Agudas Achim Synagogue
|Agudas Achim Synagogue|
South profile and east elevation, 2008
|Location||Livingston Manor, NY, USA|
|Leadership||Rabbi Fred Pomerantz|
|Website||Congregation Agudas Achim, Livingston Manor, NY|
|General contractor||Izzy Brooks|
|Direction of façade||east|
|Materials||Concrete, stucco, wood|
|U.S. National Register of Historic Places|
|Added to NRHP:||November 19, 1998|
|NRHP Reference No.||98001404|
Agudas Achim Synagogue, formally known as Congregation Agudas Achim, is located on Rock Avenue in Livingston Manor, New York, United States. It is a stucco-sided wooden building erected in the 1920s to serve the growing Jewish community in that area of the Catskills.
It was founded as an unofficially Orthodox congregation that catered to a diverse group of local Jews, not all of whom were themselves Orthodox. The synagogue built two years after its founding combines features of Eastern European synagogues, reflecting the national origin of its founders, with aspects of the older Protestant Christian churches found in the area, and some features found on contemporary Sullivan County synagogues.
After a period of decline in the decades after World War II, following the demise of the local resort industry, Agudas Achim officially became a Reform congregation to attract new members. Today it holds services year-round and has more members than at any time in its history. The building remains architecturally intact from the period of its construction. In 1998 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The synagogue is located a few blocks from downtown Livingston Manor on the west side of Rock Avenue, the former route of state highway NY 17, at the crest of a slight rise between the Little Beaver Kill and Willowemoc Creek, the two streams that converge at the unincorporated hamlet. The neighborhood is a mix of residential and commercial uses. There is a small copse of trees behind the synagogue; the hill to its east, behind the houses on Wright Street which leaves Rock to the south of the synagogue, is wooded.
The building is a one-story frame building on a raised, parged and scored concrete basement separated from the first floor by a wooden water table. It is sided in rough stucco with small bits of inlaid glass. The gabled roof is shingled in asphalt.
On the east (front) facade is a two-story central projecting entrance pavilion with a steep concrete steps leading up to a porch with gabled roof and "AGUDAS ACHIM" in large letters in its entablature. It is topped by an enclosed ell with hipped roof pierced by short square turrets with pyramidal roofs on either side. In its facade is a large circular window with a Star of David flanked by two smaller sash windows. On either side are smaller circular windows with Stars of David. Above it is a semi-circular louvered vent in the gable field.
The front pavilion is echoed on the west (rear) with a smaller one holding the Torah ark and decorated with three Star-of-David windows directly above it. A brick chimney pierces the roof above on the south side of the crest. Both side profiles feature five double-hung sash windows with lancet arched transoms with colored glass Stars of David in the tracery surrounded by opaque glass.
From the porch, paneled glazed double doors lead into a small vestibule which then opens into a single large sanctuary. It is minimally decorated, with off-white plaster walls rising to a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The sanctuary is laid out following Eastern European traditions, with the bimah in the center and pews on three sides. The ark is behind the bimah on the rear wall.
An open women's' gallery, reached by two small stairs from the vestibule, extends over the rear. It is serpentine in shape and supported by two round wooden columns. The gallery's outside wall is faced in rectangular panels with small square blocks in each corner; the inside wall is beaded. There is a raised platform at the rear, over the vestibule.
All floors are hardwood. The bimah and ark have paneled exteriors and beaded interiors. Stairs have square posts and turned balusters. Pews are simple, supported by gently curved solid end panels. Light is provided by a centrally located iron chandelier, supplemented by four hanging lanterns, wall sconces and decorative fixtures on the bimah and ark platform.
The synagogue building reflects the dual influence of the Eastern European background of its founders and the existing local Protestant Christian churches, with some other features common to the other synagogues built in Sullivan County at that time. On the exterior, the former is strongest in the dual turrets on the facade, scaled-down versions of a common motif on the synagogues of Eastern Europe. The projecting gallery below them and colored glass in the exterior also reflect those building traditions.
Agudas Achim's steep gabled roof and arched windows are both unusual features on synagogues, reflecting the meetinghouse tradition of the older Baptist and Presbyterian churches in the Catskills. The raised sanctuary with wide front steps leading to the entrance is seen on many other synagogues in the county.
Inside, the dual influences on the outside are also strongly in evidence. The synagogue's layout, with the bimah in the center, still reflects Orthodox Jewish practice in Eastern Europe, where reading the Torah and prayer were activities involving the entire congregation rather than led by an officiant, as is more customary in Reform services such as those the synagogue holds now. The austere interior and barrel-vaulted ceiling are again evocative of a rural Protestant church, a strong contrast to the lavishly decorated interiors found at Ohave Shalom in Woodridge and the Hebrew Congregation of Mountaindale. Only the Stars of David and colored glass indicate that it is a synagogue. It is not known, however, if this spareness was a direct influence of the local Protestant traditions or simply due to a lack of funds for such decorative touches.
The building also follows local custom in being oriented perpendicular to the road. This puts in conflict with Orthodox tradition in which the ark is always placed at the rear of the building and towards Jerusalem, since at Agudas Achim it is on the opposite side of the building. To conform to this requirement, its entrance would have to be in what is now the rear.
