If you have been reading this blog for even a little while, then you already know from our journeys in Buffalo, NY that the Polish population there increased exponentially from 1850-1900. Well up until now, we have primarily shared this history under the guise of a Catholic heritage; however, the vast majority of Poles who settled in Buffalo before the year 1865 were Jewish. These Polish Jews of Buffalo founded their first congregation, Beth-El Synagogue, on Pearl Street in 1848. Almost immediately a sizable German population of Jews also began to attend Temple Beth-El since it was the only gig in town. However, the Germans were not necessarily in favor of the strict Orthodox nature of the congregation, nor did they like the fact that everything was said in Polish! Eleven of these German members decided to secede and start their own congregation concurrent with the German liturgy. This new congregation of German Jews began to call themselves Beth Zion (minus the word Temple since they did not have one yet) and met in several locations for the next fifteen years.
This history alone gets Chris and I excited. Fortunately for us, literally 2-3 days before we left on one of our many excursions to Buffalo, we received a phone call from Temple Beth Zion who was returning our call from weeks prior, and they informed us we could join a tour that was being given for another church group. Psyched at being given the opportunity we jumped at the chance and agreed we would be there for their 10:00 am tour. When you drive down Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, you are encountered with what is easily one of the nicest and most picturesque neighborhoods in the entire city! It is the influence from the affluent that lived on Delaware Avenue that really brought Buffalo to its former glory and it is easy to see from the former and even current mansions that line the street of how awesome the city once was. In addition to the mansions and also the various houses of worship that line the street, located at 641 Delaware Avenue is also the location of where Vice President Teddy Roosevelt was sworn in as the new President of the United States when President William McKinley was assassinated at the Pan-Am Exposition in Buffalo, NY in 1901. Further up the street we arrived to Temple Beth Zion which is a very modern and architecturally unique building to the neighborhood and we immediately began to take pictures.
We eventually walked in and were greeted by a man who introduced himself and explained we were in the right place, but the tour docent was not there yet, so we could just hang out. Fortunately, a few minutes later our docent did arrive and after rounding up the rest of the tour-takers, our tour began with an explanation of the ‘Reform’ movement that occurred within Judaism that quickly influenced the congregation of Beth Zion. In the year 1863, the Beth Zion congregation had grown in numbers and several of its members became curious about the new “Reform” phenomenon, so they requested that an emissary be sent to them to provide some education. Within the next year, this small group who had asked to be educated eventually formally organized in 1864 as a distinct Reformed sect, which in turn caused a division in the Beth Zion congregation which had been traditionally Orthodox. However, the older Beth Zion group seemed to see the writing on the wall and made the decision to join their fellow brethren and the congregation was now considered to be of the Reform Judaism variety only. Then, in the year 1865, the Beth Zion congregation bought the former Niagara Street Methodist Church (which has since been destroyed) and after extensive renovations rededicated the site as the new Temple Beth Zion. They remained in this site until 1886, but from 1886 – 1890, Temple Beth Zion was either building less, or housed in former churches. It was not until 1890 that the congregation finally bought some property that they eventually transformed into a magnificent Byzantine Temple that remained a Buffalo landmark for the next 71 years.
Part of our tour was looking at pictures of this old Temple that was formally located at 599 Delaware Avenue and the new modern Temple we were standing in has several newspaper articles embossed on metal that are hanging from their walls that share the history of their former home and also its tragic demise. It was important for us to know this past history to understand the purpose for the design of the new, more modern structure that we were standing in. As we were standing in a group listening to the docent, and slowly making our way to the main sanctuary, several people began to come in in order to begin preparations for a bar mitzvah that was scheduled to take place during the day’s service. This caused me much anxiety because I knew that these preparations would impede on my ability to take any pictures without people in them, but Chris told me to suck it up and get over it. Thankfully, we eventually made it into the sanctuary and were not disappointed.
