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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Book Reviews Can ‘Islamic Reformation’ Work? (REVIEW)

    Can ‘Islamic Reformation’ Work? (REVIEW)

    It is cocktail hour on an April afternoon in 2004. The sun is hot on Amsterdam’s canals, and I am sitting at Café den Leeuw on the Herengracht with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Hirsi Ali is still a member of the Dutch Parliament, and we talk about Islam. Specifically, we talk about the concept of “moderate Islam,” or what she calls “liberal Islam.” And she has one word for it. “It’s absurd,” she says. “It’s complete nonsense. There is no ‘liberal […]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity A Look at the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (REVIEW)

    A Look at the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (REVIEW)

    Everybody knows that cooking varies from country to country. There are Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants, etc. We associate different styles of cuisine with different languages. Do we also think of the association of different cuisines with different dialects? We should, because cooking also varies from region to region. Litvaks and Galitsyaners have their own traditions of preparing gefilte fish. Marvin I. Herzog, in his book The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland: Its Geography and History (Indiana University, Bloomington, and Mouton & Co., The […]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Analysis: Jewish Women Less Likely Than Catholics to Take Husband’s Name

    Analysis: Jewish Women Less Likely Than Catholics to Take Husband’s Name

    An analysis of New York Times wedding announcements showed that women married in Jewish ceremonies were less likely to take their husband’s last names than those married in Roman Catholic ceremonies, the Times reported on Saturday. The largest gap between the two groups was in 1995 when 66 percent of Catholic women took their husband’s names and 33 percent of Jewish women did the same. Nearly half of the women featured in the publication’s wedding pages since 1985 took their husband’s name after marriage, while about […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Jerry Lewis, Legendary Jewish Comic and Humanitarian, Stays Relevant at 89

    Jerry Lewis, Legendary Jewish Comic and Humanitarian, Stays Relevant at 89

    JNS.org – Through appreciation of both his comedy and humanitarian work, legendary Jewish entertainer Jerry Lewis is staying relevant at age 89. The only comic to ever be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Lewis added another award to his trophy case in April, when he received the 2015 Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Gordon Smith, NAB’s president and CEO, said the organization was “honored to recognize not only [Lewis’s] comedic innovation, but also his remarkable […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Israeli Gymnasts Win Bronze, Silver Medals at 2015 European Games in Baku

    Israeli Gymnasts Win Bronze, Silver Medals at 2015 European Games in Baku

    Israeli athletes marked a successful day on Sunday, as gymnasts won multiple bronze and silver medals in the 2015 European Games in Baku. The Gymnastics team won two silver medals and one bronze in group events, while Neta Rivkin, an Israeli Olympic gymnast, won bronze for the Solo Hoops event. Sunday’s gymnastics wins follow Sergey Richter’s bronze on June 16 for the Men’s 10 meter air-rifle, and Ilana Kratysh’s silver for women’s freestyle wrestling. The 2015 European Games in Baku are […]

    Read more →
  • Theater Report Highlights Success of Russian-Jewish-American Ballroom Dancers

    Report Highlights Success of Russian-Jewish-American Ballroom Dancers

    Russian-American Jews are some of the most successful ballroom dancing competitors in the U.S., South Dakota Public Broadcasting (SDPB) Radio reported on Thursday. Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, said their success can be traced back to Jewish discrimination in the former Soviet Union. Because of the prejudice they faced, Russian Jews had to perform better than their peers in every field, including dancing, in order to have a chance of getting ahead. “They knew that if they […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Dancer With Shofar, Prayer Shawl Wows ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Judges (VIDEO)

    Israeli Dancer With Shofar, Prayer Shawl Wows ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Judges (VIDEO)

    An Israeli dancer made use of Jewish props in an extraordinary routine that left judges amazed when he auditioned for season 12 of TV dance competition So You Think You Can Dance on Monday. At first, the panel of judges appeared confused when Asaf Goren, 23, began his audition in Los Angeles with a tallit (prayer shawl) over his head and the blowing of a shofar, which he explained “opens the sky” for people’s prayers. However, as soon as he started his “Hebrew breaking” performance, […]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Jewish Hoops Fairytale Falls Short as David Blatt’s Cavaliers Drop Game 6

    Jewish Hoops Fairytale Falls Short as David Blatt’s Cavaliers Drop Game 6

    JNS.org – A fairytale ending to Jewish basketball coach David Blatt’s first season in the National Basketball Association (NBA) was not meant to be, as the Blatt-led Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night dropped Game 6 of the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors, 105-97, to lose the best-of-seven series 4-2. Blatt, who just last year coached Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv franchise to a European basketball championship, failed to finish a second straight hoops season on top. But after the Cavaliers began the NBA […]

    Read more →