A Brief History of Albany’s Early Jewish Congregations

Jews were among the earliest settlers in Albany. They were Dutch citizens, arriving from the far flung territories in the Western Hemisphere established by the Dutch West Indies Company. By the early 19th century the Jewish community was well established in Albany, and the city became a center for Jewish immigration into America.

The post below is by Christopher White, excerpted from his blog, “Finding Your Past: Genealogical Gleanings with the Albany Grave Digger” https://findingyourpast.blogspot.com

Western European Sephardic Jews were attracted to Albany from its earliest days because in the seventeenth century Albany was the leading exporter of skins and furs to Europe. The first Jews appeared in Fort Orange and Beverwyck in 1654. They came to travel and trade in the colony. At first they were denied permission by the Director General of the colony, Pieter Stuyvesant. Only citizens of the village were allowed to trade, and only members of the Dutch Reformed could become citizens. The following year Jews were allowed to trade outside of the borders of New Amsterdam. Among the first Jews to arrive in Fort Orange was Asser Levy. By 1660 he had purchased several homes and became a trader on a substantial scale.[1] At this time there were 23 Jews residing in Fort Orange. The Jews were now allowed to practice their religion within their own homes, but they were not allowed to build houses of worship. The same provisions also applied to the Lutherans. However, it was not until the 1820s that the Jewish population was large enough to build a synagogue.[2]

The Jewish population in Albany came predominantly from the Germanic state of Bayern (Bavaria), where anti-Jewish restrictions were rigidly enforced. These Jewish immigrants began to heavily settle in the city in the 1830s and 1840s. The German Jews adhered to their native tongue and even attempted to perpetuate it among their children. They kept synagogue records in German, communicated in German, and engaged Rabbis who delivered addresses in German. The use of German was respectable because it was the language of the majority in the German enclave.[3] As of 1886 there were approximately three thousand Jews in the city, most of them German.[4] But as Russian Jews, numbering over two thousand, migrated to the city between 1880 and 1900, anti-Semitism took hold of Albany’s elite. Discrimination was directed both to the newcomers and to the older, more established upper-class German Jews.[5] This occurred even though the German Jews were fully absorbed in the German community. Many Western European Jews were charter members of various German societies of the city, such as Doctor Joseph Lewi, who helped establish the Deutsche Literatur Gesellschaft, or German Literary Society. Jewish merchant Julius Laventall hosted numerous Jewish organizations in the upstairs rooms at his clothing shop, also known as Laventall’s Building. Another prominent Albany Jew was Myer Nussbaum, a lawyer who later became a New York State Senator.

Albany’s first Jewish congregation was the moderate orthodox sect, Beth El, meaning “The House of God.” The flock was organized in 1822 and later incorporated on March 25, 1838. Beth El was the city’s first German language congregation. On December 16, 1839, the congregation’s first meeting place, 66 Bassett Street, was purchased from Abel Fretch for $1,500. After the idea of building a new house of worship was not fulfilled, 76 Herkimer Street was purchased for $2150 from the Hibernian Society on September 2, 1842. In 1846 the congregation opened a school, the Jewish Academy of Albany, at 77 Ferry Street, and by 1849 the school had one hundred students. School tuition cost $9.00 per year. The school’s pupils were instructed in German, Hebrew, and English.[6]

On July 14, 1865, a larger edifice situated on the corner of South Ferry and Franklin Streets was purchased for $4,000 from the South Ferry Street Methodist Episcopal Church and used as a synagogue. It was dedicated on January 20, 1865, with great pomp. There was a parade through the streets of Albany with members of the congregation carrying the Scrolls of the Law.[7] To bury the congregations’ dead, two acres of land were purchased in Bethlehem near the Abbey Hotel for use as a cemetery. On April 13, 1839, the land was bought for $15.[8] Organizations associated with Beth El were the Bethel Society, formed in 1838 as a mutual aid society, the Hebrew Benevolent Society, established on September 20, 1855, providing assistance for families in need and distress; and the Chevra, organized in 1843, was another benevolent group that provided sick and death benefits for its members.

The second Jewish congregation in Albany was Beth El Jacob. It came into existence after eight families broke away from Beth El due to internal conflicts regarding orthodoxy. It was the city’s only orthodox sect and was incorporated on February 22, 1841. The first meeting place was located at 8 Rose Street and was dedicated on May 25, 1841. On December 1, 1847, the corner stone for a new synagogue was laid. The new house of worship was located at 28 Fulton Street, between Lydius, now Madison Avenue and Van Zandt Streets and consecrated on April 28, 1848.[9] In 1860 it was proposed by the congregation that prayers be offered in German, instead of Hebrew.[10] By 1900 the congregation was composed mainly of newly arrived Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants. The influx of these Eastern European nationalities helped the congregation’s lagging German membership. On August 5, 1974, Beth El Jacob merged with another orthodox congregation, B’nai Abraham, or the Sons of Abraham, which was founded in June 1882 at 69 South Pearl Street.

