By Jill Abromowitz Gutmann
In September 1825, Mordecai Manuel Noah launched his Grand Island refuge as a safe haven for Jews from around the world. He named his vision for this refuge “Ararat.” This New York politician and playwright led a ceremonial procession nearly 200 years ago to lay a marker stone at the site. Unfortunately, the refuge did not come to fruition in Western New York, but what followed here in the early days after the opening of the Erie Canal, the city of Buffalo drew dreamers from all over the country for opportunity and a better life.
For the ceremony, Mordecai Manuel Noah brought the large cornerstone for his Jewish refuge to St. Paul’s Cathedral in Downtown Buffalo. When this church burned in May of 1888, Temple Beth Zion, through the encouragement and generosity of Rabbi, Dr. Israel Aaron (z”l) housed the congregation for Sunday worship while rebuilding.
The same community generosity was shown to Jewish Buffalo in 1961. Just before the High Holy Days, Temple Beth Zion’s 599 Delaware Avenue building burned to the ground and it was Westminster Presbyterian Church that helped to house Temple Beth Zion’s congregants for several years while the 805 building was imagined and then constructed. Sharing history begins with telling these stories of inclusivity and tolerance in our relationships with each other and the community that we build.
This week we are celebrating the holiday of Sukkot. Sukkot is characterized by building temporary structures in which to both celebrate a bountiful harvest and to remind ourselves of our 40 years of wandering in the desert. We are also reminded during this holiday that everything is temporary, so we must stop and take time to celebrate our blessings. During this time, we welcome “ushpizin,” the Aramaic word for “guests” into our sukkah. The Torah Midrash, Bereshit Rabbah 48:9, teaches that the tent of Abraham and Sarah was open on all sides so that the patriarch and matriarch could rush out to greet people and welcome them into their home. Just as Abraham and Sarah opened their tents to strangers, so must we open ourselves on this holiday. The sukkah then represents a symbol for hospitality, welcoming, and inclusiveness in Judaism.
At the conclusion of Sukkot, we celebrate the holiday of Simchat Torah, which begins tonight in Israel and in the Reform movement. This holiday celebrates both the end of our annual cycle of reading the five books of the Torah, and also a beginning. As we dance joyfully with Torahs, we are reminded of the importance of storytelling and retelling of stories. The ritual symbolizes the unending cycle of Torah and the eternal nature of Jewish teachings. Families and communities come together, reaffirming their dedication to Judaism, the Torah and the principles it embodies.
Over the last several months, through the generosity of a grant made possible by the Blum Family, we have been retelling the story of Jewish Buffalo and Temple Beth Zion by creating a documentary called “Legacy of Light: the Journey of Temple Beth Zion and Jewish Buffalo” that will premiere on Friday October 13th at 8 PM following a 7 PM service in the sanctuary at 805 Delaware. This documentary is being created as part of the Blum Jewish Education Project, which aims to welcome students from grades 6th to 12th into Temple Beth Zion and the reimagined Cofeld Judaic Museum, and teach them about Jewish Buffalo’s history, Judaism and the architecture of 805 Delaware.
The project will work to build community and welcome the stranger. In a time of increasing antisemitism, it is through welcoming and educating strangers about Judaism that we build a stronger and safer community together. Three pillars serve as the foundation of the program: the Jews of Buffalo, Judaism, and Temple Beth Zion and its architecture. The Blum Jewish Education Project’s program will provide a series of workshops for school-aged children including in-depth sessions about Jewish symbolism and the immigrant experience, and topics within the Common Core and New York State Standards.
In this holiday of welcoming the stranger and that of telling and retelling our stories, we have the opportunity to celebrate the beginning of something special, new and unique to Buffalo. As schools and students visit and learn our stories, we ask that you tell your schools, educators, and administrators about this new project so that we can share the Blum Jewish Education Project with as many schools as possible. By educating the next generation with our stories and legacy, we perhaps provide a sort of refuge Mordecai Manuel Noah dreamed of nearly 200 years ago.
For more information about the Blum Project contact Jill@Blumproject.org.
Jill Gutmann is the Director of the Blum Jewish Education Project and is thrilled to be part of Buffalo’s Jewish community and to be in the City of Good Neighbors!