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Leaders in the BHA Community

02/01/2022 04:28:19 PM


Anna Marcus with research by Ann Gross

A group of people are standing in a small kitchen area, they are all smiling and wearing paint splattered clothes. They are of different ages and heights. They look like they just had a good time getting very messy.

Repainting the kitchen at BHA, left to right: Ellen Gersh, Evelyn Pearson, Richard, Zelda, George Pearson, Richie, Laurel Becker, Kathleen, Eugene, and Michael, July 19, 1992, photo courtesy of Ellen Pearson Gersh


A good motto for the Beacon Hebrew Alliance is “The little synagogue that could.” From the get-go, it was understood that everyone had to pitch in for the shul to live and thrive. Ann Gross, a long-time BHA member who has been the de facto historian of BHA for decades, estimates that around 75% of all adult members have served on the BHA board or on the Sisterhood board at some point. Even today, with a full time staff of three, BHA is mostly run by volunteers, putting in hundreds of hours of their free time into creating and running programs, maintaining the facilities, providing security, fundraising, and managing its affairs. This is not unusual for a small to mid-sized house of worship, but nevertheless, it feels important to honor some of those individuals who have led the efforts to keep this place going for the past century.

A black and white photo of a man sitting for a formal portrait. He has dark short hair and a high forehead. He is wearing a white collared shirt with a silver tie and a dark suit jacket. His expression is serious with a slight hint of a smile.
Portrait of former BHA President David Alper, circa 1929, courtesy of Beacon Historical Society
A black and white photo of an older woman with gray hair parted down the middle and pulled back in a low bun. She has on round spectacles and a dark v-necked blouse with a string of white pearls around her neck. She is looking at the camera with a serious expression.
A portrait of the former President of the Beacon Hebrew Ladies Aid Society Mrs. Fannie Miller, 1934, photo by Ken Bloomer, courtesy of the Beacon Historical Society
A black and white photo of an elderly man standing, wearing a black tuxedo with a bow tie and a flower corsage. He has a bald head and heavy jowls. He is smiling slightly at the camera.
A portrait of former BHA President Dr. Simon Cahn from a dinner in his honor in 1978, Poughkeepsie Journal

Early Board Leadership

Being a Board President at BHA has always been a tough job, but this was particularly true in the early years during the 1920s when the main focus was getting the organization formed, acquiring land for the synagogue and cemetery, and constructing the building. David Alper was the Board President in the late 1920s, and it was under his leadership that the BHA we know today materialized. Of course, he had help. Every member at that time played a role in these endeavors, but his “right hand man” was the President of the Beacon Hebrew Ladies Aid Society, Mrs. Fannie Miller. 

Every bit as important as the BHA board, The Beacon Hebrew Ladies Aid Society wasn’t affiliated to BHA or any other religious institution, however to be a member, you had to be a Jewish woman married or widowed to a male member of the Beacon Hebrew Alliance. Their primary concern was doing tzedakah (charitable giving), and as such they raised funds to redistribute to the needy, which included the fledgling synagogue. Mrs. Miller was the president of the Beacon Hebrew Ladies Aid Society for 13 years, and was truly the heart and soul of the place. She was a trustee on BHA’s board, and worked with BHA board member Sidney Schuman to raise funds from the community for the building, and she also used her connections in the Beacon business community, where she was a prominent business owner, to secure more funds.

In a profile of former BHA President Dr. Lou Rogen by the Southern Dutchess News in 1981, Dr. Rogen recalls this intense time: “We had a fundraising party at St. Rocco’s … and Sam Affron was toastmaster for the fundraising group. We signed notes which the Matteawan Bank accepted without interest - it was good business during the Depression - and we pledged ourselves to pay them off.”


Leadership in the middle period

After the synagogue was built, the primary concern of the board of BHA was paying off the mortgages. Through diligent fundraising, and with the help of the Ladies Aid Society, they managed to pay off their debts, however they also had acquired additional buildings to house the Rabbis that needed to be maintained. At this point, in the mid-1940s, the Ladies Aid Society had changed their name to the Sisterhood of the Beacon Hebrew Alliance, and they were a well-oiled fundraising machine, holding card parties, fancy soirees, and businessman’s luncheons, the proceeds of which all went to charities and BHA.

In 1953, under the leadership of BHA President Dr. Simon Cahn and Sisterhood President Mrs. Lena (Danny) Epstein, the synagogue underwent a major renovation resulting in the current layout of the sanctuary and bima, as well as a total reconfiguration of the downstairs. In the late 1960s, the board moved to end a contract with its Rabbi, and the termination became a long, drawn out legal battle. As a result, both the board presidents and the rabbis changed quite frequently for a few years before settling down again in 1969. 

The 1970s seemed to be a period of stability for the synagogue, under the leadership of Board President Irving Roth. In the late 70s there was a gap in rabbis for several years, and different BHA members would take turns leading services, most notably Israel Lewittes who David Morganstern remembers as being so fluent in the Hebrew verses that the Saturday shabbat service would be over in record time; and Mr. Hyman Siegel, who was a learned scholar and helped many students prepare for their b-mitzvahs. The Sisterhood ran the Talmud Torah, or Sunday School with the younger children, and there were frequent pancake breakfasts that the men would cook and the children would help serve.

