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Buffalo, New York

BUFFALO, the second largest city in New York State and the seat of Erie Country. Erie County had a Jewish population in 2004 of between 15,000 and 18,000. In heavy industry, the principal support of Buffalo's economy, Jews have occupied relatively minor roles. They are chiefly involved in trade distribution and professional services. In 2004 a major hi-tech bioinformatics and health sciences campus was built in Buffalo, attracting Jewish scientists and researchers in growing numbers. It is expected that this, along with new economic initiatives, will help to stem the tide of the region's dwindling Jewish population. There were 13 congregations in Greater Buffalo in 2004: three Conservative, five Orthodox, one Reconstructionist, three Reform, and one Traditional. The first Jew in the area came during the War of 1812, when Captain Mordecai Myers was assigned to the Williamsville cantonment. In 1825 Mordecai Manuel *Noah launched his short-lived utopian plan for a Jewish homeland, the city of Ararat, near Buffalo. Jewish settlers came to Buffalo in the decades following 1825, a period of great growth for the city. The first Jew to arrive was L.H. Flersheim, who emigrated from Germany in 1835 and taught his native language in the public schools. Jewish merchants and manufacturers soon followed Flersheim. Buffalo's first retail clothing store was opened by Mordecai M. Noah's nephew in the 1840s. Congregation Beth El, composed of Polish and German Jews, was established in 1847. Needy German-Jewish arrivals were aided by the Jacobsohn Society, organized in 1847 on the community self-help idea. The society lasted into the 1860s and also established Buffalo's first Jewish cemetery. Differences in background created dissension in Beth El, and in 1850 the German element seceded to form Beth Zion, one of a succession of splinter groups to emerge from the original congregation. By 1864 the various Reform elements had united to form Temple Beth Zion. Eventually, Beth El became a Conservative congregation.

Most Buffalo Jews are descendants of the Eastern Europeans who came after 1880. These newcomers worked as peddlers, tailors, junkmen, and storekeepers, and with the immigration, the main location of the Jewish residential population shifted from lower Main Street to the East Side. A community house, a Jewish library, and about twelve Orthodox synagogues were set up in the area.

While the synagogues were unable to bring unity into the ghetto, the lodges and charitable organizations were a unifying force. A ḥevra kaddisha appeared early in the life of Buffalo Jewry. Montefiore Lodge of B'nai B'rith dates from 1866 and was the first of many groups which provided social companionship and mutual aid. In the 1850s the Buffalo Young Men's Hebrew Association, one of the first in the U.S., aided Jews traveling through the city and also offered cultural programs. Other institutions that were set up included an orphans' home, operated in conjunction with Rochester Jewry, a sheltering house, and Zion House, established by Beth Zion's Sisterhood to care for the newly arrived Russian Jews. Zion House was popularly known as the Jewish Community Building and formed the nucleus for the Federated Jewish Charities of Buffalo, which was established in 1903. The Federated Jewish Charities incorporated several rival societies and became the direct ancestor of the present United Jewish Federation. While Buffalo Jews early established afternoon and Sunday Hebrew schools, it was not until the late 1920s that a bureau of Jewish education was established which in 1928 established The High School of Jewish Studies, which today has over 200 students. In 1959 the Kadimah School created an elementary and middle school. The weekly Buffalo Jewish Review has been published since 1917.

Following World War I the Jewish East Side began to deteriorate. Greater Jewish affluence and the increased speed of urban transportation resulted in a general exodus, first to the West Side of the city, then to the Humboldt-Utica-Ferry section of mid-Buffalo, and still later to the North Park-Hertel Avenue part of North Buffalo. The Humboldt area was served by Temple Beth David, established in 1923, and Congregation Ohel Jacob, established in 1926. In North Buffalo, Anshe Zedek, later named Ner Israel, eventually merged with Beth David which had also resettled in the northern part of the city. Temple Emanu-El, Conservative, was founded in the mid-1920s. In 1967, Emanu-El and Beth David joined as Shaarey Zedek. Then many of the former East Side congregations were now situated in the North Park area. As industries expanded in western New York, bringing general prosperity, Jews moved to Kenmore, the town of Tonawanda, Snyder, and other suburban settlements. Beth Zion (Reform), Beth Am (Reform), Sinai (Reconstructionist), Beth El (Conservative), Havurah (Reform), B'nai Shalom (Traditional), Amherst Synagogue (Orthodox), Kehillat Ohr Zion (Orthodox), Shaarey Zedek (Conservative), and Young Israel (Orthodox) are among the congregations in the suburbs.

While Beth Zion decided to rebuild its main sanctuary in the central city after it was destroyed by fire in 1961, the congregation also has a suburban branch. The population shift has continued from North Buffalo to the suburbs. In 2004 the Jewish population was higher in the suburbs than in the city.


S. Adler and T.E. Connolly, From Ararat to Suburbia: History of the Jewish Community of Buffalo (1960); Falk, in: Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, 1 (1879), 289–304; Plesur, in: Niagara Frontier (Summer, 1956), 29–36.

[Milton Plesur]

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