Anshe Emeth, signifying “People of Truth,” became Albany’s third Jewish congregation when forty-six members from Beth El left to form a new moderate reformed congregation on October 5, 1850. The society was formally incorporated as a house of worship six days later. At the time, Anshe Emeth was the fourth reformed Jewish congregation in the United States. The flock first worshipped in the German language in an abandoned razor strap factory, on the corner of Lydius and South Pearl Streets. Afterwards, the congregation worshiped in a building on Green Street until the former Baptist church at 155-159 South Pearl Street was purchased and was transformed into a synagogue. It was officially dedicated on October 3, 1851, with an elaborate ceremony.[11] Worship services consisted of prayers in Hebrew, the reading of the law, also in Hebrew; while music, and sermons were conducted in either English or German.[12]

On August 27, 1851, land was purchased in Watervliet from George E. Hartman for use as a cemetery, and on April 3, 1862, the cemetery opened.[13] Two more acres were later bought in 1878 to increase the size of the burial grounds. Anshe Emeth opened a school in 1852. Its curriculum provided both religious and secular instruction, including the study of German until the school closed in 1905.[14] During the mid 1880s the congregation included about 150 families.[15]

In December 1885, after years of discussion, 1200 worshippers from the congregations of Anshe Emeth and Beth El merged to form a new Reformed congregation, Beth Emeth. The board decided that English should be used during board meetings and in the keeping of records. By 1889 services in German and English alternated each week, to the dismay of most of the congregation, who wanted to continue services strictly in German. Land for a synagogue was purchased on the corner of Lancaster and Swan Streets for $19,000 in 1887. The synagogue was erected at a cost of $145,000. On May 24, 1889, the new house of worship was consecrated.

As of 1897 the congregation numbered approximately 1,200 members. In 1894 a school was created where bilingual instruction in Hebrew and German was taught, along with Bible study, catechism, and Jewish history. By 1905 the school existed only as a Sunday school. Regrettably as time passed, Jewish children who understood German refused to use it in public or among their friends; second and third generation German Jews also abandoned the language of their ancestors.[16] Societies within the Beth Emeth congregation included the Hebrew Benevolent Society, the Ladies Sewing Society, and the Jewish Home Society. All three societies aided the poor and the old of the Jewish community. Another group, the Young People’s Society promoted literature.[17] Today, the synagogue is an African-American church, the Wilborn Temple on Jay St.

German Jews were similar to German Gentiles. They also created non-religious organizations. Fourteen German Jews established the Deutsche Literatur Gesellschaft, or German Literary Society, in 1849. The society stressed intellectual development, community activity, and the maintenance of the German language, as well as extending assistance to newly arriving German immigrants.[18] In 1876 the society met at Laventall’s Building, located at the corner of South Pearl Street and Hudson Avenue. The group included a theater and music committee that held debates, gave recitations and lectures, intellectual presentations, and dramatic productions, including Schiller’s “Räuber.” Schiller Halle, established by Wilhelm Schindler and located on the corner of Herkimer and Franklin Streets, was the host for these events. The literary society became the best outlet for social and cultural needs of Albany’s German Jews.[19]

Another Jewish literary group was the Concordia Literary Association. The association was in existence only a short time, approximately from 1877 to 1880. Yet another Jewish literary group, the Adelphi Literary Association, was founded on January 26, 1873, and incorporated on February 11, 1881, as the Adelphi Club. The original purpose of the association was for mutual enlightenment and instruction in science and literature, by the aid of social intercourse, debates, readings, orations, and the maintenance of a library.[20] The first meeting place was located on South Pearl Street, between Division Street and Hudson Avenue. In 1876 the club moved to 83 Green Street, formerly Turn Halle. The new site soon became known as Adelphia Hall. In 1893 Adelphia Hall moved and was located at 82 South Pearl Street. By 1914 Adelphi Club ceased its intellectual pursuits and purchased land in suburban Voorheesville, New York and transformed itself into the Colonie Country Club.

Other Jewish organizations included the Society for Brotherly Love, which was established on March 19, 1843. The society provided assistance and burial facilities for deceased members. Meanwhile, Jews were not admitted into Freemasonry. They, therefore, founded the International Order of B’nai B’rith, meaning “Brotherhood of the Covenant,” hereafter IOBB. Jews from New York City formed the IOBB in 1843 as a fraternal, charitable, and benevolent Jewish association. In Albany the Shiloh Lodge, Number 17, IOBB was organized on December 11, 1853, and met in Laventall’s Building, located on the corner of South Pearl Street and Hudson Avenue. The Shiloh Lodge was involved in the social, cultural, and philanthropic activities of the Jewish community. As Jewish scholar Hyman B. Grinstein put it, “Affiliation with a B’nai Brith lodge was a great social distinction among the German Jews in the 1840s and 1850s.”[21] Therefore, IOBB lodges were mainly composed of older German-speaking Jews. The Shiloh lodge, with sixty-seven members, was an insurance society that issued payouts of $500, $750, and $1,000 to its members depending on the amount of contributions made to the lodge by its members and also depending upon the age of the member at entrance into the lodge.[22] The lodge ceased to exist after 1900 because of the numerical decline of German speakers in the Jewish community. But two organizations that catered to the younger Jewish population who identified with both American ideals and Jewish affairs included the Young Men’s Association, henceforth YMA and the Progress Club. Both groups came into existence during the 1860s and were concerned with cultural and social activities, such as debates, readings, recitations, and concerts. The YMA was located in the Martin Opera House on South Pearl Street in 1876, and its library consisted of over seven thousand volumes. Meanwhile, the city of Buffalo, New York, also had a strictly German YMA, which was incorporated, earlier than Albany’s, on May 12, 1846. Its library compiled 1,800 volumes as of 1855.[23]