An old color snap shot of two older couples dressed up and at a fancy banquet. The couple on the left are standing, the man is wearing a gray suit jacket with a white shirt and red tie,  and the woman is wearing a light pink sleeveless dress with a high collar. The couple to the right, the woman is sitting at a table and has on a pink dress with a pink short sleeved cardigan, and the man standing behind her has on a black tuxedo.
BHA leaders at David Morgenstern’s Bar Mitzvah: Sam and Molly Rosenbloom and Dr. Frank and Sylvia Kirshen, June 29, 1968, photo courtesy of David Morgenstern


Surviving and Bouncing Back Again

In the 1980s, BHA shrank to its lowest numbers, and the future of the community was unclear. To save money, BHA sold some of the houses it owned, and changed from a full time rabbi to having student rabbis who only came on weekends. The organization was completely volunteer-run in this period, but those who remained were fiercely dedicated to the shul. Long-time member Sadie Jane Effron Cahn, the widow of Dr. Simon Cahn, kept meticulous care of the BHA cemetery. Then in 1983, Ann Wolfson became the first woman Board President of BHA. Ann was a former school teacher with an affable nature and the gift for gab. Under her caring, if disorganized, tenure from 1983-91, she managed to attract new, young families to the community, and slowly the organization came back to life. 

A color photo of a group of people, four women sitting, and one man and a woman standing behind them. They are at a table covered in sea foam green and white party boxes. The women sitting in front are all wearing dresses and range in age from 40s to 90s. The man in the back is wearing a black suit and red tie, the woman next to him is wearing a blue striped button down shirt. They are all smiling.
BHA leaders at Alyx Becker’s Bat Mitzvah, back row, left to right: Jeff Gross and former BHA Board President Ann Wolfson; front row sitting, left to right: Ann Gross, Sadie Jane Effron Cahn, Ethelyn Newsome, and Beth Bloom, November 1, 2005, photo courtesy of Laurel Becker


A board committee assembled by Ann Wolfson was responsible for hiring BHA’s first woman Rabbi, Carol Davidson in 1990, while she was a student at Jewish Theological Seminary. Carol served as BHA’s Rabbi for the next ten years, marking a new period of growth and stability. In a recent oral history interview, Carol recalls her first impressions of BHA: “I came up [from NYC], and I went to the shul and there was a little committee that was meeting me. Someone didn’t have a key, so they had to climb in a window … These were some of the old-timers who are no longer with us, like Ann Wolfson. She was very much a key part of the synagogue in those years … They were all very quirky, and I felt at home with them!”

A color photo outside with a group of children and adults looking at a man in a brown leather vest and white t-shirt. He has just performed a magic trick for them.
End of School Year Picnic at Rabbi Carol Davidson’s house in Newburgh, NY, Rabbi Davidson is on the right side wearing a blue shirt and sunglasses, June 7, 1998, photo courtesy of Ellen Pearson Gersh


In the 1990s the membership at BHA steadily grew from just 60 member families to 120 thanks to the vision of Rabbi Carol Davidson, and the hard work of BHA’s board. Board President Bruce Waxman (1991-95) was instrumental in bringing the Hebrew School back to BHA by hiring Beacon native Cantor Ellen Pearson Gersh to lead the program. He also helped oversee a major renovation of the building, along with Ann Wolfson who had another term as Board President from 1995-96. Other leaders in this time included Vickie Grillot who was instrumental in forming the Tot Program for young children at BHA, and George Pearson who helped out in any way he could, particularly by offering support to community members in need.


BHA Leadership in Recent Times

In the 2000s, the shul remained stable and continued to steadily grow. Still, there were always issues to work through: the roof sprung another leak, the sewer line needed to be replaced, cash flow was stalled, the parking lot hadn't been plowed. Each Board President has faced these challenges and some truly extraordinary ones like: increased anti-semitic activity prompting the need for a major security system overhaul in 2018-19 under President Deb Davidovits, and a deadly pandemic that curtailed any in-person indoor gatherings for almost two years in 2020-2022 under Presidents Rusty Stahl and Jesse Lunin-Pack.

A picture of a bronze plaque with a menorah and lettering on top and many names listed underneath.
A plaque commemorating the members of Beacon Hebrew Alliance and the Beacon Hebrew Ladies Aid Society who build BHA in 1929, photo courtesy of Ellen Pearson Gersh

It is our hope that by looking back at BHA’s history of dealing with challenges, we can feel hopeful that we will have the strength to withstand whatever lies ahead. In the ancient wisdom of the Jewish tradition, we start our holy days at sunset, just before the long night. We seem to know that new light can only be born out of darkness. So too it seems that our leaders have known that even in the darkest, hardest times, that is when we can find the spark that will bring new life to the community.

May we always be blessed by the memories of our past leaders, including those who were never recognized in any official way, and be guided by their example to nurture and sustain BHA for the next 100 years.


Do you have photos or other memorabilia that relate to BHA’s story? If so, please fill out this quick google form to let us know what you have. We will reach out to you to arrange to scan your photos or collect your artifacts. 

BHA’s Centennial programs are made possible, in part, with funding from the Sadie Jane Effron Cahn Beacon Hebrew Alliance Endowment of the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley.

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784