall, two classrooms, a commercial quality kitchen, improved office space, a newly renovated library and an enlarged sanctuary, as well as a new entrance and lobby.
The general contractor was Moody-Weiske and the architect was George Trowbridge, Jr. Completed in March and dedicated on April 6, 2008, the new construction meant that Temple Sinai now had a facility to accommodate High Holy Day services and other large celebratory events.
In 2010, stained glass windows were installed in the social hall, a collaborative effort between member Heidi Loeb and local artist Cindy Oberlander. The windows, which are on the Eastern wall of the social hall, added a touch of beauty and sanctity to the room.
Before moving to its own building, Temple Sinai enjoyed the services of UAHC-affiliated Rabbis who would come to Reno for special occasions and lifecycle events. Among these were Rabbi Joseph Liebert, Rabbi Joseph Barston,
Rabbi Milton Gumbiner, and Rabbi Morris Hirschman. However, once the congregation had moved to Gulling Road it became apparent that there was a need for more consistent spiritual leadership. The membership could not support a full-time rabbi at that time, so the leadership made contact with the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles to provide a student rabbi twice a month.
Fortunately, Rabbi Abraham Feinberg, recently retired from Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, had moved to Reno to be near his son and generously agreed to provide rabbinic services as needed.
By 1982, Temple Sinai was in a financial position to hire a full-time rabbi. Their choice was Paul Tuchman, whose previous pulpit had been in Dothan, Alabama. Two years later Rabbi Tuchman returned to the South, and Temple Sinai hired Rabbi Myra Soifer, who was among the first women to be ordained by Hebrew Union College and had been an Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sinai in New Orleans. “Rabbi Myra” served as rabbi for 25 years, shepherding the congregation through periods of great growth, as well as tough economic times. She retired in 2009 and is currently doing hospice work.
When Rabbi Soifer retired, Rabbi Teri Appleby came to our congregation. Rabbi Appleby had been a Legal Aid attorney and an Assistant Rabbi in Newport Beach, California. With husband Jonathan Leo offering his services as cantor, Rabbi Teri served Temple Sinai for three years. Rabbi Soifer returned for a year as our interim Rabbi when Rabbi Appleby left for Canada.
In July of 2013, Temple Sinai welcomed Rabbi Ethan Bair, our current rabbi. A graduate of Oberlin College and a former Fulbright scholar to Germany, Rabbi Bair was ordained at the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, in 2011. Rabbi Bair served Temple Sinai as our Senior Rabbi for five years before moving on to an an Assistant Rabbi position at Temple Beth Shalom in Miami Beach, FL. Rabbi Bair is committed to creating a participatory and authentic Jewish prayer culture; promoting inter-faith social justice work; and integrating Jewish studies with traditional Jewish sources into his repertoire of teaching. He enjoys running, hiking, singing, and welcoming Shabbat guests into his home with his wife, Nadya who has a PhD in Art History.
In July of 2018, Temple Sinai was pleased to welcome TWO rabbis: Rabbi Benjamin Zober and Rabbi Sara Zober, a husband and wife rabbinic team, along with their three children. In the rabbis’ own words: “As a couple, the Rabbis Zober live and work together, make goals together, and care for each other when they fall short. This is what communities at their best do for all of their members. The Rabbis’ hope is to help Temple Sinai nurture a Jewish community in touch with its values, a truly holy community united in its mission and vision for the future.” Temple Sinai looks forward to working many years with the Rabbis Zober.
While Temple Sinai’s Hebrew studies originally took place in Ethel Jaffe’s home, the temple’s first Religious School was located in the basement of the YMCA on Foster Drive. However, the facility, which was closed to the public on Sundays, was left unheated, and when winter came the classes were moved to the homes of the Zentners and Garfinkles. Ethel Jaffe continued to teach Hebrew, Ruth Dickens and Mary Garfinkle taught Jewish observance and practices, and “supplies” consisted of blank newspaper stock and a few spare writing instruments.
