ALBANY, capital of the state of New York, 150 miles north of New York City; population, 95,000 (2004); estimated Jewish
population, 12,000–13,000 with half living in suburbs but members of Albany congregations. Public records indicate the presence of Jews as early as 1658. Asser Levy owned property, obtained burgher's rights, and lived in Albany in the 1650s. Other early Jewish merchants and traders who resided in Albany included Jacob Lucena, Hayman Levy, Jonas Phillips, Asher Levy, Levi Solomons and Levi Solomons (II). The second Solomons, who lived with his family in Albany in the early 19th century, started a chocolate and snuff business and belonged to New York's Shearith Israel.
A Jewish community emerged in the 1830s as immigrants from Bavaria and Posen arrived in Albany. German-speaking Jews organized Congregation Beth El in 1838. By 1841, the congregation had bought a burial ground and purchased its first synagogue building. Divisions over language and ritual led to the founding of Beth El Jacob in 1841 by Jews of Polish origin. After acquiring property for a synagogue and separate burial grounds, the congregation built a new synagogue in 1847. Prominent Gentiles including Mayor William Parmalee attended the dedication of Beth El Jacob on April 28, 1848.
Isaac Mayer *Wise
arrived in the United States from Bohemia and became Albany's first rabbi when he took over leadership of Beth El in 1846. He was the teacher at the congregation's Hebrew school, then one of only four in the United States. Wise's advocacy of changes in ritual split the congregation with the famous confrontation at the Rosh Ha-Shanah service on September 7, 1850. Synagogue officers prevented him from taking out the Torah scrolls, a fight ensued, and Wise and members of the congregation were arrested. By October 11, 1850, Wise and 77 supporters had organized Anshe Emeth, the fourth Reform congregation in the United States. Members of all three congregations were poor and worked as peddlers, tinsmiths, tailors, or middlemen. About 800 Jews lived in Albany in 1860.
By the 1880s, the arrival of Jews from the Russian Empire expanded the Jewish population to 3,000. Further immigration of Russian- and Polish-speaking Jews increased the community to 4,000 in 1900 and 10,000 in the 1920s. Assimilation and Americanization led to the merger of Beth El and Anshe Emeth in 1885 to form Beth Emeth, the only Reform congregation in Albany. Rabbi Wise returned to Albany in 1889 to dedicate the synagogue for the combined congregation. Recent immigrants, while Orthodox, did not feel comfortable in Beth El Jacob and formed a separate congregation, Sons of Abraham, in 1882. In 1902 another group of Russian Jews split off and established the United Brethren Society, as a separate congregation that followed a ḥasidic prayer book, and the congregation incorporated in 1905.
From the 1830s to about 1950, the South End, especially the area around South Pearl Street, remained a Jewish neighborhood with kosher meat markets, restaurants, Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, and communal institutions. As Albany expanded in the early 1900s Jewish residents moved "up the hill" and started new congregations in the Pine Hills and Delaware neighborhoods. Ohav Shalom, the first Conservative congregation, began in 1911, and purchased property for a synagogue in 1922. Another group of Jews in Pine Hills began to meet at Schwartz's Mansion and became Tifereth Israel in 1936. Sons of Israel, a third Conservative congregation, began in the 1930s, and constructed a synagogue in 1935.
