The Sharon Springs Synagogue
The first Jewish population arrived in America in the 17th century; since then, American Jews have been an important part of American identity and culture. Within the Jewish community in America, there have been some major divisions concerning religious beliefs and adherence to practices. Three large sub-divisions came out of American Judaism: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.
Reform Judaism is the most theologically liberal denomination in Judaism. According to the Union for Reform Judaism, Reform Judaism is committed to the “principle of inclusion, not exclusion (extending to interfaith marriages), the absolute equality of women in all areas of Jewish life, and full participation of gays and lesbians in synagogue life as well as society at large.”
Conservative Judaism is more theologically traditional and was created in response to Reform Judaism. Whereas the Union for Reform Judaism emphasizes social engagement and justice as opposed to adherence to religious practice, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism believes “Jewish law and tradition properly understood and interpreted, will enrich Jewish life and help mold the world closer to the prophetic vision of the Kingdom of God”.
Orthodox Judaism is the most theologically conservative denomination in Judaism. Unlike other denominations in Judaism, Orthodoxy is not a single movement or school of thought. Most Orthodox Jews today believe that contemporary Orthodox Judaism, unlike other denominations, maintains the same basic philosophy and practices that existed throughout Jewish history. Out of the three main denominations, Orthodox Judaism is considered to be the furthest idealistically removed from secular America.
Sharon Springs has had an interesting relationship with all of these denominations of Judaism, but most recently with the Orthodox, and particularly ultra-Orthodox, sects. After Saratoga Springs and other resort towns banned Jewish visitors, Sharon Springs became a haven for wealthy German Reform and Conservative Jews. Soon, Orthodox Jews followed their brethren to visit the baths and spas. One of these Orthodox Jews, Dr. Rabbi Bernard Drachman (1861-1945) was so entranced by Sharon Springs, he founded a synagogue in the town in 1904.
Rabbi Drachman is considered to be one of the most important leaders in American Orthodoxy. He had a large synagogue in New York City, where Harry Houdini was one of his pupils. Drachman founded the Sharon Springs synagogue to serve the growing Orthodox community. It was so popular in the summer, that there often were not enough seats.
By the 1960s, Sharon Springs found itself as a hub for Hasidic Jews of the Satmar court. Hasidic Jews are different from the the large largest sects of Judaism; they are ultra-Orthodox, maintaing not only the religious practices of their ancestors, but their dress, food, language, and customs of 18th century Eastern Europe. First introduced to Sharon Springs by the Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, the Hasidim quickly established boarding houses and a mikvah (ritual bathing house) to fill their community’s needs. As less orthodox Jews stopped visiting Sharon Springs, the Hasidim took over the synagogue. They built a new kitchen, put up signs in Yiddish, and divided the small building for women and children to be separated from the men as is their religious custom. The Hasidim even constructed an eruv around the community. This is a ritual enclosure, in this case made of fishing wire, that observant Jewish communities construct in their neighborhoods as a way to permit the transportation of objects from one house to a synagogue on the Sabbath, which is otherwise prohibited by Jewish law.
In 1996, the Sharon Springs Synagogue was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Though the Hasidim have stopped coming to Sharon Springs in large numbers, a small group still comes in August every year. For those two weeks in August, the synagogue is opened once more and Jewish visitors freely practice their religion as they have in Sharon Springs for over one hundred years.
Tour the synagogue as part of the Historic Walking Tour at this year’s Sharon Springs Garden Party Festival. Click here for ticket information. Space is limited.
Guest Blogger Emily Lang is a graduate student in the Cooperstown Graduate Program in History Museum Studies. She is currently working on her thesis, “The Othering of Sharon Springs”, about Jewish tourism in Sharon Springs. She will answer questions about Sharon Springs’ history during the tour.