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Temple Beth El Records

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MS-0222

Scope and Contents

The records of Temple Beth El include a wide range of materials across the working period of the synagogue active years. The materials were stored in a variety of areas including the synagogue safe and a dedicated archives room in the basement located near a boiler that has resulted in a proportion of brittle paper. Due to the size of the collection, some scope and content notes are added at the beginning of each series in addition to this overview. Series I, contains multiple series beginning with significant trustees, legal and financial records, although Board of Trustees minutes contain gaps, and finish in 1996. Earliest minutes from 1847 survive and are maintained within ledger books, while later minutes are printed on sheets. The earliest records are handwritten and provide insight into changing religious practice and expressions (boxes 1-2). A subsection devoted to constitutional revisions also indicates changing practices (boxes 8-9). A subseries of legal and property records document purchases of land and property changes, and these are found in boxes (boxes 9, 10, 12). Financial records contains a number of company invoices, provide documentation of independent (sole proprietors) general business history in Buffalo as well as the range and costs of building a new synagogue site and a cemetery (boxes 11-12). Subseries D (boxes 13-20) provides an understanding of synagogue life over eight decades through monthly and special publications and is a significant source of event and genealogical information for members, participants and former leaders. It also illustrates the changing range of cultural activities that were available to members, from choir and temple dramatic productions, to sports, lectures and school activities among others. The extensive photographic collection in series E (boxes 21-27) continues this cultural theme, highlighting specific events in Temple Beth El’s history, the range of youth activities, festivals observance, youth education, laity and clergy leadership images, as well as the varying building views, internal and external of the different locations occupied by Temple Beth El. Many of these images have been made available online through NY Heritage and associated retrieval numbers are included for many of these images. Subseries G highlights the essential fundraising role of the annual ball, as well as the cultural impact of this event on the temple in boxes (boxes 31-35). Both the annual ball publications and the planning records are available with associated ephemera, and highlight a central role occupied by Beth El in the wider community. Architectural plans and renderings comprise subseries I, and focus heavily on the design of the building on Eggert Road, both realized and unrealized. Subject files in subseries J form the largest subseries and span internal aspects of the synagogue, external relations with state bodies and neighbors, and organizations with the Conservative Judaism movement as well as a range of national and local Jewish organizations. Series II are composed of the records donated by Muriel Selling (boxes 58-62) and focus on resources she produced in her roles within the synagogue as de-facto Temple historian and as part of the leadership of the cemetery organization. Her combined primary materials and self compiled and created resources of cemetery burial lists, membership rosters and historical materials provide a rich source of genealogical information, general membership information and significant historical context for Temple Beth El. Series IV is composed of the records of another individual associated with Beth El for decades. The musical scores and bar mitzvah materials of Samuel Luskin provide aspects of the educational, religious music and cultural life of the synagogue and add a unique element to this synagogue collection, particularly given his decades long association and nexus at the helm of educating youth and developing the spiritual life of the congregation through liturgy. The smaller series, Boy Scouts (series III), and the Men’s and Women’s auxiliaries (series VI) enable researchers to see different aspects of synagogue center life from the vantage point of specific parts of the membership, and how these related to the functioning of the synagogue and support of the temple. The separate units of Cemetery (VII) and Religious School (VIII) contribute to totality of service that synagogues aimed to provide members from birth through end of life, while also providing elements of the historical development of the synagogue, mapping changes in school development, and cemetery management documented through minutes, curricula, sample forms, clergy materials and other supporting materials. The large and varied series of Memorabilia (V), provides an eclectic view of synagogue activities, events, and milestones through diverse materials including poster boards, scrapbooks and clippings. A small amount of this material was utilized for a wall display in the archives room. Taken together the nine series of the Temple Beth El collection highlights the changing experience of the first formalized Jewish community structure in Buffalo, NY. It traces a self-identified community from its earliest founding years in 1847 through to the penultimate years of its existence as an independent organization prior to merger. It enables a view of the broader development of Jewish life in Buffalo in general, as well as the specific history of Beth El’s transition from city based Orthodoxy to a community aligned with liberal Conservative Judaism, eventually with a suburban orientation. As such it is a microcosm of the changes wrought across congregations founded in the mid nineteenth century and their transformation in the twenty-first century. Additional Temple Beth El materials from the 1990s through the 2000s is retained at Temple Beth Tzedek, the successor merged congregation of Temple Beth El and Temple Shaarey Zedek.


  • 1847-2006


Language of Materials

Collection material in English, Hebrew, Yiddish and German.

Terms of Access and Use

The Temple Beth El Records, 1847-2006 are open for research. There are no restrictions regarding access to or use of this collection.


Copyright of papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns. Researchers must obtain the written permission of the holder(s) of copyright and the University Archives before publishing quotations from materials in the collection. Most papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures unless otherwise specified.

