Welcome To Temple Beth El!
Temple Beth El history dates back to 1865 when the first Jewish families came to Rochester. Determined to maintain traditional Jewish life in their new homeland, they founded Beth Israel, also called the Leopold Street shul. This synagogue was the center of Traditional Judaism in Rochester for many years.
Conservative Judaism reached Rochester at the turn of the 20th century when a handful of men applied themselves resolutely to the task of establishing a modern conservative Synagogue. Their vision was of a house of worship which would appeal to both old and young; in which all that is best in Jewish life and in modern thought could be beautifully harmonized.
The growth of Conservative Judaism in America paralleled its growth in Rochester. As the movement progressed, it became apparent that the city was ready for a Conservative congregation.
On November 28th, 1915, ten men gathered in the Frankel household to organize a new synagogue aligned in the traditions and practices of the fledgling Conservative movement. The group consisted of Louis Frankel, Charles Frankel, Isaac Joffe, Charles Moskowitz, Reuben Goldstein, Louis Sarachan, Benjamin Rosenthal, Bernard Rose, Hyman J. Cohen, and Charles Cohen.
A temporary organization was formed with Charles Frankel as President and Isaac Joffe as Secretary. They called it a “New Conservative Congregation along Modern Lines”. By February of 1916, this group had formed itself into a permanent organization led by President Isaac Joffe. With him were Louis Shulman, first vice-president; Jacob Goldstein, recording secretary; Alfred Hart, financial secretary; and Louis Frankel, treasurer.
The newly formed congregation began its search for a home almost immediately after they became an official group. The first proposed site was a house at 310 Oxford Street. There were insurmountable problems with this location, however, so the search continued.
When an opportunity presented itself to purchase the Baptist Church at the corner of Meigs Street and Park Avenue, the congregation purchased it for $45,000. The membership was informed on November 13, 1916, exactly one year after the organizational meeting in the Frankel’s home.
On May 20, 1917, the formal dedication took place and Temple Beth El soon became an integral part of the Jewish life of Rochester. The sanctuary seated 600, with additional meeting rooms, offices, and an auditorium. Dr. Joel Blau was hired as the first rabbi and officiated the first services held in the new Temple for Shavuot of 1917.
In the meantime, Temple life was becoming very active. Sisterhood and Men’s Clubs were quickly formed. There were four committees at that time — Finance, School, House, and Ritual. Sunday school became very busy, as well as the afternoon school that was held Monday through Thursday. Men’s Club’s many activities included the annual picnic, a committee to visit the sick and, more recently, the Yizkor Memorial for the Holocaust. They also sponsored breakfast meetings and other events.
Sisterhood’s many functions were the bazaar, which continued into the early 40’s; the Thanksgiving Dance and Nearly New Sale until the mid 80’s, and the support of the library that was formed in 1946. Sisterhood quickly grew into a vital adjunct of the Temple. Sisterhood’s most illustrious president was Ray Aiole. She served as its president for 20 years and the Young Women’s Leadership Award of the Jewish Community Federation has been named after her.
Temple Beth El’s egalitarian traditions are long standing. The Annual Dinner of 1935 invited “Members and wives” to attend. In 1949, Sisterhood President, Ruth Dankoff, became the first woman to officially represent Sisterhood on the board as a voting member. Women have long been members, and receive aliyot.
By the mid 1930’s the school was growing rapidly and one house adjacent to the Temple was purchased and turned into classrooms.A second house for classrooms was purchased later in 1944.
Despite the Great Depression in the 1930s, activities and membership at Temple Beth El continued to grow.
1942 brought the 25th Anniversary of Temple Beth El. Even then it was a strong congregation, striving to fulfill the 3-fold purpose of a synagogue — bet hatfilah, bet hamidrash, and bet haknesset — a house of worship, a house of study, and a house of assembly for Jewish people.
The school continued to grow and in 1943 Benjamin Rosenthal suggested that a new school building was needed and donated $5,000 to get the project started. Planning began, but it wasn’t until 1950, when 7 acres of land at Winton Road and Hillside Avenue was donated to Temple Beth El by Mr. & Mrs. Irving Norry and Mr. & Mrs. Benjamin Bernstein, that a new space became a reality. By that time, there were 300 children in attendance at the afternoon Hebrew school and almost the same number of pre-school and post b’nai mitzvah children attending Sunday school.
Once built, the school thrived and plans were drawn for the expansion of the complex, including our beautiful sanctuary. The need for more space became much more urgent after the Park Avenue Synagogue was destroyed in a fire on January 23rd, 1960.
A capital campaign began in 1960. Thanks to new funds, groundbreaking ceremonies for the sanctuary and expanded school were held on November 5, 1961. The dedication ceremony for the new sanctuary was held on May 19, 1963. In the meantime, religious services were conducted in the Winton Road auditorium.
The congregation and school continued to grow. By that time, membership had increased to 1,400 families with a school of 700 students. Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, our Director of Education was Jay Stern— a legend in Jewish education. During this time, many dance festivals were produced under the direction of Molly Shafer Rutzen and popular musicals were performed in Hebrew by students.
The entire complex remained essentially the same until a major renovation took place in 2001 through the generosity of many devoted Temple members.
In addition to our strong and dedicated synagogue community, Temple Beth El has benefited from strong and forward looking leadership. Throughout our history, we have been blessed with the spiritual leadership and guidance of our rabbis which have included:
|Dov Peretz Elkins||1973-1976|
Special mention also needs to be made of Rabbi Abraham Solomon, who served Temple Beth El for 60 years, and for whom our chapel is named.
We are fortunate to have been served over the years by gifted and dedicated hazzanim:
We would be remiss in telling the history of Temple Beth El if we didn’t give special recognition to Hazzan Samuel Rosenbaum, who served the Temple for 40 years. He was a cantor, a yiddishist, an author, a composer, a teacher, a musician, an eloquent speaker and a superb writer and leader who’s vision helped shape the American Cantorial Institute.
Throughout the years, Temple Beth El has enjoyed a dynamic partnership between its clergy and lay leadership:
|Martin Spokony||2018 – 2021|
Their combined vision and commitment have provided the framework upon which our congregation has grown and thrived. Temple Beth El continues to be a source of great strength and pride in the Rochester Jewish Community.
Many programs and milestone events that have enhanced our lives have been held here at Temple Beth El.
And now, we look to the future. Our Keshet pre-school has served as a wonderful addition to our already vibrant and excellent educational programming. Together with our dedicated professional staff and teachers, we are confident in our ability to provide future leaders who will again serve as visionaries and builders of an even stronger and brighter future for Temple Beth El.
L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation and Hazak v Nitahazak, from strength to strength.