Ira Poliakoff said he was searching for a good project following his kidney transplant and retirement when he noticed that nobody had ever really assembled a comprehensive history of Long Island’s Jewish population.
So, he said, he sought to fix that by telling it through a different lens and writing a book: “Synagogues of Long Island.”
“What I hope they get out of reading the book is that they learn the history of their people on Long Island, that they learn their demographics change … and realize that things may change, even in Great Neck or the Five Towns,” Poliakoff, a former Long Island resident now residing in Pennsylvania, said.
“Synagogues of Long Island,” a 224-page book – the 72-year-old former businessman’s first – published by The History Press in December, features a trove of historical documents, photos and biographies of congregations – some being born as the early 1900s like Temple Beth-El of Great Neck in 1920.
“I came up with over 250 synagogues, counting the many that have disappeared, that have existed in the county,” Poliakoff said.
Among the more than 80 pictures and reproductions of historical documents were comparisons of Temple Beth-El of Patchogue’s 50th anniversary program and its 100th anniversary, as well as copies of the original charters of the island’s oldest synagogues.
There are also pictures of the recently developed Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian synagogues in Great Neck, Poliakoff said, with the populations having essentially “built their own synagogues from scratch.”
But when researching for the book, Poliakoff said the shifts in the Jewish population stood out to him in particular.
In 1939, for example, there were only about 30,000 Jews across Long Island, but after World War II, the number ballooned to 330,000. One could also look to present day Long Island’s Jewish population, which has decreased by 100,000 in the last 20 years but is growing in places like Great Neck and Port Washington.
“I think that the thing that surprised me the most is the tremendous shifts taking place of the Jewish population of Long Island,” Poliakoff said.
Ultimately, Poliakoff said, he hopes this is a book his granddaughter could read – especially since her questions about a synagogue turned condo building during a Philadelphia stroll helped spark his decision to write a history book.
“I think that I wrote the book so that she could read it,” Poliakoff said, “and she’ll know how to answer if she’s in the same situation 50 years from now, with her granddaughter down the street walking past a building like that.”
Poliakoff will visit Congregation Tifereth Israel of Greenport, Long Island’s second-oldest active synagogue, for a lecture on April 22 at 2 p.m. and the Oceanside Jewish Center at 7 p.m., where he served as a youth adviser over 50 years ago.
Poliakoff will also stop at Temple Adas Israel, Long Island’s longest serving synagogue, in Sag Harbor on May 7 at 7 p.m., and lecture at the Great Neck Library’s main building on May 9 at 7 p.m.
He said he is also working on two other books: one focuses on the synagogues of Philadelphia, while the other examines the history of Conservative Judaism.