Historical Note

Temple Beth El, Buffalo, NY was the first Jewish congregation established in Buffalo, New York and merged with Temple Shaarey Zedek in 2008 to form Temple Beth Tzedek. At a meeting on May 9, 1847 held at the Buffalo Western Hotel, Temple Beth El was founded by a small group of Polish Jewish immigrants and German Jewish immigrants. They established a synagogue of “moderate” orthodox ritual and initially rented the Concert Hall on the southwest corner of Main and Swan Street for services, after a period of using member homes. Appointed as the synagogue’s first President, this nascent congregation was initially led by Mark Moritz. In April 1848, the congregation adopted a constitution and by-laws, based upon the constitution of the “Jewish Congregation of Baltimore,” otherwise known as Nidche Israel or Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, founded in 1830 in Maryland. Eventually as membership grew in Buffalo, a worship site was purchased in the block around Main, Pearl, Eagle and Court streets. Refurbishing an old schoolhouse for synagogue use, the first service was held on July 22, 1850. Rabbi Samuel M. Isaacs of New York City gave the celebratory oration and the first sermon to be delivered in English in a synagogue in Buffalo. Temple Beth El continued to grow, adding a religious school for the benefit of members. After the synagogue weathered a fire and rebuilt, the congregation outgrew the Pearl Street location, and a new space was purchased in 1873 on Elm Street. Within thirty years, this location could no longer accommodate the entire congregation and another search for a new location began. Eventually a site on Richmond Avenue was selected and a cornerstone was laid in 1910, with the new building dedicated in 1911. The drive to locate the Temple away from the city center, and closer to where members lived, was spearheaded by Charles Polakoff. A real estate and insurance agent, Polakoff lead the congregation as President almost continually for the next three decades, from 1909 into the 1930s. Expansion continued in the years leading up to and after WWI as the synagogue became a “synagogue-center,” offering a wide range of clubs and activities, including separate Women’s and Men’s Temple Societies, a Bar Mitzvah Brotherhood, sports clubs and several choirs. It expanded its religious school for bar mitzvah students (and eventually bat mitzvah from the 1940s) as well as adding confirmation preparation. It also continued a tradition begun in the nineteenth century of elaborate annual balls, celebrated at local halls and hotels. In the early twentieth century, Beth El became known for dramatic productions at local theatres that often included sizeable casts and were open to the general public. While the synagogue struggled during the 1930s in the aftermath of the Great Depression, during the war years, through the work of the auxiliaries and the school, enough money was raised to purchase a bomber plane for US military use. The fundraising effort was also matched by regular contribution to war bonds drives. Rabbi Elihu Rickel served as a military chaplain and at the end of 1945, Temple Beth El listed 125 members who had served in the military during WWII. A year-long planning process for a wide range of events began in 1946 culminating in multiple centennial events, and a banquet and play, “Through the Years,” on May 1947. Demographics became a factor during the 1950s. As part of suburbanization, the Temple established a school building on Eggert Road at Sheridan Drive in 1960 in order to address needs of members located in the suburbs. By the end of the 1960s this site became the final home of Temple Beth El. At Eggert Road, it became “the first Conservative Jewish temple” in the suburbs. Tikvah School, made up mostly of Beth El members, provided schooling for children ranging from nursery school through tenth grade, and later became a merged school for several conservative synagogues. After a fire at Eggert Road in 1978, a new Sanctuary was added and dedicated in 1981. The space was expanded and new classrooms added, a foyer and bridal room, along with space for a large library, museum and basement archives. During this period, Temple Beth El was a significant convening place for the community, used heavily by local Jewish organizations for rented meeting space. At various times Beth El was also a home for the Kadimah School of Buffalo, and the United Jewish High School of Jewish Studies, as well as Tikvah, the combined congregational religious school. In addition to several temple locations, Temple Beth El purchased a cemetery in 1864 “located in the Broadway Fillmore area”, but these burials were later removed to the Pine Ridge Road Cemetery in 1911, the place of the current Beth El synagogue cemetery when land was purchased. An additional section on Pine Ridge Road was purchased in 1917 and dedicated in 1923. A chapel building designed by architect Louis Greenstein, was dedicated in 1926. Once again changing demographics led to change, this time contracting numbers of the broader Jewish community rather than congregational geographic relocations. In response to declining synagogue members, the temple ceased existence as a continual entity with the historic name of Temple Beth El. In May 2008, Temple Beth El families voted to merge the congregation with Temple Shaarey Zedek. Temple Beth El held its last service on June 9, 2008. The successor congregation was named Temple Beth Tzedek.


