by Samuel D. Gruber
In addition to the 1870 Reform Congregation Berith Sholom in Troy, New York, of which I have just written, I was intrigued by the architecture and urban survival of the Orthodox Congregation Beth Tephilah at 82 River Street, right on the southeast corner of Russel Sage College, where it has survived surrounded by parking lots. I have not been inside the building, I haven't found anything in my files, and I haven't yet researched this locally, but the application of a Classical portico on the facade of the otherwise very unclassical building intrigues me. From the outside it looks like an earlier block or two-tower facade has been modified to create a partly classical facade, or perhaps an entirely new facade has been grafted on to the main body of the building. All I've found online are the mention of two dates for the building - 1873 and 1909. Was the congregation founded in 1873? Does the main bulk of the building - which clearly has internal galleries for women - date this early (I don't think so)?
Was the design of the building changed during construction, or was the classical facade added to an earlier building in 1909 to give it a new look? I've just written an article that is coming out in the journal Jewish History in which I make the case that the revival in classicism - especially in making fully formed classical temples for Reform congregations - was part of the broad branding process of Reform Judaism in the period from about 1900 until World War I. After the war, Reform tends to move to new styles, while through the 1920s Conservative and Orthodox congregations more commonly employ classicism in their own way. If any part of Beth Tefilah is from 1909 I'll have to reconsider what is going on. Still, the situation is not unknown. On the Lower East in New York the tiny Stanton Street Shul, built in 1913, also employs classicism on its facade, though little else in the building suggests not the glories of the ancient world of Greece and Rome - but only Galicia, the land of Yiddishkeit.
There is another story that needs to be told here, too. Who fought to save this building when everything around it was torn down (in the 1970s?). How has a congregation managed to maintain it since then. Is really used, and how often? What is the future for Beth Tefilah? I can't wait to get inside this shul on my next visit to Troy...and lean more of this history of this congregation and building.