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History of BHBI

Congregation Beth Hamedresh - Beth Israel (BHBI) has a long and proud history within the Rochester Jewish Community. Resulting from the merger of the former Congregations Beth Israel and Beth Hamedresh Hagodel, BHBI traces it lineage back to the second oldest Jewish congregation in Rochester.

Beth Israel

Rochester's first Jewish Congregation, Berith Kodesh (present day Temple Brith Kodesh), was founded by German Jews who first arrived in Rochester in 1843. While originally Orthodox, Berith Kodesh quickly moved to adopt the more liberal services of the Reform movement.

Beth Israel
Beth Israel on Leopold Street
   
Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Eastern European Jews, primarily from Poland, began arriving in Rochester. These Orthodox Eastern European Jews formally created Congregation Sheves Achim in 1870. A year later, dissension caused a group to split off, creating Congregation Bene Shalom. In 1874 these two congregations reunited under the new name Beth Israel. In 1886 Beth Israel was enlarged by its merger with B'nai Israel, a congregation founded in 1882 by Russian immigrants (unrelated to the present B'nai Israel - Ahavas Achim on Joseph Avenue).

In September 1886, after earlier quarters on Jordan's Block (present day Main Street) and at 54 Chatham Street (today Ormond Street), Congregation Beth Israel moved to a new location at 30 Leopold Street. The Leopold Street sanctuary provided seating for 800 people, while its basement became the home of the first community sponsored Hebrew School program in Rochester.

In June 1889 Beth Israel witnessed a revolutionary event for the Orthodox community of Rochester when, for the first time, the sermon was delivered in English!; and in 1906 Beth Israel hired the first English speaking rabbi in Rochester. Beth Israel opened the first Orthodox Sunday School in Rochester and provided opportunities for girls of Orthodox families to receive a Jewish religious education. In its day, Beth Israel was known as the most distinguished Shul in the city. Split-off groups from Beth Israel served as the founders of modern day Congregation Beth Hakneses Hachodesh (Orthodox) as well as Temple Beth El, the first Conservative congregation in Rochester.

Beth Israel remained at its Leopold Street site until 1973, when the building was sold to the Church of God and Saints of Christ. The building, located near the present day Amtrak railroad station, still stands and has been designated as a National Landmark.

Beth Hamedresh Hagodel

The influx of new immigrants to Rochester lead to the creation of new congregations. One of the many such small congregations that formed was Ahavas Achim. In 1878 they changed their name to Chevra Tillem Society, and in 1882 they changed their name again to B'nai David. In 1884 Congregation Ahavas Achim was formed. It too changed its name and became known as Chevra Chayteem, the Congregation of Tailors.

    
Beth Hamedresh Hagodel
Beth Hamedresh Hagodel
on Hanover Street
In 1911 B'nai David and Chevra Chayteem joined forces to build a brand new synagogue building at 32 Hanover Street, modeled after a synagogue in Toronto. It was named Beth Hamedresh Hagodel (the Big or Great Shul). The building, with a sanctuary seating 2,000, was constructed from sandstone, looking golden in the sunlight. Columns an either side were topped with golden Jewish stars. Inside, seats were of mahogany, the large dome was painted like the nightime sky, large oil paintings of Biblical scenes adorned the walls, and the windows were of stained glass. The courtyard served as a meeting place for congregants of the many nearby smaller shuls. At its peak, Beth Hamedresh Hagodel was the largest congregation in Rochester, and its building was a show place of American Jewish life.

Beth Hamedresh Hagodel remained on Hanover Street until 1960 when the entire area, including the synagogue, was demolished to make room for a federally funded urban renewal program. In 1964 Beth Hamedresh Hagodel purchased, and moved into, its new and present home at 1369 East Avenue, an historic mansion previously occupied by the Alpha Lutheran Church for the Deaf. The move to East Avenue also marked the transition of the Congregation from Orthodox to Conservative services.

Beth Hamedresh - Beth Israel

In 1973, with the sale of its building on Leopold Street, Congregation Beth Israel merged with Congregation Beth Hamedresh Hagodel. The new Congregation maintained the names of both partners in the merger, becoming Beth Hamedresh - Beth Israel (BHBI).

Beth Hamedresh Hagodel
Beth Hamedresh - Beth Israel
on East Avenue
   
In the early 1990's there was a major change in the role of women in the synagogue, and the Congregation addressed the question of equal rights for women in synagogue life. The Congregation eventually voted positively on this issue, and today women enjoy full participation, leading religious services and other congregational functions.

More historic pictures of Congregations Beth Israel and Beth Hamedresh Hagodel can be viewed here.

An organizational chart of BHBI's congregational family tree can be viewed here.

Further details on the history of Congregation Beth Hamedresh - Beth Israel can be found in a write up prepared by former Congregational President Mark Bobb. You can download this document as a pdf file (888 kb) by clicking here.

The above historical information has been drawn from The Jewish Community in Rochester, by Stuart E. Rosenberg.

Congregation Beth Hamedresh - Beth Israel (BHBI)
1369 East Avenue  •  Rochester, NY 14610  •  (585) 244-2060