Wednesday, November 24, 2010

USA: 140-Year Old Berith Sholom in Troy, New York

USA: 140-Year Old Berith Sholom in Troy, New York
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Last weekend I had the pleasure to walk the streets of downtown Troy, New York for a few hours. The Hudson River city located just north of Albany is rich in 19th and early 20th century architecture, including two historic synagogues, the older of which is Congregation Berith Sholom (originally Baris Scholem), at 167 Third Street, founded in 1866 and built in 1870.

Troy, New York. Congregation Berith Sholom. Facade, 1870. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber, 2010.

The building, which has been attributed to Troy architect Marcus Cummings, is the oldest in standing synagogue building in New York State outside of New York City, and the oldest New York Synagogue continuously in use for the same congregation. The congregation was liberal from the beginning, and the Ark was built on the west side of the building lot, and there does not seem to have been a balcony. A more formal adoption of Reform ritual did not take place until 1890. The congregation joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1920. Around 1953 an addition was built to house the religious school. This year, on the occasion of the building's 140th anniversary the congregation launched an Anniversary Expansion Capital Project.

The synagogue is part of the Central Troy Historic District, one of the largest contiguous designated historic districts in the country. Judging from at least one historic photo, the restored facade looks much as it did more than a century ago. The appearance is what I'd call Gilded Age eclectic, but still mostly dependent on mid-century Romanesque and Italianate church forms and architectural details.

Troy, New York. Congregation Berith Sholom, interior.
Photo: Jim Richard Wilson from

The interior is much changed. The stained glass windows date from 1965, and the interior walls were probably once stenciled, perhaps they were painted white when the windows were installed.

The Moorish arch of the Ark links this building with contemporary Reform synagogues of the period. According to congregation lore and explained by Rabbi Debora Gordon it was apparently added some time after the construction of the synagogue and was dedicated to the memory of a young congregant and Harvard sculler (maybe a scholar, too) who died in a boating accident: "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 visit our cemetery, you will see on his grave marker a carving of a young man in a long, slim boat." I'm somewhat skeptical of the likening of the Ark to a boat - in photos it doesn't seem too different form some other Arks of the period - but I still have not been inside the synagogue, nor seen the cited inscription, so I reserve judgment until my next visit to Troy.

I wonder what this Ark would have looked like originally? Was it bare wood finished with a high shine? Or was it painted or gilded in rich colors and gold. I'll try to find out, and am happy to hear from any readers who know more about this venerable - but still vital - building.

Troy, New York. Congregation Berith Sholom, Facade with view of site where extension will be built. No side windows are on the northeast corner because an earlier building was there. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2010.

Troy, New York. Congregation Berith Sholom, rear of building showing abutting building. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2010.

No comments: