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Temple Beth El - 1st 100 years

Temple Beth El of Greater Buffalo was one of the synagogues that merged, in 2008, into Temple Beth Tzedek. The following was written for Temple Beth El's 100th anniversary, in 1947.

History of Temple Beth El: The First 100 Years

AN HISTORIC MEETING of twelve men took place in Buffalo's Western Hotel (then located on the corner of Pearl Street and the Terrace) on Sunday, May 9, 1847. The times were turbulent; war with Mexico had been underway for a year. In Washington, President James K. Polk directed the affairs of the nation. Buffalo, as the terminus of trade between the east and the expanding west, was a city in the grip of tumultuous growth.
Undismayed by the turmoil of the period, the twelve men who came together that spring morning in 1847 met to create the first Jewish congregation in Buffalo. Theirs was the self-assumed task of laying the foundations for a temple upon which succeeding generations could build strongly and well. Just twelve years before, L. H. Flersheim, impelled by the restlessness of a growing America, had wandered up the Erie Canal to become the first known Jew to settle in Buffalo. In the dozen years that had elapsed since that arrival, the Jewish population here had increased steadily.
The need for a religious institution to serve the community had been apparent for some time. Because of a determination to meet that need the group in the Western Hotel was summoned. Out of that meeting, a century ago, emerged Temple Beth El, oldest Jewish congregation in Buffalo and Western New York. The twelve men who were the tounders of the first congregation here were: Mark Moritz (first president), M. B. Katz, H. M. Eder, Joseph A. Hill, Isaac Myer, Solomon Philip, Jonas M. Gitzky, M. W. Noah, Elias J. Bernheimer, 1. Bernheimer, Samuel Altman, and Barnet Lichtenstein. Through the efforts of these men, sums of money ranging from five to one hundred dollars were pledged and the organization formally established. That epoch making meeting in May, 1847, is recorded on the first page of the Congregation's book of records. Minutes from that day on were painstakingly written and preserved throughout the past century.
One of the first actions of the new congregation was the appointment of a committee consisting of Messrs. Eder, Lichtenstein, and Bernheimer, to buy ground that could be consecrated as a Jewish cemetery. For this purpose $157.50 was subscribed and a five acre plot, bounded by Fillmore Avenue, Gibson, and Sycamore Streets, was purchased. Later the Rev. Isaac M. Slatsky was engaged as the congregation's first minister.
Within a year of the first meeting the by-laws and constitution of the new congregation had been drawn up. Based on the constitution of the Jewish Congregation in Baltimore, they were presented and adopted at a general meeting on April 23, 1848. Application was made to the State of New York for a charter which was granted. A few months later it was voted to call the new organization the Synagogue Beth El, House of God.
The new congregation began its religious activity in the home of Abraham Jacobs, who succeeded to the presidency in 1848. Mr. Jacobs' home was located on Beak Street. A year later, the Armory on Main and Eagle Streets was rented as a regular place of worship. The recorded minutes of September, 1848, indicate that an order for the printing of one hundred prayer books was authorized and that pews for the approaching High Holydays were sold at three dollars for men and one dollar for women.
Thus were accomplished the first steps in the creation of the Temple that has become an integral part of the history of the City of Buffalo. Later, other Jewish places of worship and learning were to spring up in the city. Their paths were blazed by the bold strokes of the early Jewish pioneers who kindled the sparks of growth on the anvil of their religion.

WITHIN TWO YEARS after the founding of the congregation it became apparent that a suitable building to house the synagogue was needed. Thus it was that the year 1849 opened on a note of further development. At the first meeting in January, Elias Bernheimer moved that a lot on the east side of Pearl Street, above Eagle Street, be purchased for $2000. To this proposal other members agreed and the remainder of 1849 was devoted to raising funds for the construction of the new synagogue. In this task the women of the congregation played an important part and entertainments held by them contributed considerable money to the building fund for remodeling the recently purchased school building.
