SCHENECTADY


SCHENECTADY, a formerly industrial city situated on the Mohawk River in east central New York State. Of its 61,821 inhabitants (2000) about 5,200 Jews live in the city and suburbs. Jews first settled in Schenectady in the 1840s when Louis Jacobs sold clothing there, and in 1848 Alexander Susholtz settled with his family. Jonathan Levi, a peddler, settled next and would later become one of the major business leaders in the community. Within five years enough Jewish families had moved into the city to begin a congregation, which initially met in the homes of its members. On October 20, 1856, the congregation incorporated as Shaaray Shomayim (later Gates of Heaven). At the same time, Mordecai *Myers, a former State Assemblyman, relocated from Kinderhook in 1848 and was elected mayor in 1851 and 1854. The Jewish community bought land for a cemetery and the first burial took place in 1857. The first religious school was established in 1863. Between 1892 and 1907, Gates of Heaven moved from an Orthodox congregation to Reform. Meanwhile, in the 1870s, Jews from the Russian Empire arrived in Schenectady, and Hungarian Jews moved into the city after 1890, attracted by work available at General Electric. As late as the 1950s at least 30% of employed Jews found work at GE. Jonathan Levi played an instrumental role in attracting the Edison Co., that became GE, to the city. The Jewish community would later become split between permanent residents and professionals who worked at GE before being relocated. In the 19th century Jews worked as peddlers, small businessmen, grocers, tailors, laborers, and craftsmen.

Russian Jews did not want to join the predominantly German Gates of Heaven, and organized the Orthodox Congregation Agudas (later Agudat) Achim in 1890. By the 1920s, second-generation Russian Jews decided to modernize the synagogue, and it officially became Conservative in 1927. Until 1927 Agudas Achim emerged as the leading Orthodox congregation. Ethnic differences led Hungarian Jews to split from Agudas Achim and to found the Orthodox, but Hungarian, Ohab Zedek in 1893. Another split in Agudas Achim led followers of Rabbi Solomon Hinden to organize Adath Israel in 1914. New immigrants formed a separate congregation, Ohab Sholom in 1894. By 1916 the most Orthodox members of the community created a separate congregation, B'nai Abraham. Over time all the Orthodox synagogues merged into one congregation, with the last merger taking place in 1955 when Ohab Zedek merged with Ohab Sholom B'nai Abraham to form Beth Israel, the current Orthodox congregation in Schenectady. The Jewish community numbered 3,000 in 1913 and reached 5,000 in 1918. Later figures by Jewish organizations listed 3,800 in 1943, 2,800 in 1950, 4,200 in 1970, 5,700 in 1984 and 5,200 in the mid-1990s. Prior to 1945, the Jewish community lived primarily within the city limits, but the suburbanization of Jewish residents and institutions mean that the most recent figures suggest that at least half the community lives in suburban towns like Niskayuna.

The diversity of Jewish organizations reached its peak between 1910 and 1930. The first organization not affiliated with a synagogue was the Ladies Benevolent Society formed in 1883. Other charitable institutions included the United Hebrew Charities in 1897, Hebrew Sick and Benevolent Society in 1909, and the Hebrew Sheltering and Aid Society in 1913. An-other philanthropic association, Montefiore Society, appeared in the 1880s and reached its peak of effectiveness in the 1890s. Women organized a chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women in March 1916. Jewish fraternal organizations included the Independent Order of Brith Abraham, started in 1900, Free Sons of Judah, 1905–16, Free Sons of Israel (around 1900), and B'nai B'rith, 1921. The first Zionist group, the Moriah Zionist Association began in 1913. By 1917 a chapter of the Socialist Labor Party (Po'alei Zion) was started and, by 1919, a chapter of the Zionist Organization of America. Hadassah started a chapter in 1921. During World War I, local Jews contributed to Jewish war victims in Europe and Palestine and to the Palestine Restoration Fund after the war. Congressman George Lunn of Schenectady, the former Socialist mayor, introduced a resolution in Congress in support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In the 1920s and 1930s support for Zionism waned in Schenectady, except for a small dedicated group of men and women. Reform Jewish leaders opposed the idea until after World War II. Between 1945 and 1948, some local Jews in Schenectady, Albany, and Troy helped smuggle bandages, ammunition, and arms to Palestine to defend Jewish settlements, and the community held a mass meeting in May 1948 to celebrate the independence of Israel. In 1967 and 1973, the local community rallied to the embattled Jewish homeland.

Other major Jewish associations were the Workmen's Circle branch, in 1912 and within a year the Jewish Socialist branch formed. A community talmud torah was founded in 1911 and chartered in 1912, which became the United Hebrew Community in 1923. Two young people's groups, the Apollo Club and Young Macabees, social and athletic groups, merged in 1916 to form the YMHA, followed by the YWHA a year later. The Ys incorporated in 1921 and merged with the United Hebrew Community to form the Jewish Community Center in 1929. Following the movement of the Jewish population, the JCC, the primary non-congregational organization of the Jewish community, relocated to Niskayuna. The first Jewish self-defense organization was the Jewish Citizens Committee, which began as a protest against Polish pogroms and the Ukrainian massacres, but, due to criticism from local Polish immigrants, the citizens' committee organized in June 1919 to represent all of Schenectady's Jews. Despite its intentions the committee did not last, and in 1938 local Jews, responding to activities of the German-American Bund and antisemitism in Germany, created the Jewish Community Council which was later incorporated in 1948. Both the Anti-Defamation committee of the local B'nai B'rith and the Jewish War Veterans, troubled by the rise in antisemitism, pushed for the creation of the Council. Before and after the war it helped resettle refugees and sent supplies to Jewish survivors in Europe and Palestine after World War II. By 2005, the local representational function had returned to the Jewish Community Center, while the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York took over the responsibility for speaking for the Jewish communities of the Capital District, and pooling resources for activities that cut across local communities. As elsewhere in the country, synagogues and institutional buildings in downtown urban areas were sold as the Jewish residents moved to residential areas outside of the downtown area and to the suburbs. There is a Jewish Studies program at Union College in Schenectady that has added to the intellectual quality of the Jewish community.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

S. Weingarten, "The Biography of an American Jewish Community; Jewish Community of Schenectady, (Master's thesis, Siena College, 1952); P.W. Jacobs, "The Jewish Congregations of Schenectady," in: Schenectady Union Star (October 18, 1913); L. King and A. Mann, "Schenectady Jewry," in: Tri-City Jewish Chronicle (Dec. 1917), 17–23; N. Yetwin, "Soldier of Subsequent Fortune," in: New York Alive (Jan/Feb, 1989), 17–18.

[Harvey Strum (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.