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What It Looked Like Wednesday: Temple Beth Zion

In 1825, around the same time Gov. DeWitt Clinton was celebrating the wedding of the waters with the opening of the Erie Canal, Mordecai Noah was devising a plan to transform 2,000 acres of wilderness on Grand Island into a refuge for Jewish settlers. It was to be called “Ararat,” after the resting place of Noah’s Ark, and would have been situated near the intersection of today's Whitehaven and East River roads.

Noah's call for a Jewish nation straddling the American-Canadian border was regarded as folly – much like Clinton’s insistence of building a waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes – and it has largely disappeared from history.

Buffalo, however, in time became a refuge for Jews escaping from Germany and, later, Poland and Russia. Temple Beth Zion would be at the forefront of this refuge for nearly two centuries.

A gathering of 11 Jews at the home of Hirsch Sinzheimer in 1850 was the beginning of this fledgling congregation. Upset with services spoken in Polish and the more Orthodox practices of Temple Beth El, they sought to create their own congregation. In 1864, while meeting at Kremlin Hall – a four-story building that housed stores, offices and meeting space in the spot where the Main Place Mall now stands – they were reorganized as the first reform Jewish congregation in the city.

Celebrating its 50th year, Temple Beth Zion’s current location at 805 Delaware Ave. is eligible for National Register of Historic Places status. (Photo by Todd Hariaczyi)

The congregation purchased the Niagara Street Methodist Church in 1865 from William Fargo of Wells Fargo fame and rededicated it as Temple Beth Zion. By 1886, however, they had outgrown the building and sold it. For three years, they were without a place of their own.

In 1889, Temple Beth Zion purchased property along Delaware Avenue and constructed a majestic temple designed by architect Edward A. Kent (who, years later, was the only Buffalo resident to die aboard the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic). The new temple, shown in the photo above this article, was constructed of Medina sandstone and featured a massive copper dome. In 1964, Temple Beth Zion caught fire, and the dome collapsed into the building, rendering it a total loss.

It wasn't until 1967 that Temple Beth Zion again had a place to call home: 805 Delaware Ave.

Designed by architect Max Abramovitz, who also designed the Main Place Mall, the temple is constructed of poured concrete and limestone. Its 10 scallop walls represent the Ten Commandments. Forty-foot-high stained glass windows, designed by Ben Shahn, stand at its eastern and western entryways. A pair of 30-foot-high commandment tablets, also designed by Shahn, tower over the 1,000-seat auditorium. A smaller, 200-seat chapel, meeting space and museum round out the rest of the Delaware Avenue building.

[GALLERY: Amazing art in Buffalo's Places of Worship, Including Temple Beth Zion]

Nearly two centuries later, one has to wonder if even Mordecai Noah would be surprised at the success of Temple Beth Zion. It is one of the oldest and largest reform congregations in the nation, and its Delaware Avenue building is eligible for National Register of Historic Places status. Take a look at the interactive map below to see where the congregation has called home since 1850.

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