Wednesday, July 22, 2009

USA: Tupper Lake's Beth Joseph Synagogue Recalls Jewish Peddler Life in New York's Adirondacks

USA: Tupper Lake's Beth Joseph Synagogue Recalls Jewish Peddler Life in New York's Adirondacks
by Samuel D. Gruber

All photographs by Samuel D. Gruber

Ten days ago my son and I headed up to the Adirondacks for some mountain climbing – and I returned with the sore muscles, blisters and black fly bites to prove I backpacked into wilderness and ascended one of the 46 Adirondack High peaks. I had hoped to do more, the three peaks of the Seward Range, but after getting to the summit of Mount Donaldson it was enough for me.

Why am I writing this on my Jewish monuments blog? Well, because the Seward Range rises between two loci of historic Jewish activity, and it may be surprising for some to find there, in the midst of the great Adirondack State Park (bigger than some states and some countries), representative sites of the two poles of American Jewish life a century ago. A short distance to the northwest is the village of Tupper Lake, once a thriving lumber town, and place where in the late 19th century about 35 Orthodox Jewish peddler families from Eastern Europe settled down, eventually opened stores, and in 1905 built their synagogue – the now restored Beth Joseph.

To the East is Saranac Lake, site of the great summer camps of several of New York's most prominent German-Jewish families – the Seligmans, Kahns, Lewisohns and others. One of the first of these was Fish Rock (later known as Sekon), established by Isaac (Ike) Seligman. You can read more about Sekon here. The camp lifestyle was written about in the August 1904 issue of
New Era Illustrated Magazine that you can read here.

Though the two groups of Jews hardly interacted – the Orthodox Jews did sell supplies to their Reform brethren, and when it came time to build Beth Joseph, many of the New York elite donated to the cause.

I include here a brief description of Beth Joseph and some photos.

Click images for caption and larger view.

Beth Joseph is one of small group of intact rural and small town synagogues built by Eastern European Orthodox congregations at the turn of the 20th century. There were once many more such structures, but besides Beth Joseph, only a few – such as B’nai Abraham in Brenham, Texas and Tifereth Israel Synagogue in Alliance, New Jersey remain dedicated as synagogues, with their original furnishings intact.

Beth Joseph is a two and one-half story, three-bay by five-bay, vernacular style wood frame building, covered with clapboards. Its most distinguishing features are tall square corner tower-like pilasters and a pair of square pilasters flanking the entrance that divide the façade into three bays. The central entrance bay terminates in a pediment, and is marked with a sundial style decoration over the entrance, above which is the Hebrew inscription “This is the gate of the Lord. The righteous shall enter it.” The letters were originally wood, painted gold. Last week these were replaced by metal letters of the same color. Higher up the central bay is a round stained glass window and still further up a small rectangular plaque with the Hebrew date corresponding to 1881, the date when the synagogue founders arrived in Tupper Lake.

[Added to blog 11/25/2011. According a note sent to me by synagogue historian Mark Gordon, "the first two Hebrew characters reading right to left were incorrectly applied during the rehab. - Thanks for the correction, Mark!]

Inside, one passes through a vestibule area with stair to the right leading to a women’s balcony, set above the vestibule. In the vestibule and in the women’s gallery are now exhibitions related to the community’s history. The pine paneled sanctuary has three sections of six Gothic-style wooden pews reputedly originally from a Catholic church. At the far end is a free-standing raised bimah, immediately beyond which is the Ark. To the right are more pews set perpendicular to the other rows, and which face the bimah. The bimah may originally have been place in a more central location. The sanctuary is well lit with large round arched windows. Only a round window above the Ark, and the round window of the façade, is of stained glass.

Like many small town American synagogues, Beth Joseph fell upon hard times, especially following World War II. The doors were closed n the 1950s, and the synagogue sat remembered but hardly used, and then only for non-Jewish purpose. A few members of the founding families still resided in the area, and many more maintained connections to their roots, but there were not enough people for a congregation, and no money to maintain the building. This was the situation when the building was rediscovered by Sharon Berzok in the 1980s. Sharon and her Jewish husband Robert researched the history of the structure, and led a campaign to have the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Then, in 1988 just before their success, Sharon was killed in a car accident in California. Her death traumatized the community, but also galvanized it to continue her work, and over the next few years the Beth Joseph Historical Preservation Society raised funds and restored the building. At first they only conceived of it being a museum of sorts - n could believe that it would serve for religious use, too. But quickly , as the building's restoration became known, Jews appeared. Some had been in the region for years, others were seasonal visitors, but over time a new congregation - now affiliated with the Reform movement - coalesced. Today, Beth Joseph has a rabbi (Rita Leonard) and regular Shabbat and holiday services. There is a small but active group of local congregants who also keep the building open for visitors in the summer, and a more distant Board of Directors, many in New York City, who help with funding.

The rediscovery, restoration and revival of Beth Joseph has not been without setbacks and conflicts over a period of two decades. But overall, the project has done well. As the oldest standing building in Tupper Lake it has great appeal to the entire town, and it has proven an inspiration and a community magnet for local Jews. The projects has mostly followed appropriate historic preservation methods and has gathered the support (and grants) from many local and regional history and preservation organizations. The tenacity of its volunteers in getting the project down, and the variety of the ways they achieved their goals provide lessons to smaller congregation in the Untied States and also worldwide.

Tupper Lake's Beth Joseph is well worth a visit - even if you are not there to climb a mountain.

For more information or to make donations contact Janet Chapman, President, Friends of Beth Joseph Synagogue, P.O. Box 625, Tupper Lake, NY 12986-9703. The synagogue is open to visitors in July and August from Tuesday to Friday, 11 am to 3 pm.

1 comment:

Cristina Diaz said...

Very nice - my family and I happened to be driving thru Tupper Lake last weekend and it (finding Beth Joseph Synagogue) was like finding a gem. We are Hindu, our best friends are Jewish (a retired Cantor and his wife). Thank you for posting this