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New York State’s oldest building in continuous use as a synagogue.
The oldest building in continuous use as a synagogue in New York State is not in New York City where there is one of the world’s largest Jewish populations. Surprisingly, it is in Troy, New York, a modestly sized city on the banks of the Hudson River more than a hundred sixty miles north of the huge metropolis. Just one year after the end of the Civil War, in 1866, the Jewish residents of Troy met to incorporate themselves as the “Religious Society and Congregation of Baris Scholem in the City of Troy.” At some point the name was changed to Congregation Berith Sholom.
The new congregation was liberal from the beginning. This tendency is expressed in the basic plan of the building which places the Ark on the west wall. This is contrary to the traditional practice of placing the Ark on the east wall so that the congregation, while in prayer, faces Jerusalem. Other liberal practices included the seating of men and women together, a mixed choir and an organ was played. Reform ritual was adopted around 1890, and in 1920, during its fiftieth anniversary year, the congregation joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
The synagogue is located within the Central Troy Historic District, one of the largest contiguous designated historic districts in the country. The excellently preserved exterior looks much as it did when the building was first built over 140 years ago. While it has an eclectic, early-Victorian appearance it incorporates many Romanesque and Italianate church forms and architectural details. The interior has been changed over the years with modifications such as electric lighting, modern heating and air conditioning and on the congregation’s one hundredth anniversary in 1965 elaborate stained glass windows replaced the older windows. Each of the windows images celebrate a particular event in Jewish history.
The elaborately carved Ark, designed in the shape of a boat, was donated after the building was completed. It is in memory of a young man (Emanuel Mount) who died in a boating accident on the nearby Hudson River. His name and initials are among the carvings on the Ark. The Moorish arch of the Ark relates to the neo-Byzantine architectural style that was popular for many synagogues at that time.
The building, designed by Troy architect Marcus Cummings, is the oldest synagogue building that exists in New York State outside of New York City, as well as being the oldest in continuous use as a synagogue. To this day the congregation continues to be vital and active with programming for children as well as adults and a fine choir.