This spring, an enormous magnolia tree will bloom at 692 Joseph Ave. The purple blossoms don’t know that the congregation B’nai Israel Ahavas Achim has long since moved on. Most of its members moved as a part of the migration to the eastern suburbs in the 1960s, primarily to Brighton and the Upper Monroe Neighborhood. By the 1990s, the few remaining members were not able to keep this iconic temple open. The necessity to have temple within walking distance was the reason for its ultimate demise.
But in the early 20th century, B’nai Israel was one of more than 16 synagogues within walking distance of the Joseph Avenue neighborhood. Congregations then consisted of up to 800 people, with schools and community centers throughout the area.
B’nai Israel was built in 1928 to serve a burgeoning Jewish community that first formed in the 1850s, when Jewish immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe began settling in Rochester’s northeast quadrant. Joseph Avenue, at the time, had become a thriving corridor from the industrial revolution with many neighborhood residents working in the textile or wheat industries.
With its fish markets, clothing stores and other businesses, Joseph Avenue at the turn of the 20th century was known as the city street where you could buy almost anything. The neighborhood continued to thrive until the 1950s when investment in the area began to wane. Families had begun moving out of crowded city neighborhoods for larger houses in the suburbs. That migration would leave space for the growing civil unrest that eventually led to the 1964 Rochester riots, which began near Joseph Avenue.
B’nai Israel, by contrast, was thriving in the 1960s. A congregation from Ormond Street at Ahavas Achim merged with it to form B’nai Israel Ahavas Achim, making it the center of Jewish social life.
Today the structure remains to tell the story of the neighborhood’s Eastern European immigrant past. It is the last of Joseph Avenue’s synagogues, most of which have been demolished or converted to other uses. The street now consists mainly of low-income housing, some scattered commercial development and single-family homes.
Last year, the Joseph Avenue Business Association (JABA) received a grant from the Farash Foundation and the Rochester Regional Community Design Center to prepare a feasibility study for B’nai Israel. The plans call for its revitalization as a museum of history and religion or possibly a small performing-arts venue, according to Dr. Neil Scheier of JABA. JABA envisions it as a potential anchor to the Joseph Avenue neighborhood and a catalyst for future revitalization.
One challenge, however, is that technically, nobody currently owns this building. Typically, a building that is abandoned would be taken over by the city for non-payment of taxes. However, the synagogue’s tax- exempt status precludes that course of action. Ultimately, it will be up to the attorney general of New York State to decide what will happen with the ownership.
Growing Up in the Old Neighborhood
In an excerpt from her article, “Growing Up in the Old Neighborhood—A Memoir of Joseph Avenue,” Ruth Lempert offers a vivid description of life at B’nai Israel in its heyday.
There were numerous synagogues in our neighborhood, some quite small, each with its loyal adherents. My father was a charter member of B’nai Israel, a new orthodox synagogue with a long, wide series of brick stairs leading to its front entrance and thick columns across the front entryway. Its membership included many neighborhood people. It was located within easy walking distance of us, which was very important because my father and other observant Jews would not drive on the Sabbath or religious holidays. He served as an officer of the congregation and participated in the politics of its everyday life. Because he enjoyed being with people and taking charge, he eventually became president of the congregation. He went to worship services every day and three times on the Sabbath—Friday night, Saturday morning, and late Saturday afternoon. Ten men (a minyan) were required at each service in order to perform the prayers. If the group did not reach the minimum number, someone would rush outside to try to haul in a passing Jewish male over the age of thirteen. In our neighborhood it was not too hard to make up the quorum. Women were not allowed to sit with the men, nor could they be counted in the minyan. They sat in the balcony, and I and my sisters often waved to our father as we sat with our mother and looked down at all the men below. Only very little girls were allowed to sit with their fathers.
During the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we children spent more time in the synagogue than we did at any other time. Participating in the prayer service on those holidays was an all day affair. The most exciting moment for me came when the shofar (a curved ram’s horn) was blown in a series of shrill compelling blasts. Was it a warning to all of us to mend our ways? Was it a call to alert everyone of the peril all around us? Or was the blast to remind us of our ancient heritage stretching back thousands of years? I made sure I was present for the blowing of the shofar.
At other times I slipped into the hallway to talk to other boys and girls milling in the corridor. Sometimes we children, tired of the long service, went outside.
The boys ran around chasing the girls and teasing them. The boys picked up chestnut burrs that fell from the trees lining the street. Opening the burrs they extricated the shiny, reddish brown chestnuts and tied each one in the comer of a handkerchief. Twirling their chestnut weapons and threatening to hit us with them, the boys ran after the girls they liked, trying to frighten them. I kept hoping at least one of the boys would chase me, but hardly anyone ever did. After a while we all went dutifully back inside.
The various holidays came only once a year. The Sabbath came every week, but it was more important than all but Yom Kippur. On Friday afternoons well before sundown, the Jewish-owned stores on Joseph Avenue would all close. My father would hasten to get the boxes of fish back into the walk-in cooler, take the cash out of the cash register and lock up. He needed the time to bathe and dress before going to prayer service. My mother, who worked side by side with my father in the store, took Friday off to work at home, dusting, cleaning the rooms, and scrubbing the linoleum kitchen floor. She would lay newspapers over the clean floor so that it would be clean when the Sabbath started.
Excerpted from “Growing Up in the Old Neighborhood—A Memoir of Joseph Avenue,” which was published in two parts in “Rochester History,” Vol.64, nos. 2 and 3 (Spring and Summer 2002). Copyright Rochester Public Library