The new synagogue building was dedicated on Friday, July 22, 1850, amid great rejoicing. The services, according to a newspaper of the time, "were witnessed by an audience consisting mainly of Gentiles." The Rev. S. M. Isaacs of New York City was the principal speaker. His dedicatory sermon was the first in English ever delivered in a Jewish house of worship in Buffalo. Here the congregation remained for twenty-three years with Mr. Moritz, the first president, again in the chair. The synagogue fund was enlarged by many local contributors and even Governor Hamilton Fish displayed his interest in the new congregation by giving a donation. As the year 1850 progressed the congregation was reinforced by several new members, among them S. Benet, E. and Nicholas Hyman, and Abraham Abrahams. Buffalo and Synagogue Beth El began the first steps of growth that were to continue for a century.
Four years after the opening of this synagogue building, an event in New Orleans had a profound effect on the local congregation. Judah Touro, famed philanthropist, died on January 13, 1854, and among his many bequests was a gift of $3,000 to Congregation Beth El. A deputation was sent to Newport, where Mr. Touro was buried, to attend the funeral. In appreciation of the gift, it was voted on April 14, 1854, to place marble slabs in the synagogue and have them inscribed "with suitable epitaphs both in Hebrew and English, descriptive of the life of the late Judah Touro." These white slabs are today located in the rear of the Temple sanctuary.
By 1855 the congregation which had begun with twelve members numbered well over sixty. Prominent new members included: M. Levy, Leopold Marcus, J. S. Aaron, Emanuel Levi, J. Alexander, N. Dutch, Henry Brock, and Isadore Heyman. In the latter part of 1855 and the beginning of 1856, A. Grunwald was president of the congregation. Nathan Boasberg, who served as secretary at the time, is still remembered through the artistically written documents and flourishing signature he left behind. By 1860 the congregation felt the need for a new scroll of law and decided upon a Chanukah Ball to raise money for that purpose. The affair was a success and the scroll was obtained. In April, 1862, Rabbi Israel Warensky was called to Buffalo from New York City and installed as spiritual leader of the congregation. He served for fourteen years, passing away at the age of seventy-three. During this period the rolls of Congregation Berh El carried the names of many men prominent in the affairs of Buffalo. Henry Hart, M. Nathan, Abraham Altman, and others joined the ranks of the synagogue.
The synagogue, located on Main Street was fronted by the American Hotel, which stood on the present site of the Adam, Meldrum, and Anderson Department store. In January of 1865, fire swept the hotel structure. Flame and smoke, rolling back across the intervening space, damaged the synagogue. This misfortune, and the difficulty the congregation experienced in collecting its insurance, set in action a movement to change location and build elsewhere. The hotel company made an offer of $8,000 for the Beth El property, but negotiations failed and it was not until 1874 that the move was actually accomplished. Records of this period show that, despite the determination to move elsewhere, the congregation devoted itself to improving and extending its functions.

AT A MEETING on October 3, 1865, it was decided to purchase some "spitting boxes," as cuspidors were called in those days. President B. Hyman and D. Silberberg, vice president, both of whom had served for a short time, were re-elected. At the same time it was also voted that Max Grodzinsky and his son should serve the congregation as Cantor and Torah readers, respectively, for the holidays, but without pay.
In April of 1867 it was reported that the Old Cemetery Place was "Iying waste, no fence, no gate is to be found and all the tombstones are Iying prostrate over the ground. Cattle and beast are entering at pleasure, walking on it, and in a shameful manner." It was proposed that a fence be ordered for the burying ground and that all tombstones be righted as soon as possible. Steps were taken to carry out these resolutions immediately.
By 1870 the development of the downtown area as a business district had surrounded the synagogue with commercial structures. Stone and brick walls on all sides cut off light and services were often disturbed by the noise of passing traffic. The movement to find a new location was revived and a committee was formed and empowered to spend $4000 to investigate the possibility of a new site. After much consideration, the Pearl Street site was sold to Dahlman, Geiershofer, and Spiegel. (Today, the S. S. Kresge Store at 388-390 Main Street stands on the site.) The building of the third Temple Beth El was accomplished under the leadership of Rev. Philip Bernstein, who served the congregation until 1878. He migrated from Berlin, Germany, and the records indicate that he was an excellent linguist and talented musician. Working with him were about thirty-five heads of families, representing most of the congregation. A site was finally selected on 15 Elm Street between Eagle and North Division Streets. The firm of Porter and Watkins was commissioned as architects. J. B. Kurtzwurth and Sons were the masons.
