Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

New York State’s Oldest Continually Occupied Synagogue Not in the City You’d Expect

November 14, 2012 12:09 am 1 comment

Congregation Berith Sholom of Troy, NY, the Empire State's oldest continually occupied synagogue. Photo: Paul Foer.

TROY, NY—The city of Troy, NY (population 50,129), is just a few miles upriver from the state capital of Albany and is known as the birthplace of Sam Wilson, a meatpacker on whom the iconic image of “Uncle Sam” is based, as well as home of the prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

Troy (surprisingly not New York City) is also home to the oldest building in continuous use as a synagogue in New York, and that’s quite a superlative considering that New York has for some time been home to the most Jews of any U.S. state.

However, you might not recognize the Reform Temple known as Berith Sholom when approaching it from the outside on the quiet corner of Third and Division Street. You’ll see a red brick building with steps leading up to large double wooden doors topped by stained glass windows. There is a small black sign with white lettering. It could be an old church but it soon becomes evident that this is not a church at all, but an old and still very active synagogue.

The building dates back to 1870, and in some respects this house of worship reflects changes in the Jewish community from that time. In 1866, just one year after the Civil War ended, residents of Troy met to incorporate themselves as the “Religious Society and Congregation of Baris Shalom in the City of Troy.” Previously they had met to conduct services and burials, but in June 1870 the cornerstone was laid, and the synagogue opened for services for the High Holidays a few months later. It joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union of Reform Judaism, in 1920. Today, the congregation’s 160 or so member families come from as far away as Saratoga and the Massachusetts/Vermont border.

Samuel Rezneck, professor of history at RPI, wrote that the first Jew to settle in Troy was Barnet Levy, a tailor, in 1837. Emanuel Marks and others followed him in 1842, and there were perhaps 30 Jewish families by 1864, when Troy’s population was thought to be around 40,000. The commandant of the military arsenal across the river at the start of the Civil War was a Jew named Major Alfred Mordecai.

According to its website, Berith Sholom was liberal from its inception, allowing men and women to sit together and sing together in the choir, which was accompanied by an organ. At a public event in 1869, the temple’s Rev A.N. Coleman described “the Israelites” as falling into “two classes, the strictly orthodox or rabbinical and the progressists. The Berith Sholom synagogue belongs, I am happy to say, to the progressist class.”

Whether one calls the congregation liberal, reform, assimilationist or progressive, the architecture of the 142-year-old building has a number of unusual features. Its ark is reminiscent of a boat, designed to memorialize a congregant and college student who had drowned in a boating accident on the nearby Hudson River soon after the synagogue was built. The ner tamid, or eternal light, remains fueled by gas rather than electricity. The synagogue’s stained glass windows with images of the prophets were completed in 1965.

Two women serve as co-presidents, the incoming co-presidents are both women, and the synagogue has a 30-year history of female rabbis that includes its current religious leader, Rabbi Debora Gordon. Gordon, known by many as RebDeb is an openly identified lesbian who lives on a producing farm with her partner and four adopted children. She joined Berith Sholom in 1997 as her first pulpit after rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion. The 49-year-old rabbi expressed her hope that Berith Sholom would be her first and last pulpit.

The synagogue holds an average of nine bar or bat mitzvahs a year, for both youth and adults. A soloist is hired to play the organ for the High Holidays, and Rabbi Gordon also sings and plays guitar. The synagogue holds Hebrew and Sunday school as well as conversion classes, and it is starting daytime Torah study.

While there are older congregations nearby in Albany, they have moved from their original locations. “I really have the benefit of longevity, stability…I think that with any organization that’s been around a long time, some of the kinks have been worked out,” said Gordon.

“There is a real affection for the building. We have one extended family whose children celebrated bar and bat mitzvahs with me. They are cousins and the fifth generation in this building. There is a sense of both ownership and responsibility,” said the rabbi, adding that “other people as they come here sort of absorb it.”

A few years ago, a long-range planning process asked the congregation if its members should look for a different location. “Even with no parking lot and little nearby parking, there was an almost unanimous sentiment that this is where we belonged,” Gordon said.

