Memories from a Synagogue

    February 2012          
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Congregation Beth Jacob in Cohoes, New York

By Miriam Newell Biskin

The earliest minutes of Congregation Beth Jacob dated March 3, 1895 list Mr. Raphael Allen as Chairman, Mr. Rosenblatt as Treasurer and Mr. Goldstein as Secretary, with dues of $3/per annum plus $5 for cemetery care .At the time, there were about 50 orthodox families in membership, ready to support a shul. The Cohoes City Directory lists several who were probably members of the group: Herman Kahn, fancy goods, 131 Remsen ; Harris Goldstone, peddler, 17 Strong Place; Abram Rosenblatt, clothing, 81, Oneida; Morris Rosenblatt, bookkeeper, 108 Remsen; Ellis Rosenblatt , peddler, 37 Lancaster; Abraham Newell, laborer, 123 Lancaster; David and Morris Rudnick, peddlers, Dyke Ave, corner of Euclid; Jacob Weiss,peddler, 10 Dyke Ave,: A.Plotke,clothing, 172 Remsen; August Abraham, shoes, 120 Remsen; Emanuel Jacob, Louis, Sarah, dry goods, 111 Remsen; Jacob Blum, jeweler; David Rosenthal, shoddy manufacturer, Mohawk St. ; Jacob Bunavitsky, umbrella maker; Abe Marcus, dry goods, Willow Street, among others.

The first Jewish settlers had migrated to the United States over 100 years ago, and many came to Cohoes , NY in the late 1800's with the great influx from 1900 to 1924. The dry goods peddlers became store owners, the junk peddlers became scrap food dealers and their children were becoming doctors, lawyers, dentists, etc. The first Jew admitted to Albany law school was Henry Kahn who later became a judge. The business section ran from one end of Remsen Street to another and housed Goldberg Tailor and Furrier, Weinstein Furriers, Deitcher's Tailor Shop, The Army-Navy Store, Mr. R's 10 percent store, Amithe electric Company, Newell's Tire and Electric Store and on Mohawk Street was Cramer's Army and Navy store and Weiss's news room. Frank and Eli Newell had junk businesses on Saratoga Street while their mother, Mary Newell had a junk business on Dyke Ave. with sons, John and Charles and daughter Kate.Also listed in the Junk business were the Berkmans, the Tolkins, the Architzels, the Kelmans with the Carrs, the Rosenblooms ,the Cutlers in the meat business and the Weiss family in groceries.

At first , the congregation met in rented spaces, like Larkin Hall at the corner of Mohawk and Oneida and then at a home at 76 Newark Street, until finally the building at 194 Remsen Street was purchased on November 25, 1913 and converted from a home into a synagogue.The first floor became the sanctuary with rows of dark mahoghany benches, requisitioned from a nearby Catholic church filling the room. Carpentry work done by Crandall Lumber of Saratoga included some cosmetic recarving on the benches, necessary to provide more suitable religious symbols.

At the front of the sanctuary was the Ark (the Aron Kodesh), the cabinet holding the holy scrolls, the word 'ark' coming from the initials of the Hebrew word. This cabinet doors as well as an inner curtain could be closed or opened by at various points in the service by members who could customarily bid ( pledge financial contribution )for this honor. Slightly above the ark was the neir tamid, the Eternal Light, commanded to be kept burning. Above that was a plaque dedicated to my paternal grandparents, Mary and Peter Newell (anglicized from Maite and Peyse)

In the center, there was the podium, (the bimah) where the leader could stand to conduct services. Since the shul was Orthodox , the ladies were seated in the back section, separated from the men by a curtain (a mechitzah), removing any distractions from the praying gentlemen. This gold damask separation, hung on a horizontal rod, complete with gold rings was constructed by Mrs. Bessie (Eli) Newell. In the Orthodox shul in Troy , there was an upstairs balcony for the women while in the Conservative and Reform Temples in Troy and Albany , there was no such separation.

According to Jewish law, religious services are conducted twice daily, morning and evening and may be conducted only if there is a quorum (minyan) of ten adult males present, a male including boys who has reached their 13th birthdays (bar mitzvah.)

As a child, sitting with my mother, I would peek through the curtains, and watch the shawl covered backs of the men, my father among them, swaying as they prayed. In those days, the men wore hats since yarmulkas were not yet the fashion. On Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), I read the English side of the prayer book which lists the sins for repentance, and if I asked the definition of some infraction not in my vocabulary, I was hushed by my mother as she continued to (doven ) pray. The service was long, and I dozed as the congregation asked forgiveness for all past, present and future sins. In that same Yom Kippur prayerbook, there is a beautiful prayer invoking twenty-two blessings for the new year: twenty-two requests ; the same as the numbers in the the Hebrew alphabet,. one blessing for each letter of the alef-beit, in order.

May The New Year Be For Each Of You:
a year of Awesome Accomplishment
of Boundless Blessing
of Constructive Creativity
of Daily Delight
of Effervescent Energy
of Fantastic Friendships
of Great Gladness
of Hearty Health
of Insight and Inspiration
of Jewish Joy
of Kindness and Caring
of Many Mitzvot
of Noteworthy New Horizons
of Outstanding Offspring
of Plenty and of Prosperity
of Quality and Quantity
of Real Redemption
of Super Success
of Total Tranquility
of Ultimate Unity among nations
of Verifiable Vision
of a time without Wars
of Exhilarating Experiences
of Youthful Exuberance
of Zest and Zeal for you, your friends and your family.

In 1968, Beth Jacob synagogue merged with Beth Tephilah synagogue in Troy , with the four Torah scrolls transferred to a new spiritual home. The building which housed the shul on Remsen Street in Cohoes is now a private residence with only a few neighbors who remember its existence. The stained glass transom window over the entrance which featured a star of David and the plaque dedicated to my grandparents have disappeared. At the last meetings of the Sisterhood Executive Board, a majority of a few, Clara Siegal, Edith Ringer, and Libby Waldman forwarded all remaining funds directly to Golda Meir.


from the Febuary 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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