At four o'clock in the afternoon of August 15, 1874, ceremonies dedicating the third temple began. Orthodox and reformed societies cooperated. Joseph Mischka was at the organ. The Buffalo Express of that date described the opening ceremonies as follows: The members of the congregation, headed by their board of trustees, the building committee, the bearers of the scrolls, architect, and builder, moved in procession from the vestry door to the main entrance. The Rev. Philip Bernstein gave three raps. Asking admittance in the words of the Psalms, 'Open to me the gates of righteousness,' to which Rabbi Samson Falk of Temple Beth Zion replied, 'These are the gates of the Lord etc.' Beth Zion's choir sang the traditional hymns. The dedicatory sermon was delivered by the Rabbi of Temple Beth Zion.
Once installed in their new temple the congregarion settled back to less spectacular but equally important affairs. In 1876 Abram Brown became president, Joseph Saperston, vice president, and H. Brown treasurer. In January of 1879 it was decided that tuition in the religious school should be eighteen dollars annually for one child, thirty dollars for two, and forty dollars for three children.
A policy of the congregation in those days appeared to be to rotate the presidency. Thus Jacob H. Cohen, a popular worker of the congregation, held the presidency many times from 1882 to 1906.
It was during this period approaching the twentieth century that a very radical step was taken, namely men and women of the congregation sat together at the Sabbath services. (A statistic of interest is recorded in about 1875 which relates to occupational distribution. The Jewish community had one banker, one carpenter, one shoemaker, one editor, two farmers, three butchers, twelve candle dealers, seventeen cigar makers, twenty-four clothiers, and dozens of tailors. This obviously did not exhaust the number of Jews in the community nor their occupations.)

AS TEMPLE BETH EL neared its first half century of existence many of the founders and early members began to disappear from the active Temple rolls, their places taken by younger but equally devoted and ambitious men. The Fiftieth Anniversary in 1847 was observed in a most impressive manner by the Jewish and general community. Mayor Jewett of Ruffalo was present at the anniversary banquet. William J. Conners, publisher of the Buffalo Courier, delivered greetings. Amongst those of the congregation who participated in the festivities were: Rabbi D. Wittenberg, Rev. H. Myers, Jacob H. Cohen, president, and Joseph Saperston, vice-president.
At the dawn of the twentieth century two dynamic personalities who exerted a strong influence on the course of future developments became associated with the Temple. One was the Rev. Martin Nathan who was the spiritual leader, and the other was Charles Polakoff, whose energy and devotion are unequaled in the history of the development of the institution. Rabbi Nathan was a man of great learning and spiritual worth. Charles Polakoff became a trustee in 1903 and three years later was elected to the presidency. He was in offfice no more than two weeks when plans for a more suitable synagogue to be located on the west side of the city were under discussion.
(An interesting story as to how the Richmond Avenue site was chosen may be recalled by some members of this Congregation today. Since most of the congregants lived in the east part of Buffalo, and the site for the new sanctuary was to be chosen in the west side, it was essential that the new location be within reasonable walking distance. A committee of stalwart members undertook to walk from the east side to the west side. After walking along at a leisurely pace for about 40 minutes, the committee paused. The area in which they stopped became the site for Temple Beth El's Richmond Avenue location. )
A few years elapsed before the congregation was able to proceed with the architectural plans and building construction. On May 2, 1909, it was voted to proceed with the new building. The Elm Street synagogue and site were sold to Alling, Cory and Company for $8,500.00. By July 25 our present site on Richmond Avenue was purchased. The building committee comprised Rabbi Jacob Landau, Charles Polakoff, Jacob L. Davis, William Richbart, Marcus Barmon, Frank L. Cohen, Isaac Given, Bernard L. Cohen, Abraham Bienemann, Pincus Cohen, and Joseph Coplon. Henry Osgood Holland was chosen as the architect.