When you first step into the sanctuary at Temple Beth Zion, the first thing you notice is the sheer size of the room and how small you are in it. As you face the bimah (which is the equivalent to the Main Altar), you cannot miss the two massive monolith structures which display the Ten Commandments (actually, having the bar mitzvah preparations going on in front of us actually helps give some scale in the pictures as to just how big everything is). In between the Ten Commandments is the Holy Ark which houses several sacred Torahs, above the Holy Ark is the Ner Tamid (the eternal light) and behind that is a giant stained glass window which makes up an entire wall in the Temple, which was explained to us, is a hand that represents creation. More towards the front of the bimah is a very large lecturn where the Torah is placed to be read from and then to the left of the bimah is a very large Menorah. Our docent explained the significance of each of these items in Temple Beth Zion, but more from a historical perspective; something which at this point, Chris and I could teach. As we walked forward and towards the bimah, one can then look at the back of the room and also see the enormous pipe organ that literally takes up the entire back side of the sanctuary. We learned that this particular organ is a Casavant Frères designed, 48-rank, 4000 piece pipe organ. Some other interesting points of interest are that the main sanctuary room is circular in nature and each side is made up of 10 scallops, which are symbolic of the 10 Commandments; the holes in the walls were left intentionally from the forms used to make the walls by the architect Max Abromovitz, which he explained is to “remind us that our world is unfinished and we are partners with God in creation;” there is not an actual corner anywhere in the sanctuary to place the corner stone from the original Temple, so it is instead memorialized in a special place behind the Holy Ark; and the Holy Ark contains one special Torah donated from the British government, that was given to them by the Czech government after it was found in hiding after World War II so it would not be destroyed by the Nazis.
From the main sanctuary, we were taken to a smaller, more intimate chapel known as the Sisterhood Chapel. It was explained to us that because the main sanctuary is so big, they do not always fill the room, so sometimes they use this smaller sanctuary for more personal affairs. From the Sisterhood Chapel we then went to Temple Beth Zion’s Cofeld Judaic Museum. If you did not previously know, while I cannot confirm it is actually a requirement, it seems to be a fairly typical custom for Jewish Temples to have some sort of museum in their buildings to display their artifacts and let me tell you, Temple Beth Zion’s museum is definitely the biggest we have seen thus far! There are multiple rooms, each with dozens of display cases and even the hallways are filled with not just any old stuff, but much of it is hundreds if not thousands of years old. Our docent took us through this museum, pointing out several of the more historic and important pieces for us to see. One of the things that I thought was especially cool was the several artifacts from areas of the world like Morocco, that today many perhaps do not realize once had a large Jewish presence in it. There was also an entire display case for Jewish Holocaust items, but perhaps more specific to Temple Beth Zion, there are also a few artifacts, including a half-burned Torah from their previous Byzantine-styled Temple.
On October 4, 1961, a fire destroyed the previous Temple Beth Zion. Fueled by flammable liquids being used to refinish the pews, within forty minutes of the fire’s discovery, the beautiful central copper dome that Buffalonians had come to love as a distinguishing feature of their city, collapsed into the building destroying nearly everything. Now homeless, several different houses of worship of varying faiths opened their doors to temporarily house the congregation of Temple Beth Zion as they got back on their feet. However, it was not until April 15, 1967 that the new Temple Beth Zion, the one Chris and I were currently standing in, was finished. Chris and I were in our glory as we looked at all of the different Jewish artifacts on display and read about the history of everything. Eventually our tour officially came to an end, but Chris and I were not done seeing everything and they were totally cool letting us continue to explore.
We entered into another room where there was still a tremendous amount to be seen and in walked the man that we had met when we first arrived that had greeted us. This man began to talk to us and asked is if we were Jewish which we shared that we are not. He also explained that he too was not Jewish, but he was in fact Polish, but of the Catholic variety. He shared that despite being Catholic, he is employed at Temple Beth Zion as the custodian and pretty much the guy that takes care of everything behind the scenes. This man then said something that made Chris and I laugh out loud; he said, “Man, these people have some cool stuff, why don’t Catholics do a better job preserving their stuff?” Our response: “We don’t know man…we don’t know.” However…we like to think our blog is doing a pretty good job of this!