Remembering the Jewish past of Joseph Avenue

Remembering the Jewish past of Joseph Avenue

[Congregation Bnai Israel, Photo: David Kramer]

This article first appeared in the D & C. Due to a D & C server change, some of the photos are missing. Remembering the Jewish past of Joseph Avenue (D & C)

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.

jewish pst 2

[Photo: David Kramer]

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.

Guide to the Jewish Population of Rochester, New York 1961

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?


A Black Lives Matter solidarity rally with commentary from Kholaa and a walk down Joseph Avenue

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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