The Beth El Women's Society came into being in 1909, the charter members numbering twenty-five women. Two of them are currently on the membership roster: Mrs. Jennie Krohn, and Mrs. David Ruslander. Mrs. Alexander Bohne, the first president of the society served with great distinction. She surrounded herself with able and devoted workers and through the media of bazaars, fairs, musicals, and dances, money was raised and used toward the building and operation funds. The first five hundred dollars toward the purchase of the Richmond Avenue site was contributed by the Women's Society.

ON MAY 1, 1910, the congregation vacated the old Elm Street synagogue. At 3 P.M., July 24, 1910, the cornerstone for the new structure was laid by Joseph Saperston. Beneath clear skies and a warm sun, several hundred people, including many city officials, watched the placing in the cornerstone of a metal box containing newspapers, documents, and two silver quarters which belonged to the Temple's treasurer, unable to attend the ceremony because of illness. Principal speakers at the ceremony were Rabbi Harry C. Harris of New York City, Rabbi Pizer W. Jacobs of Jacksonville, Florida, and Rabbi Marvin Nathan of Philadelphia.
In the fall of the following year the Temple was dedicated. On September 10, 1911, a procession of eleven members and officers of the Temple marched down the center aisle to the ark where the Scrolls of the Torah were deposited. The perpetual light over the doors of the ark was lighted by Frank L. Cohen and a golden key was presented to Jacob L. Davis, chairman of the dedication committee, by Miss Helen Barmon. After hymns were sung by the choir, Rabbi Israel Aaron mounted the pulpit and delivered the principal address. The Rev. Jacob Henry Landau, Temple Beth El's rabbi, Sol Ginsburg, president of the Buffalo Federation of Jewish Charities, Herman Wile, president of Temple Beth Zion, and Abraham Harris also participated in these ceremonies. A few days later, during the Rosh Hashonah services, the front doors and stairs of the $100,000 structure were still not completed. Worshippers were forced to cross a plank and enter the synagogue through a rear door.
Rabbi Landau left Buffalo for New Mexico in January, 1913, and was succeeded by Rabbi Max Drob. In May, 1915, the fifth anniversary of the breaking of ground for the Temple was celebrated with Dr. Solomon Schechter, renowned Hebrew scholar and Master of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, as guest speaker. Rabbi Drob also spoke. Then Marcus Barmon, whose grandfather, still alive at ninety-eight had been one of the founders of the congregation, delivered an address. During the six years of Rabbi Drob's tenure the membership of the congregation increased from sixty-eight to two hundred and fifty and the Temple's financial condition was placed on a sound basis. In June, 1919, Rabbi Drob was called to a pulpit in New York City. He was succeeded by Rabbi Menahem M. Eichler.
During the first years of World War I, Beth El's Boy Scout Troop No. 106 was organized. The movement grew rapidly under the leadership of Harold Greenstein, the first scoutmaster, and was officially registered in April 1916. The members of the original troop committee were Rabbi Max Drob, Joseph Coplon, Jacob L. Davis, and L. S. Given. Troop 106 achieved national recognition during that war when it was the first troop in the country to go over the top in the war stamp drive. The troop members and committee assumed a leading role in the establishment of Camp Emanuel Josef at Scout Haven, the first kosher camp in this area. Everett Barlow was the first scout of the troop to achieve the Eagle scout award. The following were scoutmasters during the early formative years: Bernie Lewis, Joe Harris, Lewis Bender, Duke Slohm, Isadore Morrison, and Sam Wallach. Some years later Cub Pack 106 was organized. Both groups continue to flourish and play important roles in congregational activities.
By 1917 the Women's Society had increased to nearly one hundred and fifty members. During the first World War, while many young men in the congregation served in the nation's armed forces, the women of the congregation aided the first struggle against German tyranny by rolling bandages and engaging in other Red Cross work.

TWO MEMORIAL TABLETS were presented to the Temple by Mr. Polakoff in the spring of 1923. They were placed on the two front corners of the Temple proper. Through this gift a means of memorializing the names of the deceased was provided for the congregation. Five new trustees, Sol Jacobson, Charles Dautch, Wolf Pincus, Morris Steinhorn, Morris Slotkin, and Joseph Stulberg, were elected in April, 1923. During the Holy Days of that year a committee of ushers to maintain decorum in the Temple was formed for the first time. Sol Jacobson served as first chief usher and was aided by Alfred M. Freedman, Barneth Satuloff, Max Stovroff, and Irving M. Rosenblatt. For several years after the initial committee was formed, Harold Greenstein was chief usher, a position now held by Leonard J. Simms.