Another Jewish society was the Brith Academy. It opened in November 1866 at 67 Division Street, but closed on May 1, 1869, due to a lack of financial support. The academy had 150 students and four teachers who taught English, German, Hebrew and secular studies.[24] An additional Jewish organization was the Gideon Lodge, No. 140 of the IOBB. This organization was founded on March 19, 1870, for the purpose of furthering Jewish social and cultural activities. They also met at Laventall’s Building. An unofficial female auxiliary group of B’nai Brith was the Unabhängiger Orden Treur Schwestern, or the Independent Order of True Sisters.[26] The Abigail Lodge formed under the Order of True Sisters on August 4, 1857. Later, the Arnon Lodge, Number 64, of the men’s Independent Order of the Free Sons of Israel was founded on April 5, 1874.


[1] Silver, “The Jews in Albany, N. Y. (1655-1914),” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 9: 216. Morris O. A. Gerber, Pictorial History of Albany’s Jewish Community (Albany: n. p., 1986), pp. 13-14.
[2] Rabbi Donald P. Cashman, “Albany’s Synagogues: Split-Off and Merger,” in Historic Albany: Its Churches and Synagogues, Anne Roberts and Marcia Cockrell, eds., (Albany: Library Communications Services, 1986), p. 118.
[3] Hyman B. Grinstein, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654-1860 (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1945), pp. 207-210.
[4] Howell and Tenney, eds., History of the County of Albany, N. Y., p. 763.
[5] Timothy J. Malloy, “Elite Gentlemen’s Clubs in Albany, New York, 1866-1920” (Masters thesis, University of New York at Albany, 1996), pp. 54-58.
[6] Rubinger, “Albany Jewry of the Nineteenth Century,” pp. 83-89. Silver, “The Jews in Albany, N. Y. (1655-1914),” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 9: 227.
[7] Silver, “The Jews in Albany, N. Y. (1655-1914),” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 9: 236.
[8] Rubinger, “Albany Jewry of the Nineteenth Century,” pp. 53-57.
[9] Ibid., pp. 57-60. Reynolds, Albany Chronicles, pp. 577, 593. Cashman, “Albany’s Synagogues: Split-Off and Merger,” in Historic Albany: Its Churches and Synagogues, Anne Roberts and Marcia Cockrell, eds., p. 119. Silver, “The Jews in Albany, N. Y. (1655-1914),” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 9: 237-240.
[10] Rubinger, “Albany Jewry of the Nineteenth Century,” pp. 268-269.
[11] Ibid., pp. 156-168. Reynolds, Albany Chronicles: A History of the City Arranged Chronologically, p. 613. Silver, “The Jews in Albany, N. Y. (1655-1914),” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 9: 235.
[12] Phelps, comp., The Albany Hand-Book: A Strangers’ Guide and Residents’ Manual, pp. 97-98. Howell and Tenney, eds., History of the County of Albany, N. Y., From 1609-1886, p. 763.
[13] Reynolds, Albany Chronicles: A History of the City Arranged Chronologically, p. 644. Howell and Tenney, eds., History of the County of Albany, N. Y., From 1609-1886, p. 676.
[14] Rubinger, Albany Jewry of the Nineteenth Century: Historic Roots and Communal Evolution, p. 214.
[15] Howell and Tenney, eds., History of the County of Albany, N. Y., From 1609-1886, p. 763.
[16] Grinstein, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654-1860, p. 210.
[17] n. a., Geschichte der Deutschen in Albany und Troy, p.57.
[18] Conners, “Their Own Kind,” p. 103. Rubinger, “Albany Jewry of the Nineteenth Century,” pp. 152-153. Reimer, “Ethnicity in Albany, N. Y., 1888-1908,” p. 47. Silver, “The Jews in Albany, N. Y. (1655-1914),” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 9: 230.
[19] n. a., Geschichte der Deutschen in Albany und Troy, pp. 71-75.
[20] Rubinger, “Albany Jewry of the Nineteenth Century,” p. 287. Reynolds, Albany Chronicles, p. 651. Phelps, comp., The Albany Hand-Book, pp. 4-5.
[21] Grinstein, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654-1860, p. 204.
[22] n. a., Geschichte der Deutschen in Albany und Troy, p. 217.
[23] French, comp., Gazetteer of the State of New York, p. 147.
[24] n. a., Geschichte der Deutschen in Albany und Troy, p. 131.
[25] Grinstein, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654-1860, p. 154.


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