• July 21, 2014
The old synagogue is not immediately visible, tucked away off Joseph’s Avenue. One might circle a few times before finding the dilapidated gate. Entering the sanctuary is like encountering a ruined chapel from a 19th century gothic novel. An overgrown thorny rose bush, an ancient crab apple tree, faded red brick steps sprouting green shoots, a few words missing from the welcoming plaque CONG. BN I ISRA L, and a sign from the City of Rochester announcing the site has been condemned. Most likely, no more worshippers or sinners will here again congregate.
Reflecting upon Rochester in 1964, it is hard to imagine that Joseph’s was once considered the heart of Jewish Rochester. Teeming with small businesses—bakeries without parallel—busier than Main Street, Joseph’s was still our version of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. No doubt the synagogue was full.
In the end, Joseph’s was unable to survive those three traumatic days in July. Only Sniderman’s Hardware and Jack’s Fish Market remain.
One tragedy was that Jews and African-Americans—often on the same side of civil rights—had generally lived together on good terms. By all accounts, Jewish leaders detected no religious motivation behind the rebellion, a sentiment echoed by Martin Luther King, who was deeply pained by the riots, but fairly said “the outbursts in New York City and Rochester cannot be considered expressions of anti-Semitism.”
But, ultimately—riots or no riots—when we look back we know that Joseph’s was inexorably disappearing. I found a study completed in 1963 documenting the shifting demographics of the Jewish population. Already, Brighton was quickly becoming the center of its community.
Following national post-war trends, the exodus to the suburbs and the abandonment of urban ways of living was well under way. It seems that July ’64 only cemented the inevitable.
Perhaps there is no reason to mourn for the old Avenue. Still, the old synagogue is not yet torn down . . . maybe waiting to see Joseph’s bloom once again?