In the period following the first World War the Men's Society of Beth El developed into an organization of almost two hundred members. A program of regular meetings was initiated, outstanding speakers were invited to address the group, and a plan of general activity was formulated.
For many years a devoted worker in the congregation was Max Grossman. He served as vice president for about 20 years and is remembered for his pioneering work in the Bar Mitzvah Brotherhood, Daily Minyan, and chairmanship of the building committee.
Perhaps the most notable achievement during this period was the planning and construction of the most beautiful chapel and cemetery in western New York. In 1924 the cemetery building committee comprised of Charles Polakoff, David H. Coplon, Joe Coplon, and Max Grossman went into action. A beautiful site in the Pine Hill section was chosen and architectural plans were drawn up by Louis Greenstein. On September l2, 1926, the chapel and cemetery were dedicated in an appropriate ceremony by Rabbi Menahem Eichler, Rabbi Nissen Markel, Cantor Bernard Schachtel and Charles Polakoff.
In celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of his presidency a dinner was tendered by the congregation to Mr. and Mrs. Polakoff in May 1926. At the dinner Mr. Polakoff presented to the Temple the Golden Book of Records, made in the Roycroft shops at an expense exceeding one thousand dollars. The book required more than a year to make and is considered one of the finest specimens of bookmaking in the country. It is kept in a glass case in front of the altar, in the Temple proper.
In the midst of his great work, Rabbi Eichler passed away on May 27, 1927. Mourned by the entire community and by prominent Jewish leaders throughout the nation, his loss brought to a halt plans for the celebration of the congregation's eightieth anniversary. The Holy Day services that year were conducted by Rabbi Israel Efros, Dean of the Baltimore Hebrew College and a world-renowned scholar. Appointed on May 1, 1928, Dr. Efros was formally installed as Rabbi at a banquet on January 27, 1929. Attending the affair were Saul Tschernichowsky, one of the greatest of contemporary Hebrew poets, and Solomon Goldman, one of America's outstanding rabbis. Charles Dautch was toastmaster.
During this period the Young Men's Club was the medium of great activity. Plays and musical shows made up of amateur and professional personnel were presented and enthusiastically received by the community. This group headed by such men as Marvin Pincus, Bertram Krohn, and Herman Kahn began an educational program for the installation and playing of an organ in the Temple. They introduced the idea in 1922 but not until five years later did the Board of Directors approve it. Within three years the proposal was passed by the congregation and the organ was played for the first time at a worship service in the spring of 1930.
The position of Chairman of the Board was created in 1929 upon the motion of Morris Altman. In April of the next year Mr. Polakoff stepped down from the chair which he had retained for so many years with vigor and dignity and Jacob Morrison became president. Mr. Polakoff was unanimously elected President Emeritus and Joseph Markel was chosen Chairman of the Board. Other officers were: Barneth Satuloff, first vice-president; Moses Wallens, second vice-president; Philip Setel, treasurer; and Bertram J. Krohn, secretary. In 1931, the beginning of an unprecedented decade of expansion and development for Temple Beth El, Mr. Polakoff again took an active part in the affairs of the congregation. Dr. Efros left the service of the Temple in 1934, his place being taken by Rabbi Reuben J. Magil, who remained until 1939. In that year he was called away and the present rabbi, H. Elihu Rickel, was named to the pulpit.

IN 1940, after forty years of service to the Temple, Mr. Polakoff passed away. Already saddened by this loss, the congregation mourned again four years later, when Bertram Krohn, secretary for twenty-two years died. Two years later Zachariah Gross, one of the most beloved servants of the Congregation passed away at the age of eighty. His ministry, which extended over 35 years, embraced practically every segment of congregational activity.
