In a three-hour ceremony marked by community celebration, joyous music and traditional Jewish rituals, the new Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center was consecrated Saturday morning in Vineyard Haven.
The consecration of the new center, built in the past year, attracted an audience of more than 200 Vineyarders, mostly congregation members, but also people of other faiths who came to honor both the building and the growing Island Jewish community.
Rabbi Joshua Plaut, noting the diverse Island audience in his remarks, called the new Hebrew Center the “culmination of a vision” in the Vineyard Jewish community and said its primary use should be for education.
“We must transform this building into a citadel of Jewish learning,” he said.
Throughout Rabbi Plaut’s remarks, he recognized older members of the Hebrew Center congregation, a community which expanded greatly since the first Jewish settler, Samuel Cronig, arrived in 1905. Among the speakers on Saturday morning was Samuel’s son, Carlyle Cronig, who recalled having to attend Hebrew classes in New Bedford because a proper facility was unavailable on the Island.
The consecration service also evolved into a mini-tribute for current Hebrew Center president Arthur Wortzel, who is largely credited with making the Mark Hutker-designed, 7,200-square-foot building a reality. Several speakers praised Mr. Wortzel for his diplomacy skills in planning the structure; at one point the entire audience rose to its feet to give the president and his wife, Clarice, a standing ovation.
Mr. Wortzel, who seemed caught off guard by the warmth of the ovation, said he hopes the new center becomes “a place that is holy, welcoming and open” to the entire Island community.
The consecration ceremony included a recitation of the ten commandments by Rabbi Plaut and a traditional Shabbat morning service which included Hebrew passages read by several congregation members. A teenaged member, Jessie Gerson-Nieder, delivered a well-written speech on the history of synagogues.
While several portions of the ceremony were solemn, many moments were quite humorous and even exuberant.
One such moment was the Torah procession, in which sacred Hebrew scrolls were delivered to the new center’s ark. Led by clarinetist Benyamin Lichtenstein, Rabbi Plaut and Mr. Wortzel entered the main sanctuary room and quickly recruited a line of audience members who danced up and down the aisles for several minutes.
History played a prominent part as well. The first remarks of the morning were made by Rabbi Rayfield Helman, who in 1986 became the first full-time rabbi to lead the Vineyard congregation. “The Jews of Martha’s Vineyard have again proven that where there are Jews, there will be a synagogue,” he said.
At several points, Rabbi Plaut and other speakers acknowledged the kindness of the larger Island religious community. In the past year, several churches, notably the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, have lent their space to the Jewish congregation. Several church leaders were in the audience Saturday morning, including te Rev. Alden Besse, who represented the Island Clergy Association.
“It is awesome that a Gentile like me could be invited to speak at this high holy ceremony,” Mr. Besse said.
But the new center itself was the true star of the celebration. The centerpiece of the building is its spacious main sanctuary. On Saturday morning, the room was bathed in a warm sunlight that also gave a colorful glow to a painted stained-glass window designed by Island artist and congregation member Barney Zeitz. Other handmade items were prominently displayed, including a purple velvet curtain made by Michle RattŽ and benches carved by woodworker John Thayer.
The new Hebrew Center replaces the Greek Revival, two-story house that served the congregation for more than 45 years. The house has been moved to an adjoining site behind the new center, and will be converted into a private family home.
Mr. Wortzel and others will host a community open house at the new center on the afternoon of Sunday, April 7. Another open house is scheduled for July 7.

Editorial: Pillar of the Community

The dedication of the new Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven is a proud milestone for the Jewish community of Martha’s Vineyard and, indeed, for the Island community at large. The joyous dedication last Saturday was a solemn ceremony, complete with placing the congregation’s Torahs in the sacred ark, but it also was a celebration of a new building and a vibrant congregation.
The old Hebrew Center was dedicated in 1940, and the congregation long has discussed the need for expanded facilities. Under the leadership of current president Arthur Wortzel, those discussions have been transformed from wish to reality in a magnificent new structure that now is one of the Island’s most striking centers of spiritual life. Architect Mark Hutker has provided a building that is both characteristic of Vineyard architecture and a welcoming home for the congregation.
The Island’s first Jewish settler, Samuel Cronig, did not arrive until 1905, and the first Jewish family, Judel and Eunice Brickman and their three children, came in 1913. The first Hebrew Center was organized by only six families in the 1930s. There are now more than four hundred members of the congregation, and they can all take great satisfaction in the achievement that culminated with the dedication by Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut.
The formal community open house will be held by the Hebrew Center July 7, when summer visitors can attend, but last Saturday’s ceremonies embodied the words from the constitution of the original synagogue charter in 1940: “The Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center is dedicated to promote the civic, educational, charitable, benevolent, spiritual and physical welfare of the Jewish people of Martha’s Vineyard and to foster and develop the highest ideals of American citizenship.” Those ideals are more alive than ever in the new building.