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A Brief History of the Beacon Hebrew Alliance Building

11/02/2021 03:55:29 PM

Nov2

Prepared by Brandon DiDiego – Intern at the Beacon Historical Society with contributions by Ann Gross and Diane Lapis, editing by Anna Marcus

A grainy black and white newspaper photo of a large brick building with three tall windows in front trimmed in white, a star of David at the top of center of the building, and a white series of steps leading up to a white-trimmed entryway.
Newspaper article reporting the opening of “the new Hebrew Synagogue and Community Center… under the auspices of Beacon Hebrew Alliance,” Sept 1929, courtesy of Beacon Historical Society

 

In the early part of the 20th century, members of the Beacon Hebrew Alliance gathered for religious service and celebrations in local community centers, businesses, and homes across the city. Some attended services in Newburgh and Poughkeepsie.  As early as 1922, the BHA trustees were looking into a lot to build a synagogue, and in 1924 a decision was made to raise funds to construct a synagogue in Beacon, spearheaded by then president David Alper.  The estimated cost was $30,000 ($467,000 today). This figure was no match for the dedication and desire for a local home of worship.

Fundraising for the new BHA building was chaired by Sidney Schuman and Fannie Miller.  Sidney owned Schuman’s Army & Navy Store, near where the DMV building is now on Main Street. His store was one of the locations where BHA members had meetings and services when they first incorporated. Fannie was the President of the Ladies Aid Society of BHA, which was a separately incorporated entity composed of Jewish women, who were married (or widowed) to male members of BHA. Fannie owned Miller clothing store at 342 Main Street, on the corner of Teller Ave, and was highly respected in the Beacon business community.

  A grainy black and white photo of a white man’s head and shoulders, sitting straight, with short dark hair, he is wearing a dark suit jacket, white collared shirt, and a light tie with diagonal stripes. His expression is neutral, with a slight hint of a smile. Two images side by side. On the left is a black and white line drawing of a white man with a round face and short dark hair parted down the middle. He is clean-shaven and is wearing a suit jacket with a white collared shirt and a black bowtie. On the right is a grainy black and white newspaper photo of an older white woman with gray hair parted down the middle and pulled back. She has dark framed round glasses and is wearing a pearl necklace and a dark gray v-necked blouse.  
 

David Alper, BHA President during the synagogue construction, 1929, courtesy of Beacon Historical Society

Portrait of Sidney Schuman, c. 1934, courtesy of Beacon Historical Society Portrait of Mrs. Fannie Miller, c. 1934, courtesy of Beacon Historical Society  

 

Sid and Fannie worked their connections to raise funds for the BHA building. When they reached pledges of $6,000, they sought out support in the local community. In addition to monies raised by its members, donations for the building came from city officials, local businesses and factories, and residents, raising over $1,700. By 1929, BHA had raised the required funds to start construction.

 

CONSTRUCTING THE NEW SYNAGOGUE

The building’s construction, headed by James Lynch, a noted builder in Beacon, began in the summer of 1929 with a deadline to be ready for the Jewish New Year.  Amazingly, Lynch and his crew completed the work within a half an hour of the Rosh Hashanah services!  Lynch donated some of the building supplies from his lumberyard and the Obed Lodge Masons aided in the construction.  The building is made of locally produced bricks from the Dennings Point Brick Works.  Manager David Strickland donated a large portion of the supplies needed for the building utilizing a new brick product called red corrugated face.

Three color photos are arranged in an upside down triangle. The top left photo shows a white cornerstone engraved with the number 5689, for the Hebrew year the synagogue was built. The top right photo shows a white cornerstone engraved with the number 1929, for the Gregorian year. The bottom center photo shows a stack of red bricks with vertical grooves on their face, giving them a corrugated texture.
The two cornerstones on either side of the synagogue represent the Hebrew year and the Gregorian calendar year respectively. The middle image shows a closeup of the red corrugated brick made by Dennings Point Brickworks, photos by Felix Lara, courtesy of the Beacon Historical Society
A sepia toned photo of the interior of BHA’s sanctuary and featuring the bima. There is a large wooden arch in the back with Hebrew lettering in gold on the top, and two sets of wooden columns coming down either side. A black velvet curtain hangs from the ark, embroidered with stars of David. In front of the arc is a wooden table with a black and gold trimmed cloth and a large menorah holding six electric candles is sitting on top of it. The bima is raised up with three steps leading up to it in the front. A wooden railing surrounds the bima and the pillars of the rail posts are topped with ornamental torches. Two large stained glass windows are on either side of the ark on the back wall.
The original bima at BHA, 1929, photo courtesy of Ann Gross

There are two cornerstones on the left and right of the building.  The one on the left is marked 5689, indicating the Jewish calendar year; the one on the right is marked 1929 for the Gregorian calendar year.  Placed inside one of the cornerstones was a bible, documents from the Building committee and the Ladies Aid Society, a history of the BHA, and a list of the donors and of the Masons who helped build it.

The opening celebration of the temple included Beacon’s Mayor Alfred Russell and Judge Thomas Hassett, with representatives from the Protestant and Catholic Churches and Rabbi Bloom and Rabbi Blatt from Newburgh. 

Rabbi Brachman of the Jewish Welfare Board of NY was the guest speaker at the laying of the cornerstone. He said, “The tolerance between the Jews and the Non-Jews which I have found in Beacon at the dedication of the house of G-d seems to me to be the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecy of old: ‘ My house shall be called the house of worship for all peoples…”

 

IMPACT OF THE SYNAGOGUE ON THE COMMUNITY

1929 was a busy year for Beacon.  Major construction projects from the river to the mountain included the Nabisco Box Plant, the Mechanics Savings Bank, South Avenue School, the Matteawan National Bank, Schoonmakers Department Store, the East Main Street bridge and the Beacon Hebrew Alliance.

