This story begins all the way back in 2007 when I had just moved into the Elmwood Village, on Ashland near Bird after relocating from Toronto. I passed this Elmwood Avenue building all the time. It was an enigma to me, something that struck me as so out of place for Elmwood Avenue. The sign on the front read, “Congregation Beth Abraham,” but I thought to myself, “this could not be an active synagogue. Buffalo’s Jewish community is in the Northtowns, not along Elmwood.” I surmised that this building was probably a thriving congregation at least half a century ago, and was eventually sold to a Messianic Hebrew Congregation – a Fundamentalist Christian movement that incorporates elements of Jewish ritual and tradition with Evangelical Christianity.
Fast forward almost 15 years later to the spring of 2021. I was conversing with Rob Goldberg, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Buffalo, and reminisced about my curiosities regarding Congregation Beth Abraham (CBA). But it’s not a Messianic synagogue, Rob said. In fact, as he shared with me, not only is it a bona-fide Jewish congregation, it is experiencing a renaissance after decades of dwindling Jewish congregants. Completely surprised but thoroughly happy to hear, I was eager to learn more about CBA and how it went from being on its last legs to its current iteration as a vibrant, progressive and inclusive synagogue within Buffalo’s Jewish community.
Gratefully, Rob put me in touch with the synagogue’s leadership which led to a phone chat with Marty Kerker, president of Congregation Beth Abraham since 2015 who shared a brief history of the synagogue. One hundred years old next year in 2022, CBA was originally an Orthodox synagogue (as many synagogues were in Buffalo in the early 20th century), but like so many traditional synagogues over the decades, it became more liberal in its practice and in its ritual observances. Today, Marty told me, the synagogue welcomes an eclectic membership where diversity is celebrated, where everyone is welcome and where the post-worship service luncheon (or “kiddush” in Hebrew) serves up some of the best Jewish food in Buffalo.
In fact, since its re-incarnation which began just over a decade ago, the synagogue has grown to about 450 subscribers to the Synagogue newsletter and approximately 150 dues-paying members, a sizeable number considering the Jewish population of Buffalo is quite small at only approx. 13,000 people. So I asked Marty, “To what do you attribute the impressive turnaround of the synagogue?” Two words, he said. “Irwin Gelman.”
Eager to learn more, I placed a call to Irwin, who not only has been instrumental in bringing the congregation back to life, but when he is not officiating as the synagogue’s cantor (who leads the congregation in song and prayer), he is Director of Research Integration, and Chair of the Cancer Genetics, Genomics & Development Academic Program at Roswell Park. Which is, in fact, what brought him to Buffalo in 2003 from New York City. Wanting to live in neighborhood that evoked the urban vibe akin to his home in New York, Irwin knew Elmwood Village was the right fit for him and his family, but that did mean he would be living many miles away from the heart of Buffalo’s Jewish community and its several synagogues.
His arrival in Elmwood Village however, was destiny (or as they say in Yiddish “ bashert” – i.e., “meant to be”) as he could not have come at a better time for Congregation Beth Abraham which was not only down to a threadbare membership, but the building itself was in significant disrepair. Needing a synagogue where he could recite the traditional mourner’s prayer in memory of his father, CBA was the closest synagogue to his Elmwood Village home, but membership had dwindled so much, the congregation could not even pull together a quorum of 10 people (a “minyan” in Hebrew) necessary to recite prayers. So Irwin stepped up, took charge and literally went up and down Elmwood Avenue posting advertisements to let people know CBA was back from the brink and welcoming people to join the congregation.
Gradually as word spread, more people joined, from existing members of the Jewish community to those Jews in Buffalo who never affiliated with the community before. And as the numbers grew, new members pitched to help in the synagogue’s restoration, breathing new life into its physical condition.
Today, while there are still renovations to be done, the building has become a beautiful reincarnation of its storied past, with more people attending than at any time in the past few decades.
Prior to covid-19, the synagogue was able expand from holding only monthly Friday night services to adding Saturday morning worship as well. And in-between, a range of well attended community activities would fill CBA’s monthly calendar of events including a Jewish film group, a book club, holiday celebrations, and joint cultural/educational programs with the Buffalo JCC and Jewish Federation. But perhaps most impressively, Jewish High Holidays services would typically draw well over 100 people, a very significant number given the small size of the sanctuary.
And with the Jewish High Holidays just around the corner (beginning with “Rosh Hashanah” on Monday night September 6 and ending with “Yom Kippur” – the Day of Atonement – on Thursday September 16) Congregation Beth Abraham will be welcoming back worshippers for limited in-person services as well as on Zoom, and is inviting anyone interested in attending to reach out to the synagogue by emailing CBA at: firstname.lastname@example.org
And what can you expect if you visit CBA for the High Holidays and beyond? As Irwin says, “A synagogue service where everyone is important, everyone is made to feel welcome and included, where men and women participate equally in prayer and leadership roles, and where the possibilities are endless to get involved in the synagogue’s renaissance.”
To learn more about Congregation Beth Abraham, High Holiday and Shabbat services, and its many programs – including celebrations to commemorate 100 years on Elmwood in 2022 – connect with the synagogue:
Congregation Beth Abraham, 1073 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, New York 14222
Phone: 716 435-0658 (Marty Kerker)