Religious School expanded when Temple Sinai moved to its new building in 1970. By then the congregation had grown, bringing in young families with children. With a larger student population, more teachers were added, classes were established by age group, and tuition allowed for books and materials. Martha Gould, then a recent transplant to Reno, was the first Religious School Administrator, followed by Eric Hobson, who was also a full-time teacher in the public schools. Since those early days, the congregation has had a series of dedicated educators who have served in administrative and classroom positions over the years.
It is now known as Sinai School, with Hebrew as part of every class. Rabbi Bair has sought to create a more experiential learning environment and introduced Family Shabbat Retreats and Whole Family Days into the Sinai School program.
The Reform Jewish summer camp program has been available to the youth of Temple Sinai, with campers originally attending Camp Swig in Saratoga, California. A newer facility, Camp Newman, located outside Santa Rosa, California has since replaced Camp Swig, serving Jewish youth well into their teens. Camp Newman has also become “the hub” for our Youth Group, SUNNY.
In 2000 a group of post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah created the Sinai’s United Northern Nevada Youth, SUNNY, to seek ways to continue their Jewish journey. The group has become affiliated with the California branches of the National Federation of Temple Youth, NFTY, and participates in regional as well as local activities.
Torah for Tots was first brought to Temple Sinai by Robin Fuhrman, a Religious School administrator, in 1990. When the Fuhrman’s left the community, the program was disbanded for more than a decade. Judy Schumer, the grandmother of two pre-schoolers, has revived and expanded the program. Today the group meets regularly to learn lessons of Jewish life and celebrate holidays with music, cooking classes and art projects.
Since the earliest days of Temple Sinai, the congregation has relied on the talents and time of its members to ensure that its Jewish mission has been well-served. Educational, social and religious programming have all benefitted from the vast resources within the temple community.
The members of Temple Sinai, the Men’s Club, and the Sisterhood have organized celebratory events, concerts and dinners, to bring together the Jewish Community and the wider community to raise funds for support of programs and activities.
Debbie Pomeranz, daughter of founders Louis and Ruth Dickens, remembers Congregational Picnics held at local parks that would include three-legged races, ball games and swimming.
Ethel Jaffe, whose husband, George, led his own dance band, recalls one musical revue held at the Masonic Hall where the men donned tutus and performed a ballet, which sent the audience into gales of laughter. The performance was a great success, and again, earned needed money for the building fund.
The Temple Sinai membership, in striving to fulfill our mission of Tikkun Olam, mending the world, has participated in numerous community-wide initiatives.
Family Promise, although closed now since December 2011, was a re-entry program for homeless families and was an annual commitment at our Temple. During the week of Christmas, when Temple Sinai became the home for these families, we provided food, shelter and supervision over the holiday. This project was held in concert with members of the local Musliem community, which also prepared food for the “guests”.
For years Temple Sinai has been involved with the Northern Nevada Food Bank, through the annual High Holiday Food Drive which literally has provided, literally, tons of non-perishable food to the Food Bank. Sisterhood has also volunteered at the warehouse on a regular basis. Rabbi Bair currently serves on the NNFB’s Board of Directors.
Each Thanksgiving Temple Sinai participates in the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service held at various meeting places throughout the city. The service is an outgrowth of the former National Conference of Christians and Jews, now known as the National Conference for Community Justice, which no longer has a chapter in Reno. When the organization was active, Temple Sinai played an instrumental part in the development of youth programming and was represented on their governing board.
Over the years the congregation has participated in any number of social service efforts, from marches for social justice and support for the Muslim community to refurbishing the Jewish Cemetery in Virginia City.
And today, Temple Sinai participates in a program to provide ongoing widespread social action opportunities for members of Temple Sinai through a new group called ACTIONN which is a local outreach of the national PICO organization.
To learn more about Social Action at Temple Sinai today, please click here.