Last Sunday, Beth Tephlilah Synagogue in Troy, NY hosted an open house during the city’s annual Victorian Stroll event. They served vegetarian matzoh ball soup and peach noodle kugel (my first!) before giving tours of their historic synagogue. For many years I lived and worked right near the synagogue, and was curious about the one building that remained, somewhat miraculously, in a sea of parking lots.
I was told the synagogue was an exact replica of one in Poland, although the details of how this came to be have since been forgotten. What remains, however, is the story of a man, newly-settled in Troy, who passed out upon first walking into the synagogue. When he went back the next day, he passed out again. Turns out the synagogue it was modeled after was the one from his home town. He, along with thousands of Jews, had fled Europe due to the anti-Jewish pogroms, leaving behind family members, familiar places, and dear sacred spaces.
Due to a problem with their furnace, and the small size of their community (around 50 people), services are generally held in a small basement synagogue. Visitors were told they could touch the Torah scrolls, sit on the perfectly-crafted benches, and linger as long as they desired without supervision. This was a welcome instruction, as its often unclear what one should or shouldn’t touch or do when in a sacred place.
The area surrounding the synagogue was the old Jewish neighborhood of Troy, which during its peak in the late 19th century was home to the highest population of Jews outside New York City. The streets were filled with busy kosher butchers and bakeries. Many of the Jewish families there were newly-settled refugees who escaped pogroms in the Russian Empire. I was told the synagogue was their sanctuary in many ways socially and spiritually. Whenever any threats arose it was the walls of the synagogue that many sought security within.
One noted threat was the neighboring Irish community, members of which repeatedly broke the synagogue’s windows. (Guests were reassured that not all the Irish were bad people, of course). Apparently the Jewish men retaliated and a skirmish ensued. Even though no more windows were broken after that, other anti-Semitic attacks and threats occurred. One particularly fearful event was when a Nazi rally was held at the since-closed Germania Hall only a few miles north.
If you’re interested in visiting the synagogue, they are hosting a Hanukkah party with “exotic latkes” on December 17 and everyone is welcome. There is also a reform congregation right around the corner you can visit, Berith Shalom–the oldest continuously used synagogue in New York, dating from 1868.