The roots of Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob can be traced back to 1838 when the Beth El Synagogue was formed in what is known today as the Pastures section of downtown Albany. Beth El Synagogue was formalized on March 25, 1838 and then incorporated on August 3, 1838. The minyan met at individuals’ homes until it was decided on December 16, 1839 that the board would purchase 166 Bassett Street for $1500, one hundred to be paid immediately and the rest in 10 annual installments with interest. The president, Mayer Reis, went to New York and other cities to solicit contributions. The building was renovated to accommodate a congregation of 150. Its first constitution was adopted on March 19, 1840, and provided that the “annual meetings shall be held every Passover festival.” On December 13, 1843, two acres of land, south of the city, were bought for a cemetery. It must have been difficult to get and retain officers, for a member was to be fined $10 for failing to accept an office to which he was elected or which he resigned.
In early 1841 eleven members left Congregation Beth El and formed a new congregation, Beth-El Jacob, holding services at 8 Rose Street until they built a synagogue at 28 Fulton Street. It remained there until 1910, when it moved to 90 Herkimer Street.
Meanwhile, Beth El voted to purchase a building at 76 Herkimer Street, which was dedicated as a synagogue on September 2, 1842. In 1846 Beth El hired Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise as its first Rabbi, paying him $550 a year to perform all Rabbinical functions, conduct all Sabbath and Holy Day services, and start a school teaching all subjects taught in the public school, as well as German, religion and Hebrew. Rabbi Wise angered his congregation by insisting that a trustee conducting business on the Sabbath must lose his position and by declaring a shochet (ritual slaughterer) incompetent.
In the late 1840s Rabbi Wise travelled to South Carolina, where he witnessed a Reform service and, in a speech, publicly asserted his agreement with the new movement, saying that he did not believe in the Messiah, that praying in Hebrew was superstitious, and that tefillin and tallit were superfluous and useless. He was thereupon elected rabbi of the congregation in Charleston and accepted the position, handing in his resignation in Albany. He later withdrew both the acceptance and resignation. The speech inflamed controversy in Beth El in Albany. On Rosh Hashana in 1850 a fistfight broke out between two groups at services. Women and children fled the building, the police were called in, and lawsuits ensued. By Yom Kippur, Rabbi Wise and his supporters had split from Beth El and formed Anshe Emeth on October 11, 1850, becoming the fourth congregation of Reform Judaism in the United States. Rabbi Wise is now considered the father of American Reform Judaism.
On July 14, 1864, Beth El Synagogue purchased a Methodist Episcopal church on the corner of Franklin and Ferry Streets and it was dedicated as a synagogue in December of that year. As Anshe Emeth and Beth El mended fences, many congregants of the Orthodox synagogue were becoming less observant. On December 1, 1885 Beth El and Anshe Emeth merged and became known as Congregation Beth Emeth. Beth El-Jacob became the only Orthodox congregation in Albany.
As the German Jewish population flourished during the 1880s, newer and poorer immigrants were not comfortable with the more established community. In 1883, they formed their own synagogue, Congregation B’nai Abraham (Sons of Abraham), located at 69 South Pearl Street, where the Times Union Center now stands. In 1885 Congregation B’nai Abraham bought the former Beth El Synagogue at the corner of Franklin and Ferry Streets, made alterations to provide space for women, and dedicated the building on April 11, 1886. Congregations Beth El-Jacob and B’nai Abraham became the more established Orthodox synagogues in Albany and remained the mainstays of the community for most of the 20th century.
In 1905 the United Brethren Society formed a new synagogue, Agudas Achim, with ten men who were new immigrants to Albany and who could not afford membership at any synagogue. They rented a hall on South Pearl Street, used a donated Torah, and began holding services. They moved their services to Broad Street, where they remained for two years before moving to 71 Ferry Street. They were the only congregation in Albany at that time who used Nusach Sephard. During its 52-year history, the synagogue claimed to have been the founder of the Vaad HaKashruth, Chesed Shel Emes, and the Daughters of Sarah Nursing Home.
In 1959, Agudas Achim agreed to merge with Congregation Beth El-Jacob. New York State Supreme Court Judge Isadore Bookstein officiated over the signing of the merger papers.
A few years before the merger, another Orthodox synagogue began in downtown Albany. Shomray Torah was organized in 1952 with Rabbi Nachum Kornmehl as its spiritual leader. The synagogue was located at 190 Elm Street before moving to its present location, 463 New Scotland Avenue, during the last few months of 1970. The Elm Street shul was used as a community mikvah until 1992. The mikvah was owned and operated by B’nos Israel. A new community mikvah under the operation of B’nos Israel was opened on the grounds of the Albany Jewish Community Center on Whitehall Road in 1994.
In the early 1960s, Congregation B’nai Abraham purchased a synagogue at 18 Federal Street from Sons of Israel. Knowing at the time that the building was too small for their needs, the Board of Directors acquired the adjoining property on Hackett Boulevard. Ground was broken for a new building to house a sanctuary, social hall, library and offices. High Holy Day services were held in the new building in 1964. The dedication of the new building took place on April 4, 1965. After long negotiation, the previously-combined congregation of Agudas Achim and Beth El-Jacob merged with Congregation B’nai Abraham on August 5, 1974, to create the new entity known as Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob. Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob continued to operate on Hackett Boulevard until 1991, when the migration of community members led it to acquire land at 380 Whitehall Road, where the building currently stands.
During most of the 20th century Congregation B’nai Abraham had a Hebrew school, which continued under the auspices of Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob until 1987. For a time in the 1980s, Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob housed the Maimonides Hebrew Day School, which was organized by Rabbi Gershon Gewirtz of CBAJ, Dr. Gerald Frankel, and Rabbi Israel Rubin. Also, the congregation operated a preschool from the late 1990s until 2012. The congregation has long been a member of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU).
Among the rabbis who have served Congregations B’nai Abraham and Beth Abraham-Jacob were Rabbi Albert Mandelbaum, Rabbi Shepard Baum, Rabbi Morris Max, Rabbi Abraham Kellner, Rabbi Samuel Blinder, Rabbi Eliezer Langer, Rabbi Gershon Gewirtz, and Rabbi Dr. Moshe E. Bomzer, who served as the congregation’s spiritual leader from 1984 until 2012, when Rabbi Binyamin Lehrfield succeeded him. Rabbi Roy Y. Feldman became the congregation’s spiritiual leader in August 2016.