1847 Congregation Beth El, Buffalo, New York was founded at a meeting on May 9 1848 The Hoyt Building, at the northeast corner of Main and Eagle Streets, was used as the first regular place of worship from the spring of 1848 1848 New synagogue adopts a constitution and bylaws and elects officers in April 1848 Synagogue Beth El is incorporated on June 19 1849 A lot located on Pearl Street with a vacant school is purchased as the first permanent site 1850 Within the newly built sanctuary, on July 22, a Dedicatory Address is delivered by Rabbi Samuel M. Isaacs of New York City 1854 Judah, Toura [Touro], an American Jewish philanthropist from New Orleans, bequeaths $3,000 to Temple Beth El 1865 On January 25, the Temple was damaged by fire that destroys nearby American Hotel 1874 On August 15, the synagogue held a dedication event for the second location of Beth El built on Elm Street between Eagle and North Division Streets 1897 Temple Beth El’s 50th Anniversary was attended by national, state and local dignitaries 1909 Charles Polakoff was elected to presidency on April 11 and served the congregation as President for nearly thirty years 1909 The Beth El Women’s Society, a forerunner to the Sisterhood, was organized on July 25 1910 On July 24, the cornerstone on the Richmond Avenue site was laid by Joseph Saperston 1911 On September 10, the new Temple building was dedicated 1915 In May, Solomon Schecter, president of Jewish Theological Seminary, delivers an address at Temple Beth El 1918 Temple Beth El Men’s Club was organized as a forerunner to the Brotherhood 1919 Membership increased from sixty-eight to two hundred and fifty families 1922 Bar Mitzvah Brotherhood begins their Sunday meeting club and continues through the 1970s 1926 A new chapel building dedication ceremony in the Beth El section of Pine Hill Cemetery is held in September 1944 Expansion and improvement of the Temple Center occurs over the year 1945 Temple Beth El lists 125 members who served in the military during WWII 1947 The 100th anniversary celebratory year concludes on May 18 with a banquet and play 1960 Beth El builds a school at a location on Eggert Road in the Town of Tonawanda 1966 On October 9, a final service is held at the Richmond Avenue building 1978 Fire destroys part of Temple Beth El’s new building on Eggert Road 1981 Expansion of synagogue including addition of the Rabbi Samuel I. Porrath foyer 1997 Members return to Richmond Avenue, now Temple Emanuel Church, to observe the 150th anniversary of Temple Beth El 2000 Cantor Gerald DeBruin is honored for serving as hazzan for fifty years 2008 Temple Beth El votes to sell Eggert Road and merge with Temple Shaarey Zedek to form Temple Beth Tzedek


60.92 Linear Feet (65 manuscript boxes, 6 cartons, 14 flat and oversize)


Congregational papers documenting the religious, historic and cultural life of Temple Beth El from its beginnings in 1847 until 2006 just prior to merger with Shaarey Zedek to form Temple Beth Tzedek in 2008.


This collection is arranged in 9 series with as follows:

  1. Organizational Files
  2. Records of Muriel Selling
  3. Boy Scouts
  4. Records of Samuel Luskin
  5. Memorabilia
  6. Auxiliaries: Brotherhood and Sisterhood
  7. Temple Beth El Cemetery Records
  8. Religious School Records
  9. Miscellaneous: Antisemitica Literature

Acquisition Information

Edward Drozen, President of Temple Beth El, donated the vast bulk of congregational materials in 2007. Muriel Selling donated complementary Temple Beth El materials in 2009 and 2011. With the receipt of several grants and Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies funding, the records were arranged over several phases from 2008 to 2016 and the complete collection was deposited at the University Archives, Special Collections by the Jewish Buffalo Archives Project in May 2016. The Jewish Buffalo Archives Project was founded in late 2007 under the auspices of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Buffalo with a seed grant from the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies. The Archives Project collects mainly 20th century documentation relating to the diverse histories, religious traditions and cultures of Jewish communities within the Greater Buffalo area of Western New York, encompassing the geographic areas of Erie and Niagara Counties and partners with the University Archives at the University at Buffalo to make these records accessible. The arrangement and description of the Temple Beth El Records was made possible by funding obtained through the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies.

Accruals and Additions

Additional accruals are expected to this collection from former members and officers.

Related Materials

Processing Information

The collection was processed by Chana Revell Kotzin over several periods. In separate series, Board Minutes and Ball Memorabilia were processed in 2008. A section of oversized materials and all material culture were processed in 2010. Photographs were processed in two phases relating to digital grants awarded for 2008-2009 and 2010-2011, and subsequently reorganized into manuscript boxes in 2016. Architectural plans were processed in 2011. Musical scores were partially processed by Gabrielle Carlo in 2014 as part of an internship. From February 2016 to June 2016, all remaining synagogue records were processed by Chana Revell Kotzin. EAD finding aid created by Archives Staff in August 2016.


Finding Aid for Temple Beth El Records
Chana Revell Kotzin
July 2016
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
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Repository Details

Part of the University Archives Repository

420 Capen Hall
Buffalo New York 14260-1674 US
716-645-3714 (Fax)