Gordon’s farm is a 13-minute drive away in Brunswick, just to the east of Troy, where her goats produce milk and cheese and chickens produce eggs. In the morning, the rabbi raises her flock of animals, as well as her four children between ages 7 and 14, who were adopted through foster care. In the afternoons and evening, she tends to her flock at Berith Sholom.

Of all the things going on, one that most excited Gordon is her congregation’s involvement with the annual “Victorian Stroll,” a December holiday tradition that attracts 20,000 to downtown for festivities. Berith Sholom opens its doors for a choir performance drawing between 75 and 125 people.

Although the “Stroll” appears to be very much a Christmas as well as shopping event on the surface, the participation of the synagogue, which is a bit off the beaten path, cements the congregation’s longstanding position as an important member of the greater community.

1 Comment

  • Congregation Talmud Torah Adereth El was established in 1857. It has the distinction of being New York’s oldest synagogue in its original location with continuous services. Founded four years before the Civil War, the history of Adereth El is intertwined with that of New York City.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Jewish former CNN host Larry King asked a Saudi Arabian fan if taking pictures with Jews is allowed in his country, before agreeing to pose for a photo with the man, The New York Times reported on Wednesday. The world-famous interviewer was leaving the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. with a New York Times reporter when a “dark-skinned man” approached and asked to take a picture with him, according to the publication. Whereupon, King asked the fan where he was from. When the man said Saudi […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    British-Jewish business tycoon Lord Alan Sugar joked on Wednesday that London synagogues will likely be empty during Yom Kippur with congregants fleeing to watch the match-up of two leading English soccer teams known for having hordes of Jewish fans. “Spurs V Arsenal cup game drawn on most important Jewish festival,” Lord Sugar pointed out on Twitter. “Both teams have loads of Jewish fans. Conclusion Synagogues will be empty.” North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal FC will go head-to-head in the Capital One Cup third-round […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Two Jewish men were the only unwitting participants in a social experiment conducted by Jimmy Kimmel, for his popular TV show. As part of a candid-camera-like sketch featured Monday night on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the host devised different street scenes to observe human behavior — in particular, to see how long it would take people walking down California’s bustling Hollywood Boulevard to notice and interact with others in distress. One scene involved a man in a Spongebob Squarepants costume who had “fallen down” on the sidewalk and needed help […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    A major Jewish organization rebuked actress Natalie Portman on Monday for saying in a recent interview that Jews put too much emphasis on teaching about the Holocaust relative to other genocides. The Israeli-born movie star told the U.K.’s Independent that the Jewish community needs to examine how much focus it puts on Holocaust education over other issues. She said she was shocked when she learned that a genocide was taking place in Rwanda while she was in school learning only about the horrors of the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    JNS.org – A new book that draws parallels between the Holocaust and the Palestinian Nakba (the Arabic term for the displacement of Palestinian refugees during Israel’s War of Independence) has sparked outrage ahead of an official book launch, to be hosted by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute on Sept. 7. The Zionist organization Im Tirtzu wrote a letter to the institute demanding that it cancel an event it planned in honor of the book’s authors, under the title The Holocaust and […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Famed actress Natalie Portman warned on Friday against the use of Holocaust education to evoke fear and paranoia. In an interview with the U.K. Independent she added that the trauma should make Jews more empathetic to others who have also experienced hatred. “Sometimes it can be subverted to fearmongering and like ‘Another Holocaust is going to happen,’” the Israeli-American star said. “We need to, of course, be aware that hatred exists, antisemitism exists against all sorts of people, not in the same way. I […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    The Tribalist, by Louis Marano, is ostensibly a work of fiction but at its core a kind of love song by a gentile journalist for the State of Israel, and especially its secular Zionist core. (Because of the relentless attacks by left-wing polemicists on Israel’s allegedly “messianic” fringe, it’s often forgotten that most of Israel’s founders and all its leaders have been secular Zionists.) The author, the product of an Italian-American family in Buffalo, served two tours of duty in […]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    JNS.org – Rugelach (singular: rugala) are a beloved traditional Jewish pastry, with a quirky history to boot, but they often present a kosher conundrum. Though parve rugelach are often a preferred dessert after a meat meal for those observing kosher laws (which stipulate a waiting period between eating meat and dairy), some of today’s most popular rugelach are known for their dairy fillings. Pastry chef Paula Shoyer—author of the books “The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy” and […]

    Read more →