Introduction by Miriam Gabriel
Is winter really over? Did it ever arrive? The North Fork was blessed with an unusually benign winter season — six inches of snow, only one serious cold spell, and many days mild enough for outdoor activities. Yet, all of us still eagerly awaited the arrival of spring for all that it promises — color, light, fragrances, sounds of the outdoors, all welcome after an absence of many months.
At Tifereth Israel, the spring season is the beginning of another year of enjoying our beautiful Andrew Levin Park, a glorious array of trees, shrubs and flowers, all nurtured and tended by Sy Brittman. Sy has been the landscaper, pruner, planter, trimmer and overall maven for all that grows, blooms and flowers in the park.
It was not always so. A home once stood on the land that is now Andrew Levin Park. How that home and land evolved into a beautiful oasis of serenity and peace is a compelling story of Greenport and Tifereth Israel history, and of two local families and how they converged, all painstakingly researched by Sy Brittman.
From Hedges To Horticulture: The Story Of Andrew Levin Park by Sy Brittman
My wife Addy and I settled in Greenport in 1987. We had purchased property three years earlier, when we decided that one day we would build a house on the North Fork. At the time, I was working for Preston’s in Greenport, which was officially named S.T. Preston & Son Ship’s Chandlery. We thought it would be nice to live and raise a family in this quaint town.
Around the time we moved into our house, Addy became close friends with a woman named Ida Kaplan, the proprietor of a ladies dress shop on Front Street in Greenport. Ida Kaplan, never shy about promoting the local synagogue, knew we were Jewish and asked if we would be interested in becoming members of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a small shul on Fourth Street, built by the early Jewish families on the North Fork. We told her that, yes, we would like to become members.
It didn’t take long before both Addy and I became heavily involved in synagogue activities. Membership was small at that time, and everybody pitched in. From the start, Arthur Levine, befriended me — took me under his wing, so to speak. He showed me everything in the temple — made sure I understood all the moving parts. I think he sensed that the temple needed someone to take over maintenance, and I was his man. I learned a lot from him. At the time, I had no idea that the maintenance would turn into an obsession.
History of the Property
Now here is where the story gets interesting. On the property next to the temple was a two-story building known as the Hedges House, built by in 1876 by Frank Hedges, a brother of Samuel P. Hedges, who was born in 1846. Early on, the Hedges property had a horse barn on it and also a pond in the back. I hadn’t known about any of this until I did some research after finding a number of horseshoes while digging in the park.
As I discovered during my research, when the Hedges House was first erected, it was used as a so-called fish house, where fisherman stayed when they trawled in Southold and Peconic bays. Later, it became a place to house teachers while school was in session. And so it existed for many years as a rooming house for teachers in the winter, and a house for fisherman and railroad workers once the summer season arrived.
Years later, it went on to become the Baker J.M. Munsell house. Mr. Munsell was the husband of Edna Hedges, the daughter of Samuel and niece of Frank. The Munsells had two children, Harold and another son, who died young.
Harold Hedges lived in the house from the time he was born. He had a learning disability and, knowing that, the Hedges family asked the synagogue to look after him once they passed on. In exchange for Harold’s care, the family arranged to will the property to the synagogue after Harold’s death.
So, during the winter months, Harold slept inside the synagogue because his house did not have heat. For this kindness, Harold worked with me, doing odd jobs around the synagogue. At the same time, Linda Livni, a member of the shul’s Levine family, offered Harold a job at The Arcade, a large variety store the family owned on Front Street in Greenport. This job provided Harold with some spending money and a sense of independence. Eventually, Harold died, and the house passed to the synagogue. But it stood vacant for a year or two while the synagogue tried to figure out what to do with this windfall.
Windfall or Liability?
As time went on, the house increasingly became a liability for the congregation. Mischievous teenagers discovered the empty building and were starting fires inside. At that point, I knew the building needed to be taken down. Eventually, I received the okay to raze the Hedges House to relieve the temple of its liability problem.
Then, I started thinking about what the property could be used for. A park seemed appropriate, and I thought first to name it Hedges Park. But just at this time, a tragic accident occurred. Andrew Levin, son of Jack and Donna Levin, died in a car accident on the North Road. The Levin family, the synagogue membership, and the people of Greenport mourned the heartbreaking loss of this young man. Some time later, Andrew’s sister, Rachel, approached me about doing something in memory of Andrew’s life. The answer was clear. We could create a park on the Hedges property in memory of Andrew Levin.
The idea of a park in Andrew Levin’s memory fostered a powerful relationship between the temple and the Levin family. The Levins endowed the park, and many other people who knew the young man and his family contributed funds in Andrew’s memory. All of those original contributions and the continuing bequests of the Levins have allowed the park to flourish — to develop into a living tribute to Andrew Levin and a beautiful retreat to be enjoyed by the entire Fourth street neighborhood.
“…something so beautiful from such sadness”
Sometimes, when I’m working in the park, planting new shrubs and flowering bushes, I think about the Hedges family and how they provided for their son, Harold. And I think about how the Levin family continues to provide such a beautiful living memorial for their young son and brother and nephew. And sometimes I take the time to thank God for orchestrating something so beautiful from such sadness. Indeed, God truly does work in mysterious ways.