A visit to Temple Beth El of Niagara Falls

Note: On Wednesday, March 2nd, I traveled to Niagara Falls, New York, with a group from Saint Martin in the Fields Episcopal Church and Saint Timothy Lutheran Church to visit Temple Beth El. Since the closing of Temple Beth Israel in 1995, Temple Beth El has been Niagara County’s only Jewish congregation. Ellen Franke serves as the temple’s rabbi.

Rabbi Ellen, as well as Adam DePriest and Mary Santilla, both members of the congregation, told us about Temple Beth El. The synagogue is much smaller than it was before Niagara Falls went into economic decline. At its heyday, Temple Beth El had a membership of 130 families. Currently, the membership stands at 30 families. The loss of membership in Temple Beth El mirrors the dramatic population decline of the city of Niagara Falls, New York. Since 1960, when Niagara Falls had a population of 102,394, Niagara Falls has lost people and jobs. As of July 2014, Niagara Falls’ population was estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau to be 49,219.

In the past year, according Adam, “We lost six active members. Five moved out of town and one passed away.”

Temple Beth El is a small congregation, but it is provides a supportive environment for the families who attend. Rabbi Ellen explained that no one is turned away from Temple Beth El for financial reasons. “Normally, there is a surcharge for Hebrew school,” said Rabbi Ellen. But, because the Hebrew school had been underwritten by rich families, “children get a free Jewish education.”

Adam told us about the history of Temple Beth El. The congregation was started by six men in the 19th century, who had to bury a Civil War veteran. After the funeral, these men decided that they ought to have a Jewish congregation in Niagara Falls. For a number of years, people met to practice their faith in private homes. In 1915, the building that is Temple Beth El was built on Ashland Avenue. There are two years written on the cornerstone: 1914 and 5475. The latter year is the Jewish year. (In the Jewish calendar, this year is 5777.) Temple Beth El was built to be a synagogue, Rabbi Ellen said. “It is a perfect example of classic reform synagogue architecture.” In a reform synagogue, unlike an Orthodox synagogue, men and women sit together. Take a look at the top photograph, and you will see the arch of the covenant, with the ten commandments in Hebrew beneath.

“There used to be multiple services. We’re a very active temple,” Adam explained. The building was designed to be a reform synagogue. By the 1880s, the congregation affiliated with the reform movement. There are three branches of Judaism: orthodox, conservative, and reform. The Jewish faith was never one unified faith, like Christianity before about the 1200s. “There were always different factions that argued with each other,” Rabbi Ellen said.
Rabbi Ellen told us about how the Reform movement practices Judaism.

The Torah is the central and most important book in Judaism. It refers to the first five books of the part of the Bible that Christians refer to as the “Old Testament.” It also includes all of the commentary written about those books in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible includes the Torah, as well as books about the prophets, and a few others These others include Proverbs, Psalms, Daniel, Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.

Jewish people celebrate their sabbath on a Saturday. It is called Shabbat. Shabbat actually goes from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.  “On Friday, you relax and settle in and start your sabbath,” Rabbi Ellen said. She said that, generally, people celebrate the start of their sabbath at home with their families. It’s a time to leave the cares of work behind and enjoy family and company. I challenge you to make your Sunday like that. Do something that makes you happy. On Saturday morning, they come to the synagogue to celebrate the Sabbath with their congregation. The Torah is taken out. The service can range from an hour to three hours. The prayers are sung, not just read,” Rabbi Ellen said. “There is no collection because everyone is supposed to be equal.”

Ten people are required to be at prayers. That is known as a minion. Prayers and songs are in both English and Hebrew. For congregations that follow the conservative tradition, 99 percent of the prayers and songs are in Hebrew.

The Torah, which is the central part of services in the synagogue, is a document that is “handwritten on parchment with a special quill and special ink by scribes.”
Torah scrolls have to be checked every five to ten years “to make sure that they are still kosher,” said Rabbi Ellen. “The Torah is so important to us. During the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls, they found a 4,800 year old scroll that was the same as the ones we use now.”

The Torah at Temple Beth El is no longer kosher, said Rabbi Ellen. “We would like to get a loaner from Buffalo to replace the little one here. It is lovely and may go back to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.”

Purchasing a Torah, however, is an expensive business. Temple Beth El on Eggert Road in Tonawanda paid somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000 for their Torah that they purchased for their 150th anniversary.

Here are a few more facts:

  • While anyone can lead prayers, only rabbis can perform weddings. In Israel, however, rabbis in the reform movement are not permitted to conduct weddings. They have to go to Cyprus to perform the weddings.
  • Mary described the members of Temple Beth El as being “like family.” “That’s why we are here. We have fun. We have luncheons and dinner and a Chinese buffet once a month.”
  • The readings are done in Hebrew. “People who don’t know Hebrew have transliterations.” Hebrew is written right to left, like Arabic.
  • There are prayers that are specific to holidays.
  • “We acknowledge that we are a stiff necked people.” Stiff-necked means ungrateful and stubborn.”
  • The Jewish year is based on the lunar year. Each year has 12 months, except for leap years, which have an extra month.
  • There is a “wall of honor” on the back wall, with the names of members who went to fight in World War II and never came home.
  • There is a tradition of reciting the mourner’s prayer on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. 
  • Temple Beth El and a church across the street have gotten together annually for the past ten years to host a block party to boost Ashland Avenue. “We serve kosher hot dogs, and we pass out invitations to the houses on the block. It is a beautiful street. At the end of the street, you can see the river,” said Rabbi Ellen.
On Wednesday, March 9th, we will visit St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Niagara Falls. This church is recognized as being the first African-American church in Niagara Falls. The church is located at the site of a stop on the Underground Railroad. Stay tuned for a post about this visit.

2 thoughts on “A visit to Temple Beth El of Niagara Falls”

  1. Fascinating. I found the murals of great interest. I have not been in many synagogues but I have not seen one depicting people. I wonder how common that is in other American synagogues. My heart is saddened for a congregation that is dying but gladdened by the free religious education. Perhaps, one day, that congregation will thrive again. I can only hope so. I've not been to that part of upstate New York in a long time. Perhaps it is time for me to visit again.

  2. You're always welcome to visit!
    I feel sad about the dying congregation.
    It's good that the youth are being taught their faith and that it is part of their lives.
    It is sad about the city, too.

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