INTRODUCTION—SCHENECTADY JEWISH HISTORY


Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria arrived in Schenectady in the 1840s-1860s. Once Jewish immigrants reached sufficient numbers to support a congregation they organized both a synagogue, Gates of Heaven, and purchased land for a cemetery, the key elements in the creation of all Jewish communities in the United States. Many Jewish immigrants in the 19th Century started as peddlers, and in Schenectady they began as peddlers, and small dealers in clothes, liquor, and groceries. By the 1880s, they began the creation of the first non-synagogue related institutions, like the Montefiore Society in 1883. Charitable work and providing for the poor within the community became an essential part of the Jewish experience. As a community, Jews wanted to identify and be accepted in their new homeland. They identified with their fellow Americans in times of national tragedy, like the murder of President Garfield in 1881, and showed their loyalty in times of war, as they did in World War I and II.
From the 1880s to 1924, new Jewish immigrants from Hungary, Russian Empire and Austria arrived in Schenectady with the population increasing to 5,000 by 1918. General Electric, for example, attracted Jewish craftsmen from Hungary. Other Jewish immigrants tended to follow the pattern of German immigrants forty years earlier starting out as peddlers and small merchants. The arrival of the immigrants led to a sudden increase in religious institutions. At one point before World War I, there may have been as many as seven different synagogues. Initially they were all Orthodox, and shared a commitment to the creation of cemeteries for each congregation and supported kosher bakeries, delis, and butcher shops. Modernization and Americanization had an impact as Reform Judaism emerged within Gates of Heaven by 1907 and Agudas Achim became Conservative in the 1920s. Orthodox congregations eventually merged into Beth Israel. The story of the Jewish community is an interaction between the immigrants and America, between adapting to a new environment and values while retaining a sense of identity as Jews. This exhibition tells part, only part of the story of an immigrant community and how it evolved over the last one hundred and fifty years. Looking at the Jewish experience helps us understand the religious and ethnic mosaic of America.

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