Synagogues / Temple Beth Zion
The first and largest Reform synagogue in Western New York, Temple Beth Zion began as an orthodox congregation when it formed in 1850. It aligned with Reform Judaism in 1864 and continues to serve city and suburban members with two sites in both areas of Greater Buffalo.
The first and largest Reform synagogue in Western New York began as an orthodox congregation when it formed in 1850. Breaking away from Temple Beth El, whose orthodoxy it deemed too lax, Beth Zion members initially met at the home of Hirsch Sinzheimer on Oak Street. Eventually they rented space at the corner of Ellicott and Clinton Streets and Rabbi Isaac Schoenbrun was appointed as the congregation’s first Rabbi. Growing interest in reforming traditional worship practices however, precipitated his departure in 1863. In 1864, Beth Zion initiated a new constitution and the congregation embraced Reform Judaism. A first building purchased that year, the former Methodist Episcopal Church on Niagara Street, was remodeled and dedicated on May 26, 1865. The joint service in English and German, was led by Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, the leader of the Reform movement and Rabbi Isaac N. Cohen, the new congregational Rabbi. The following year, Rabbi Samson Falk became the third Rabbi to serve Beth Zion. Under his leadership, the congregation joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1876. Established by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise in 1873, the UAHC (later the Union for Reform Judaism) marked the formalization of the Reform movement for Judaism in the United States. In its early affiliation with UAHC, Temple Beth Zion became one of the first ten Reform congregations to join the movement. Active in interfaith relations and interested in local history, Rabbi Falk served on the Board of Managers of the Buffalo Historical Society. In 1876, he presented the first study of “Israelites in Buffalo” that estimated the size of the contemporary Buffalo Jewish community at around 1000. In just over decade, Temple Beth Zion had consolidated its place in a growing national Reform Jewish movement and within Buffalo, as a growing congregation whose members played active roles within the economic and cultural life of the city.
In 1886, Temple Beth Zion sold its Niagara Street building in order to build a larger space, temporarily renting space at the Unitarian Church of Our Father on Delaware Avenue and the Central Presbyterian Church on Pearl and Genesee Street. In 1887, following the death of Rabbi Falk, Rabbi Israel Aaron was appointed as the synagogue’s fourth clerical leader. Plans for a new temple designed by one of Buffalo’s leading society architectural firms marked a significant transition point for the congregation. Edward A. Kent most associated with the Byzantine inspired building, created a signature building that became a landmark on Delaware Avenue. Clad in a striking red sandstone sourced locally from Medina, the synagogue sanctuary was topped with a massive copper dome. Tiffany windows were inset into the exterior, while the internal decorative features included a richly painted domed ceiling and a heavily decorated bimah (prayer platform). At the dedication ceremonies, in 1890, Christian religious leaders and city dignitaries from across the Buffalo civic community attended.
During the 1890s, the broader Jewish community was undergoing significant demographic growth as incoming Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe enlarged the existing Jewish community to over 10,000 by 1899. Earlier in the decade, Temple Beth Zion created Zion House in 1891. This settlement style house run by the Sisterhood of Zion enabled new immigrants to learn English and access activities for themselves and their children in a Jewish space that contrasted with local Christian missionary organizations which offered similar services but with a conversionary agenda. The work of Zion House would lay the groundwork for an independent recreation and cultural space know as the Jewish Community Building which was a forerunner to the contemporary Jewish Community Centers of Greater Buffalo.
Temple Beth Zion continued to grow at 599 Delaware Avenue with a number of building additions. In 1915 a gymnasium, an auditorium and classrooms were added under Rabbi Louis J. Kopald who succeeded Rabbi Aaron after his unexpected death. The synagogue organization itself had already began to add different interest groups. The Women’s Temple Society formed in 1910 and the Men’s group formed in 1911. By the 1920s, Temple Beth Zion also had a vibrant Young People’s Society. As Rabbi Kopald’s health failed, however, Temple Beth Zion appointed a new rabbi. Rabbi Dr. Joseph L. Fink officially served from 1926, but was already aiding Rabbi Kopald from 1924. Throughout the next three decades he led the congregation through significant expansion, consolidating the congregation’s standing in the Reform movement and the synagogue’s role in the city community. Dr. Fink became a leading religious figure in the interfaith community, known nationally as well as locally. His local activities included a regular radio “pulpit” with the Humanitarian Hour that aired weekly through WBEN from 1930 to 1956. During his tenure, the synagogue expanded its physical footprint as well as it added a rabbi’s study, a kitchen, more classrooms and a library.
