Although its name means “the new synagogue,” Beth Hakneses Hachodosh is the oldest functioning Orthodox congregation in Greater Rochester. Its colorful history goes back to 1885, when it started life as a “broyges minyan,” that is, a breakaway from an earlier body as a result of what we would call shul politics. The triggering event was a dispute over a fence.
The story begins with three brothers—Aaron, Meyer, and Simon Nusbaum—who had settled in Rochester in 1870-71. Their place of origin was most likely the Poland-Lithuania region of the Russian empire. Aaron was a founding member of one of Rochester’s first eastern European synagogues, Beth Israel (organized 1874). While serving as its president in 1884, he proposed to build a fence for the congregation’s cemetery. Others in the shul leadership insisted that the funds should instead go toward a new synagogue building. Aaron and his brothers, outvoted, resigned from Beth Israel and organized a new minyan with a group of friends. The new organization was called B’nai Aviezer (or, to use the odd spelling that appears in official records, “Bany Avihezer”) after the Nusbaums’ father.
The breakaway seems to have been resented by Beth Israel, which soon adopted a provision that read, “It is forbidden for a member to attend the Nusbaum Minyan. If a member attends either weekdays or Sabbaths, he is to be fined 50 cents for the first violation and one dollar for the second. A third offense would bring expulsion.” Nevertheless, once the new group had established its independence, the two rivals found it possible to cooperate on various community projects. One of the first of these was to establish a communal Talmud Torah, the “Hebrew Free School” for “poor Polish children,” which met at the new shul’s premises until 1895.
At first, B’nai Aviezer continued to accept the authority of Beth Israel’s Rabbi Abba Hayim Levinson, but in December 1888 the shul hired its own first congregational rabbi, at an annual salary of $600. He was Yehuda Eliezer (Leeser) Anixter (1829-1914) of Chicago, born in Lithuania and possibly the first Orthodox musmach of eastern European descent in Chicago. His Rochester tenure was brief, and he returned to the Windy City in 1891. In his sefer Hiddushei Avi,published in 1904, he criticized his congregants for absenting themselves from daily prayers at shul except when there was a celebration to attend. American Jewry “makes the superfluous the essential and the essential superfluous,” R. Anixter lamented.
Meanwhile, the “Bany Avihezer” board of trustees decided that it was time to rebrand the congregation. In December 1888, with the new rabbi secured and anticipating the construction of a new shul building, the board authorized the president, Meyer Nusbaum, to petition Monroe County for a name change. Granting the petition, the county declared that “it appears that the location and character of said congregation will be more correctly and effectually designated by a change of its name,” and thus the congregation was “authorized to assume the name of Beth Hakneses Hachodosh.” (Why not the more consistent and grammatical “Bais Hakneses Hechodosh”? Nineteenth-century shul name spellings were notoriously eccentric, and Rochester Jewry has always done things its own way.) And the new synagogue facility was built in 1889 at 168 Chatham Street, at a cost of $10,000.
Here are some provisions from the 1889 BHH constitution, translated from the original Yiddish:
- When a member is (God forbid) sick, it is the duty of the president and vice-president to visit him twice a week—no less than once a week.
- Shiva—must send a minyan if necessary—if no children congregation must hire someone to say Kaddish.
- Every officer must come to shul every Saturday and Holiday. If president, vice-president, and secretary—don’t come on three successive times—they lose their office and the Society may hold elections. Except if the aforementioned are incapacitated or out of the city—in this case—they lose their office after 60 days.
- Duty of President to come to shul Saturdays and Holidays and keep order and to distribute Aliyos—as he sees fit—except on Yom Kippur and all holidays when the Aliyos should be sold.
The shul’s second congregational rabbi was Aaron Gordon (1845-1922), who served for several years starting in 1895. He then departed for New York, where he became a member of Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph’s bais din and a founding member of the Agudas HaRabbonim. Like his predecessor Rabbi Anixter, he was a native of Lithuania and wrote a sefer (Sha’arei Da’as, 1921) in which he rebuked his adopted country: “America is a desert, without rabbis, ritual slaughterers or kashrus supervisors since it is very distant from major Jewish communities.”
The Rochester City Directory for 1903 identifies BHH’s rabbi as Moses J. Leonson. The following year, Rabbi Tzvi Yaakov (Jacob H.) Epstein took office and served until his death in 1910. In another of their joint projects, BHH and Beth Israel brought Rabbi Solomon Sadowsky (1880-1946) to Rochester in 1911 to serve as the communal “chief rabbi.” For the rest of his life, Rabbi Sadowsky was a “moving spirit” in the Orthodox community, and during those years and even beyond, BHH apparently had no congregational rabbi of its own. An exception came in 1953, when Rabbi Baruch Faskowitz was listed in that year’s directory.
In 1926-27, the congregation changed its address without any physical move, when the city redesignated 168 Chatham Street as 408 Ormond Street. But by the early 1960’s, the area had gone from residential to industrial, and it was time for an actual relocation. A fortunate opportunity presented itself when a property became available just south of the city line, in the suburban town of Brighton. This was the former Centenary Methodist Church, which had been built in about 1925—apparently the oldest existing house of worship in the town. The congregation moved into the building in 1962 and has been there ever since. The transfer was well timed, because racial unrest in 1964 contributed to the decline and ultimate demise of the old Rochester Jewish neighborhood and most of its institutions. Of the many pre-World War I congregations, only BHH and the Sephardic Cong. Light of Israel have survived in Brighton and maintained their Orthodox identity. Rochester’s mikveh, Beth Hatvilah, also made the move from the old neighborhood into a new facility next door to BHH.
The current shul building contains a few reminders of the BHH past in the form of several old stained glass windows and two large brass chandeliers with frosted glass depictions of the Jewish zodiac symbols. A living link to the past is the weekly Chevra Mishnayos class, a continuation of a longtime tradition at BHH and several other old-line Rochester shuls.
The building’s address, 19 St. Regis Drive North, is somewhat “unorthodox” for a synagogue and has sometimes been a source of amusement. At one time, the women of the BHH Sisterhood had aprons made up bearing the name, “Sisters of St. Regis.”
Two rabbis who led the congregation in the 1970’s were N. Z. Leiter and Tsvi Schur. They were followed by:
- Moshe (Marc) Jablon (served 1977-1987);
- Aryeh Sokoloff (served 1987-1998);
- Hayim Leiter (son of N. Z. Leiter, served 1998-2005); and
- Mordechai Hochheimer (2005-2016).
Though only a few senior Rochesterians still refer to BHH as the “Nusbaum shul,” members of the founding family have always remained active in the congregation. To this day, Aviezer Nusbaum has great-, great-great-, and great-great-great-grandchildren who are still part of the BHH mishpocha.
Compiled by Daniel A. Klein
Stuart E. Rosenberg, The Jewish Community in Rochester, 1843-1925 (Columbia University Press, 1954)
Abraham J. Karp, Jewish Continuity in America: Creative Survival in a Free Society (University of Alabama Press, 1998)
Zev Eleff, “A Far-Flung Fraternity in a Fertile Desert: The Emergence of Rabbinic Scholarship in America, 1887-1926,” Modern Judaism 34 (October 2014): 353-369
Public records on file at the Monroe County Clerk’s office
Rochester City Directories and Rochester Suburban Directories
Kevarim.com and various other online sources
Congregation B’nai Israel, Baltimore, MD
With the kind cooperation of Rabbi Hochheimer, Steven DuBois, Harvey Nusbaum, and Anne Nusbaum Cherney