Prior to the building's construction, the community's workforce was dwindling due to economic hardships and scarce job availability with the onset of the Great Depression. The BHA’s new synagogue construction in addition to many construction projects were seen as the primary driving force to labor demand in Beacon. In fact, Dennings Point resumed day and night shifts for production due to increasing supply demands. As a result, an abundance of jobs began to arise in the city of Beacon. When word spread of both labor demand and a newly constructed synagogue; many Hebrew immigrants began to move upriver from New York City to establish their families in the upcoming community.

 

RENOVATIONS AND CHANGES TO THE BUILDING

In 1954, the building underwent a major remodel, costing $12,000 (approximately $122,368 today). In the sanctuary, the bima was reconfigured so that the two current lecterns facing the congregation replaced a Torah reading table that had been in front of the ark. In addition, the stairs to the bima were removed from in front of the ark and added on either side of the bima. The wooden folding chairs used to seat the congregation were replaced by upholstered permanent seating. New carpeting was also installed. Downstairs, the restrooms were reconfigured and new flooring (linoleum) was installed. The Sisterhood of BHA raised much of the funds for the downstairs renovations.

 A color photo showing tables covered in stuff, an exercise bike, and various household items. People are milling about. A brick building is in the background, with an addition of the ground floor jutting out, and lined with windows.
A flea market at BHA shows the addition to the building that was built in 1960, May 22, 1994, photo courtesy of Ellen Pearson Gersh

A large addition was added to the building in 1960, consisting of one large room on the ground floor next to the preexisting community room. The room was mainly used (at first) as classrooms and it was separated from the rest of the community room (then called the Vestry Room) by folding naugahyde partitions.

In 1984, Dr. Robert Frankel headed a project to remodel the community room and classroom addition (which was now also being used as a small sanctuary). A long counter with cabinet space underneath was added to the community room and a Torah ark and covered bookcases were added to the small sanctuary. In addition, fans were added upstairs.

In 1996, the ground floor space was remodeled, costing $125,000. Changes consisted of a revamp of the Rabbi's apartment (two small rooms, one called the Rabbi's office and one called the Rabbi's bedroom were merged to become one large room which is the current Rabbi's study.) A drop ceiling was installed, paneling was installed, the glass block wall was installed, the naugahyde partitions were removed and carpeting was installed in both the small and the main sanctuaries. The large room now used as the Cantor's office was converted from a storage space to a library and classroom. In addition, a new heating system and roof were installed.

In the early 2000s, new carpeting was installed in the small downstairs sanctuary and on the bima of the main sanctuary upstairs. A patio was installed outside the building, which was BHA member Eli Smith's Eagle Scout project.

In the 2010s, a shower was removed from the closet space near the Rabbi's office and the very same closet was remodeled into an office for the administrator. Storage and coat closets were added to the common room and the cantor's office was created in the space that had been the library.  Upstairs, a beautiful wooden bookcase was built in the vestibule to store the machzorim (texts used during the Days of Awe), and was donated in memory of lifelong BHA member Leo Ritter.

In addition to these large renovations, throughout the years the roof has needed lots of work. Every few years, leaks were discovered and repairs were needed. A large project repointing part of the main building was undertaken in the early 2000's and was very helpful in reducing the leaks. The kitchen was remodeled many times to replace old equipment and around 1999 the cabinets were recovered.

Here is a short four-minute video of the BHA building made in June 2021 that documents a tour Cantor Ellen Pearson Gersh gave to the Rosenthal family, descendants of Beacon’s second mayor and founder of BHA Samuel Beskin.

Tour of Beacon Hebrew Alliance Synagogue on June 24, 2021 from Anna Marcus on Vimeo.

 

BHA’S BUILDING TODAY

A color photograph taken from the air of the front of a large brick building. There are three large vertical stained glass windows on the second floor, and two smaller stained glass windows on the first floor. The Star of David is at the top peak of the building. Two large wooden doors are framed by a brick entry way. A small garden is on the left side of the doorway, with planters and a trellis. A brick patio is to the side and several people are standing there.
The front of the Beacon Hebrew Alliance synagogue today, October 2021, photo by Felix Lara, courtesy of Beacon Historical Society

 

After lying dormant for exactly 600 days during the COVID pandemic, on October 29, 2021, BHA’s building officially opened its doors again for worship and community gatherings (see Rabbi Brent Spodek’s blog post about it here). This reopening was the result of weeks of hard work and thoughtful preparation by the BHA board and staff with advice from Dr. Paul Ostrovsky, a devoted BHA member.

Returning to the building is all the sweeter as we review and appreciate the many contributions and sacrifices the community at BHA has made to build the synagogue over the past century, making it a warm and welcoming place for us today.


If you would like to ensure the longevity of the synagogue, please consider giving to BHA’s annual Kol Nidre campaign here, or if you would like to make an even larger impact, consider putting a bequest to BHA in your will. These actions will go a long way to fortifying the future of BHA and perpetuating the life of the building for future generations.

Do you have photos or other memorabilia that relate to BHA’s story? If so, please fill out this quick google form to let us know what you have. We will reach out to you to arrange to scan your photos or collect your artifacts. BHA’s Centennial programs are made possible, in part, with funding from the Sadie Jane Effron Cahn Beacon Hebrew Alliance Endowment of the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley.

Tue, November 30 2021 26 Kislev 5782