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.
Paul Foer (JNS.org)