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...

  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – Rabbi Gordon Tucker spent the first 20 years of his career teaching at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the next 20 years as the rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y. I confess that when I heard about the order of those events, I thought that Tucker’s move from academia to the pulpit was strange. Firstly, I could not imagine anyone filling the place of my friend, Arnold Turetsky, who was such a talented [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    JNS.org – I’m in love, and have been for a long time. It’s a relationship filled with laughter, tears, intrigue, and surprise. It was love at first sight, back when I was a little girl—with an extra-terrestrial that longed to go home. From then on, that love has never wavered, and isn’t reserved for one, but for oh so many—Ferris Bueller, Annie Hall, Tootsie, Harry and Sally, Marty McFly, Atticus Finch, Danny Zuko, Yentl, that little dog Toto, Mrs. Doubtfire, [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    At the turn of the 21st century through today, American involvement in Middle Eastern politics runs through the Central Intelligence Agency. In America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, historian Hugh Wilford shows this has always been the case. Wilford methodically traces the lives and work of the agency’s three most prominent officers in the Middle East: Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was the grandson of president Theodore Roosevelt, and the first head of [...]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Residents of the Los Angeles Jewish Home give dating advice to a young Jewish man in a comedic video posted Monday on YouTube just in time for Valentine’s Day. Jonathan, an associate at the Jewish home, quizzes the senior citizens on an array of topics including having sex on the first date, kissing a girl, who should pay for dinner and whether online dating is a good idea. When the 28-year-old asks a male resident named Lee about his experiences [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Anyone who spent time in the Jewish Catskills hotels – especially those like me, who returned for decades – must see the new documentary,”Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort.” Not only will the film transport you back to the glory days of your youth and thousands of memories, but it will also make you long for a world that is now lost forever. I returned to Kutsher’s one last time in the summer of 2009, but by then, the [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Jewish Identity Lifestyle Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    JNS.org – Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences. The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also [...]

    Read more →
  • Commentary Featured Features Jewish 100 The Top 100 People Positively Influencing Jewish Life, 2014

    The Top 100 People Positively Influencing Jewish Life, 2014

    The Top 100 People Positively Influencing Jewish Life, 2014 ACADEMIA Alain Finkielkraut Moshe Halbertal Deborah Lipstadt Jacob Metzer Steven Pinker Tammi Rossman-Benjamin ARTS AND CULTURE Yaacov Agam David Blatt Leonard Cohen Gal Gadot Scarlett Johansson Ryan Kavanaugh Steven Spielberg Harry Styles INNOVATION AND ACTIVISM Meira Aboulafia Adina Bar-Shalom Nitsana Darshan-Leitner Daniel Gold Anett Haskia Ephrat Levy-Lahad Gabriel Nadaf Dumisani Washington GOVERNMENT Tony Abbott José María Aznar Ron Dermer Yuli Edelstein Abdul Fatah el-Sisi Stephen Harper Goodluck Jonathan Mitch McConnell Narendra Modi [...]

    Read more →
  • Features Jewish 100 Jewish 100, 2014: Bassam Eid – Voices

    Jewish 100, 2014: Bassam Eid – Voices

    Bassam Eid Palestinian human rights activist While Palestinians who demonize Israel as the sole reason for their woes receive no shortage of media invitations, those among them who spotlight their own leaders’ iniquities are far less in demand. Even so, the profile of Bassam Eid, the Director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, is thankfully continuing to grow. Eid’s latest campaign is for the overhaul of UNRWA, the UN refugee agency dedicated solely to the Palestinians, which he says [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.