Our Story: Sinai History

Temple Sinai Construction Complete, 1970
Temple Sinai, 1970

“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.

    Stephen Jaffe, son of Ethel Jaffe, Temple Sinai Observes Chanukah Celebration - 1960's. Click to expand.
    Stephen Jaffe, son of Ethel Jaffe, Temple Sinai Observes Chanukah Celebration – 1960’s.

    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.

    Sammy Davis, Jr. and his son, Mark Davis.
    Sammy Davis, Jr. and his son, Mark Davis

    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.