Agudas Achim straddles the entire era of Jews in the Catskills. Founded by a religious and ethnically diverse community, it became Orthodox by default although not all its members were. Along with the Sullivan County resort industry, it went into a slow decline after World War II when other vacation opportunities opened up to the region's primarily Jewish clientele. A change to a formal affiliation with Reform Judaism has reversed the decline of both the building and its congregation.
1882–1972: Rise and decline
Jewish settlement in the Livingston Manor area began in 1882 when what was then known as the New York and Oswego Midland Railroad built a depot there. This made it possible for local farmers to ship their produce to New York City, and some German Jews who had emigrated to the United States ultimately found their way to the Catskills and opened dairy farms. The railroad also opened up the region for city residents who wanted to get away from the summer heat, leading some farmers and residents to get into that business. Many refused Jews as guests.
In 1900, with the arrival of a new wave of Jews from Eastern Europe, new resorts began catering to Jewish guests specifically. The first Jewish family settled in Livingston Manor in 1906; the first Jewish resort opened two years later. In those early years antisemitism was overt, with local residents regularly referring to them as "kikes". It forced the first recorded action of a Jewish community in the hamlet in 1912 when several banded together to buy land for a cemetery since no local graveyards would accept Jews.
By the 1920s, Jews made up 10% of the local population and had come to play a large role in local public life, lessening the hostility. There was also a large enough Jewish community that a school was started by local members of The Workmen's Circle (known at the time by its Yiddish name, the Arbeiterring). It had four classes and was used to host social events and some religious services. Most of the areas at the time were fairly secular, expressing Jewish identity primarily through cultural events.
Beginning in that decade, newer Jewish arrivals in Livingston Manor were as committed to it as a faith as well as a culture, and these immigrants began holding High Holy Days services at a rented pavilion on the shores of Willowemoc Creek where Livingston Manor High School now stands. In 1922, the more religious Jews gained the upper hand in the community following the departure of some of the Arbeittering members, and incorporated Agudas Achim. They bought the land and one of the few practicing Orthodox Jews in the town, Izzy Brooks, built the synagogue. It was opened two years later, in 1924.
It was supported by the more secular Jews as well, and eventually the school the Arbeiterring had founded closed down. The synagogue observed traditional rites and came to be considered Orthodox although it was never formally affiliated with any broader Orthodox Jewish group. Farmers and hotel owners in the congregation, many of whom lived a long distance from the town, would often drive in for Shabbat services, park a discreet distance from the synagogue and walk from there to services to maintain the appearance of following Jewish law.
The Jews of Livingston Manor, and their synagogue, prospered during the Depression due to a summer influx of middle-class garment workers from the city. Newly unionized, they could afford summer vacations at Jewish mountain resorts. This increasing affluence turned against the Catskills in the 1950s, when these same Jews and their descendants were able to afford suburban homes and vacation elsewhere, including those resorts that had once been closed to them. Jews began to leave the village, and by 1972 Agudas Achim was open only during the High Holy Days and beginning to deteriorate.
1973–present: Reform and rebirth
The congregation had dwindled to 35 members, and its board began to explore formally becoming a Conservative or Reform synagogue. In 1981 it began hiring Reform rabbis, including women, to conduct services, and several years later newer members joined with some of the older ones to form a revitalization committee. In 1984, after several older members who might have been alienated by the change had retired to Florida, the congregation formally became Reform. The congregation president at the time, Leon Siegel, invested Ladies' Aid Society funds from the 1960s to create an endowment that helped pay for repair and maintenance of the building.
In 1990 the synagogue hired a regular rabbi again and began holding services once a month. Two years later it celebrated its first bar mitzvah since 1971. By 1999 the congregation had grown to 105 families, possibly its largest membership ever. It now holds weekly services year-round, even though some of Livingston Manor's Jews spend the winter in Florida, and operates a Hebrew school. In 2008 five of its students celebrated their bar or bat mitzvahs, a large number for a small congregation. It is a member synagogue of the Union for Reform Judaism.
- LaFrank, Kathleen (July 1998). "National Register of Historic Places nomination, Agudas Achim Synagogue". New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Retrieved February 6, 2010.
- LaFrank, Kathleen (August 2000). "National Register of Historic Places nomination, Ohave Shalom Synagogue". New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. pp. 4–5. Retrieved April 18, 2009.
- LaFrank, Kathleen (January 2001). "National Register of Historic Places nomination, Hebrew Congregation of Mountaindale Synagogue". New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. p. 5. Retrieved April 14, 2009.
- Rozhon, Tracie (August 16, 1998). "Borscht Belt's Spiritual Survivors; Resilient Catskill Synagogues Enter Historic Register". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). p. 1. Retrieved February 7, 2010. "... Agudas Achim switched to Reform Judaism in 1984 to increase its membership ('We had to wait until some of our older members moved to Florida,' said the congregation's president, Bob Freedman. 'We didn't want them to feel cut out')."
- Sacco, Stephen (September 18, 2009). "Shul a special place to worship". Times-Herald Record (Ottaway Community Newspapers). Retrieved February 8, 2010.
- "Congregation Agudas Achim, Livingston Manor, NY". Congregation Agudas Achim. 2010. Retrieved February 7, 2010.