Congregation Berith Sholom at 140

NOTE: This is a slightly expanded version of the Times-Union “Voices of Faith” column I wrote for Saturday, November 4, 2006. The limit there is 700 words = one column. No limit here except your patience!

It was 1866. Photo of Berith Sholom's exterior by Jim Richard WilsonThe Civil War was just over, the Transcontinental Railroad was being built, and the Troy Female Seminary (later renamed Emma Willard School) was 45 years old. The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall had not yet been built. And early that year, “all male persons of full age” were gathered together “in their rooms in the Wotkyns’ Block…for the purpose of incorporating themselves as the religious Society and Congregation of Baris Scholem.” While the source of that quotation is lost, the members of Troy’s Congregation Berith Sholom (“Covenant of Peace”) have been passing it on by copying and re-copying it into pamphlets and handouts for decades. 140 years later, Congregation Berith Sholom remains a small but vibrant part of Troy, firmly planted in its original location and adapting to new times.

Our building at Third and Division Streets was built in the summer of 1870, giving it the distinction of being the oldest synagogue building in continuous use in New York State. It’s a little gem that repeatedly surprises long-time residents of the Capital District with itsPhoto of Berith Sholom exterior by Jim Richard Wilson beauty. I love going upstairs when the sanctuary is dark to see the gas flame of the ner tamid, the Eternal Light that symbolizes God’s presence, flickering softly in front of the tall, white and gold Ark that houses the Torah scrolls.

The Ark was donated and dedicated a decade or two after the building was built. A young man of the community died in a boating accident on the Hudson River, and his family donated the Ark as a memorial to him. Behind the ner tamid, where you would ordinarily expect to find words about God or holiness, script letters almost too fancy to read spell out “In memory of Emanuel B. Mount.” The Ark was designed to look like the scull in which he was rowing when he drowned. If you Photo of Berith Sholom's Ark by Jim Richard Wilsonvisit our cemetery, you will see on his grave marker a carving of a young man in a long, slim boat. It’s very moving.

In earlier days, Troy’s Jewish community was an automatic stop for politicians on the campaign trail. For more than 65 years we held an Election Eve Dinner, and we could count on the Mayor, members of the city and county legislatures, and some of our state and national assemblypersons stopping in for pot roast and pea soup. Now the Jewish population of Troy has dwindled and we are a congregation of choice, rather than a neighborhood synagogue. Our 180 member households come from 5 counties, drawn by our long-time focus on tikkun olam (“world-repair”), our amazing music program, and the opportunity to learn and celebrate, grow and connect in a Jewish context. Their willingness to brave Troy’s one-way streets also helps!

Our music program has grown from nothing to splendid in the past decade under the leadership of Cantorial Associate Leslie Boyer. For our anniversary service on November 3, the Choir began with compositions by Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894) and concluded with music by contemporary American Jewish composers. Our German-Jewish founders would have been very comfortable with the Lewandowski, but I often reflect that they would approve neither of our level of informality nor of the renaissance of ritual and Hebrew that I’ve nurtured. But I’m sure they’re proud that some of their great-great-grandchildren are still members, as dedicated in our day as their ancestors were in theirs.

This year we celebrate not only our 140th year but also my 10th year as Rabbi, Leslie Boyer’s 10th year as Cantorial Associate, and incidentally the 25th year that the rabbi of this congregation has been a woman. Our gala dinner was Sunday night, and on Sunday morning we enjoyed a great family concert given by cantor and composer Jeff Klepper, who just happens to be the son of our president, Ruth Klepper.

Like Judaism itself, we have evolved to meet the needs of the present. As that much-passed-on blurb says, “From its inception, the congregation exhibited its liberal tendencies. Men and women were seated together, the choir was mixed, and an organ was played. Reform ritual was adopted around 1890, and in 1920, during its fiftieth anniversary year, the congregation joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.” New in our generation is the thoughtful inclusion of intermarried couples and their families, gay and lesbian Jews and their families, and a multi-ethnic rainbow, particularly among our children. But our connections with the past remain. When my grandfather, Rabbi Theodore Gordon z”l, walked into the Social Hall on the night that he was to preside at my installation, he looked at the portrait of Rabbi Guttman, beloved former leader of this congregation, and said, “Oh! Julius! We went to school together.” (Rabbi Guttman retired in 1974, but it is clearly still his shoes that I am filling. )

No story of our congregation would be complete without mention of Dotty Jacobson, who founded and ran our Social Action Committee for 20 years. (Not to mention being our first woman President.) Meals for Joseph’s House, adopt-a-family at Christmas (and more recently for Chanukah too), the AIDS Care Team, distributing matzah to Jewish nursing home residents at Passover, organizing families to volunteer at the Food Pantry –the venues change, but for a generation she has helped us take the words of our prayers and turn them into actions that make a difference in the world. In this tradition, Albany Pro Musica will be presenting a special concert here in March, with proceeds to benefit Darfur relief through American Jewish World Service.

Dotty is also our wordsmith, and she helped us craft our Mission statement a few years ago: “Congregation Berith Sholom is a progressive, Reform congregation rooted in a long, proud history. We are above all a caring community, warm, open, and diverse. We welcome traditional and non-traditional families to pursue joyous worship, lifelong learning, and a strong Jewish education, including the study of the Hebrew language. We support the State of Israel and the spirit of Reform Judaism, encouraging members of all ages to work actively within our congregation and in the wider community to help improve the world.” May we go from strength to strength!