In 1958, due to Rabbi Dr. Fink’s failing health, Rabbi Martin Goldberg, the temple’s associate rabbi succeeded Dr. Fink. The expansion of the suburbs split the thousand plus membership between the city and the suburbs. Under Rabbi Goldberg, a suburban location was opened in Amherst to house a Religious School for suburban residents. Yet despite a fire in 1961, that completely gutted the iconic building at 599 Delaware and heated discussions around a new location of a synagogue site, eventually Temple Beth Zion determined to stay in the city. A national search considered several nationally renowned architects, including a former Jewish Buffalonian: Gordon Bunshaft. Eventually, architect Max Abramovitz was secured to design the new sanctuary at 805 Delaware Ave, and Siegfried Construction was hired. Groundbreaking was celebrated in 1964, and the school and auditorium were completed in 1966. Dedications ceremonies were held over several days from April 19 to April 23, 1967.
55 Oak St, Buffalo, NY
1411 Delaware Ave, Buffalo, NY 14209
Pine Ridge Heritage Blvd, Buffalo, NY 14225
700 Sweet Home Rd, Buffalo, NY
The Architecture of Temple Beth Zion
The new building was a complete break with the former temple design. In place of stone and a traditional style of building, a modernist oval and fluted concrete structure emerged, with huge art windows. Buffalo had seen nothing like it before. Since his early college days, Max Abramovitz had always wanted to design a temple and in Beth Zion he realized his first and only synagogue. Utilizing Brutalist elements, his open, spacious and light-filled sanctuary enable congregants to connect to “the heavens” with the use of light above and through the great art windows. Shaped into ten scalloped curves and set at an angle flaring outwards of 15 degrees, Abramovitz used poured concrete and special handcrafted molds to create the walls of the building. The inside concrete walls were bush hammered to give an aged effect and the external concrete was clad in Alabama limestone. Anchored from below the surface, the building seems supported by air. The sanctuary has a capacity to hold 1000 people downstairs and 400 people in its rimed gallery. In building the complex, the temple utilized two local firms: J. Fruchtbaum, Engineers, and Siegfried Construction, however the glass anchoring systems need two additional specialist engineers: West, Preston and Sollenberger Associates of Lawrenceville, New Jersey and engineer Lev Zetlin, who worked as a solutions specialist for lightweight assembly structures.
Although the building was designed by Max Abramovitz, he insisted on an artist for the two stained glass art windows. Familiar with the work of Ben Shahn, he recommended the congregation hire him. With the aid of stained-glass artist Benoit Gilsoul of Willet Glass, Ben Shahn and the specialists at Willet Glass worked with the engineers to translate the Shahn paintings so that the images would appear as a single structure with barely noticeably supports. The largest window illustrated a verse from the Book of Job, and the smaller window facing onto Delaware Avenue, featured Psalm 150th that was sung at the dedication of the first Temple Beth Zion in 1865. Ben Shahn’s also designed the letters on the bimah, and a free-standing menorah.
As a traditional Reform temple, the organ became an important part of the synagogue sanctuary design. The 46 rank organ, opus 2870, was made by Casavant Frères Limitee, St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada, under the tonal direction of Lawrence I. Phelps of Casavant and Hans Vigeland of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, NY. A late and unique addition salvaged the trumpets from the Lafayette Theater that would have otherwise been discarded. The organ was installed in front of the window facing onto Delaware Avenue. Paul-Guy Servais of Casavant with voicing under the direction of Roger Chicoine and Gérald Archambault also of Casavant, saw to the organ emplacement. The Warner family commissioned a new piece of music by Darius Milhaud dedicated to the memory of Nellie B. and Eugene Warner. The Cantata from Job, Opus 413 had its first performance on April 24, 1967. The building was recognized in 1971 for outstanding design with an award from New York State Council on the Arts.
Into the Modern Era
In 1958, Rabbi Martin L. Goldberg becomes the seventh Senior Rabbi, having formerly served as Assistant Rabbi from 1954 and became a local force in the ecumenical field in his own right. Joining the faculty at Canisius, he taught Theology courses until his death in 2002. He also became a central driver behind many interfaith activities in the city and was the founder of the Buffalo Area Metropolitan Ministries in 1976. This organization grew out of the “Know Your Neighbor’s Faith,” initiative started in the mid-1960s by Rabbi Goldberg, Episcopal Bishop Harold B. Robinson, the Rev. Ralph W. Loew and the Rev. Robert S. Sweeny. Rabbi Goldberg served for 40 years as the longest serving rabbi of the congregation during its history, only retiring in 1994. During the 1980s a significant regional Judaica Museum, the Benjamin and Dr. Edgar R. Cofeld Judaic Museum of Temple Beth Zion opened. In 1998, extensive refurbishing of the former suburban building, created the Aaron and Bertha Broder Center for Jewish Education. In 2005, the Delaware Avenue central corridor was refurbished and renovations were made in 2011 to the Sisterhood Chapel. In 2010, Temple Beth Zion is featured as part of an exhibit at National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Other more recent serving rabbis have included Rabbi Ronne Friedman, Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld and Rabbi Gary Pokras.
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Our thanks to Temple Beth Zion for making their holdings of the Cofeld Judaic Museum available for the development of this page.
Our thanks to The Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies for the use of their images created as part of a broader project to document Jewish Buffalo material culture and building environments with Greater Buffalo.