As it had in the four previous wars which enveloped the nation during its history, Temple Beth El answered the country's call during the critical years of World War II. One hundred and twenty-five young men entered the armed services and five gave their lives to achieve victory. They are: Lt. Milton I. Fineberg, Pfc. Edward Kasnachey, Lt. Albert Konikoff, Lt. Joseph Pugash, and Pfc. Jack Siegel. Rabbi Rickel volunteered as a chaplain and served in the Marine corps with distinction during the Iwo Jima campaign and with the occupation forces in China. He returned to Beth El in 1946 after three years of service. During part of this period Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat served with great zeal and efficiency. At home the entire congregation participated in War Bond drives, scrap collections, and countless other War activities. The Sisterhood once again gave great service through Red Cross work.
The Temple Centre was improved and expanded in 1944. The entire lower level of the building was rebuilt to include an enlarged auditorium, better kitchen facilities, a recreation room, and additional classrooms. This expansion was made possible in part through the bequest of the late Abraham Samuels, the new auditorium being named in his memory.
During World War II the mortgage indebtedness of the Temple began to be decreased by a determined committee comprised of Marvin Pincus, Morris Goldstein, Harold Greenstein, Arthur M. Levine, Sidney Siegel, Harry Kahn, and Harry Grossman. The Centennial celebration was climaxed at a dinner in Hotel Statler on May 18, 1947, at which time the mortgage was burned. The ceremony was presided over by Marvin Pincus, president of Temple Beth El.
Today, Temple Beth El is served by a number of people without whose loyalty and diligent endeavor much would not have been accomplished. Since 1928, Miss Julia Hanneman has been executive-secretary of the Temple. She has been the very essence of selfless and untiring devotion in the administration of congregational progress. In 1931, Harry Hart Kaufman became associated with the Temple and for the past 16 years has served the congregation faithfully both as cantor and director of the Religious School. For the past thirty years the choir director of Beth El has been Samuel Luskin. His contributions in talent and energy have enriched the educational and musical life of the Temple and the community at large. For over twelve years, Mrs. Marion Tindell has served as organist with efficiency and distinction. On the eve of the Centennial period, headed by General Chairman Samuel C. Markel, two men became associated with Temple Beth El activities. They are Rabbi Harry J. Brevis as principal of the Religious School, and Marvin H. Garfinkel as Executive Director.
Thus, through five wars in the nation's history, through periods of expansion, panic, and depression, Temple Beth El has grown from a group of twelve men rneeting on a Sunday afternoon in a hotel room to its present position as a bulwark of Conservative Judaism in America. Confident in its future and in the future of the nation, Temple Beth El moves into its second century. CENTENNIAL MOTTO: 'And He sowed in the land and gained a hundredfold." GENESIS 26

Rabbi Rickel in "Through the Years":
WE STAND on the threshold of a new century. Some of the memorable events of the past one hundred years have been dramatically unfolded before us this evening. The past needs to be recalled in order to better understand the present and plan the unmarked pathways of the future. Yes, there is a future, though threatened by the atomic bomb poised like the sword of Damocles over the heads of all living creatures. The days to come, like the days passed, will contain joys and sorrows, growth and decay, progress and retrogression. The extent of the true, the good, and the beautiful in our lives will be in the hands of men and nations.
That challenge and responsibility have been in man's power from days of old. From the lofty heights of Sinai, when Israel lay huddled around the mountain waiting to receive the laws of humanity, came these true and fateful words . "I call Heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the good or the evil. Therefore, choose the good that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed."
As Americans and as proud descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Isaiah, Amos, Hillel, Akiba, Sadia, Maimonides, Achad Haam, and Herzl, we face the years to come with Faith; dauntless and sure. Through four thousand years our people have survived the longest nights and the darkest hours. Like a reed in the storm, we have been brought low but we have never been broken or destroyed. Our indomitable Faith in God and Man has endowed us with the will to live and carry on.
We, the favorite children of Divine Providence, embark on the second century of our community life with the strength and Faith of our Fathers. In the sojourn into the Unknown may we raise amongst us men and women with straight backs and raised heads, with strong minds and stout hearts. May we, our children, and our children's children always be devoted and loyal to Judaism. May we always be found amongst those who advance the upward strivings and dreams of free men which will lead towards the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth."
Spoken by Rabbi Rickel in the Finale of "Through the Years" centennial dramatic production.
Sun, May 19 2024 11 Iyyar 5784