The passing of the immigrant generation, Americanization, and suburbanization led to a relocation and reorganization of the synagogues. The Orthodox synagogues merged with the United Brethren Society, joining Beth El Jacob in 1959, and Beth El Jacob merged with Sons of Abraham in 1974 to form Beth Abraham-Jacob. The combined congregation dedicated a new synagogue in 1991. A small group of Orthodox Jews sought to create an informal religious community, and established a shtibl, a small house of prayer, Shomray Torah, in 1965. Reform Congregation Beth Emeth built a new synagogue in 1957. A split within the congregation created a new Reform congregation, Bnai Sholom, in 1971, and the new congregation dedicated its own synagogue in 1979. Two Conservative congregations merged in 1949 as Tifereth Israel, and Sons of Israel joined to build a new synagogue, dedicated as Temple Israel in 1956, which was led for a generation by Rabbi Herman Kieval and produced rabbis and scholars. A Hebrew-speaking day camp, Camp Givah, was perhaps the only one in the United States at the time. Ohav Shalom remained separate and dedicated a new building in 1964. Starting in November 1991 Jews seeking an informal and egalitarian community created the Havurah Minyan of the Capital District, following Conservative ritual. In 1995, Ohav Shalom voted to become equalitarian in worship and ritual life. While the Jewish community increasingly resides in the suburbs, synagogues and the Albany Jewish Community Center remain in the city. This led ḥasidic Jews to establish Chabad houses in Albany, Delmar, Guilderland, and, in December 2004, in Colonie.
Jewish residents organized social, fraternal, mutual aid, and self-defense institutions. In 1843 the Society for Brotherly Love became the first mutual aid and burial society. Congregations started burial societies and in 1855 merged their mutual aid groups into the Hebrew Benevolent Society. Merger with the Jewish Home Society led to the Albany Jewish Social Service in 1931, now Jewish Family Services. It aided Jewish refugees in the 1930s, Holocaust survivors in the 1940s and 1950s, and from 1988 it resettled 1,300 Soviet Jews, the latest Jewish immigrants to the Albany area. State government workers and scholars working at the local universities including State University of New York at Albany are a distinct component of the current Jewish community.
B'nai B'rith opened a German-speaking chapter in 1853, but an English-language chapter, the Gideon Lodge, began in 1870 and replaced the German language branch by 1910. A women's organization, United Order of True Sisters, started a chapter in 1857, and is still active. Concern for the elderly poor led to the Jewish Home Society in 1875, which merged with Daughters of Sarah in 1941, and in the 1970s they built a new facility in Albany. Gideon Lodge joined with the Albany
Jewish Community Council to build senior citizen housing, Bnai Brith Parkview Apartments, which opened in 1973, and Congregation Ohav Shalom built senior citizen housing next to their synagogue in 1974.
In the early 2000s Jewish educational institutions included the Orthodox Maimonides Hebrew Day School. Combining Jewish and secular education is Bet Shraga Hebrew Academy, which is named after a Jewish educator and not a prominent donor – the brilliant and dynamic Jewish educator Philip "Shraga" Arian, who served as the educational director at Temple Israel, opened in 1963. Responding to the antisemitism of the 1930s and activities of the German-American Bund, local veterans formed the Jewish War Veterans in 1935, and it remains a local veterans organization concerned with patriotism, education, and antisemitism. Starting in 1938 local Jewish groups created the Albany Jewish Community Council, now the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, to combat antisemitism, coordinate among Jewish organizations, and represent the community. The Holocaust Survivors and Friends Education Center raises public awareness of the Holocaust, especially in public schools. Starting out in the Hebrew Institute in 1915, the YMHA and YWHA merged into the Jewish Community Center in 1925. Formally incorporated in 1926, the JCC gradually replaced the Hebrew Institute as a meeting place for Jewish groups and as a center for recreational activities. The JCC built its current headquarters and recreational center in 1960. The variety of Jewish institutions peaked in about 1915, when there were anarchist, socialist, Zionist, and Yiddish-language benevolent societies in Albany. Today's synagogues and organizations reflect the ongoing tensions between assimilation and retention of Jewish identity and religious practice. While probably half of Albany's Jewish community actually resides in suburbs, synagogues have not followed the pattern in other Jewish communities and relocated to the suburbs. All the congregations have relocated but remain within the city of Albany. Finally, the resettlement of 1,300 Soviet Jews in the Capital District since 1988 represents the most significant Jewish immigration into the Albany area since the early 1920s.