Congregation Gates of Heaven is the oldest Jewish Congregation in Schenectady, New York. The first few Jewish families of Schenectady worshiped in private homes for several years until they organized a congregation in 1854. Two years later they had it incorporated as Congregation Shaarai Shamayim (Gates of Heaven). Immediately after its organization the congregation purchased a burial plot on Watt St. The constitution of the congregation was recorded in 1862.
The first synagogue building, on East Ferry Street (image right, building in center), was purchased in 1865; a new synagogue was erected on North College Street in 1892 (below left) as more Jewish families moved to the city. Until about 1890, our congregation was the only Jewish congregation in Schenectady. From its original orthodoxy, the congregation gradually turned toward a more liberal form of Judaism. In 1892 when the congregation moved to the N. College Street synagogue, a modern ritual was adopted. The congregation became affiliated with the Union of America Hebrew Congregations in 1907.
In 1920 the former Christian Science Temple on Parkwood Boulevard was purchased. The originally incorporated name Congregation Shaarai Shamayim, was officially changed to its English translation “Gates of Heaven” in 1920.
Our congregation continued to grow. Even adding to the building didn’t accommodate its needs. In the 50’s we were running double sessions of Religious School and High Holy Day Services.
In his sermon on Rosh Hashanah Eve 1952, Rabbi Gerald Klein emphasized the need for a temple large enough to accommodate our current, and our future needs. He issued a challenge to us to build such a house of worship. We moved into our beautiful new home on Eastern Parkway and Ashmore Avenue in 1956 (image below right.)
The transition from one building to the other was beautiful. The Friday night service was held in the old building on Parkwood Blvd., and the next morning, Shabbat, the elders of our congregation carried the Torah Scrolls into our new building for services. The High Holy Day Services for 1956 were held here by Rabbi Sidney Goldstein officiating.
Twenty-six rabbis have served our congregation in the past 158 years. We have been most fortunate since 1959 with the arrival of Rabbi Michael Szenes z’l, and in 1984 with his successor, Rabbi Bernard Bloom, and in 1995 the arrival of Rabbi Matthew Cutler (image below of these 3 rabbis.) And the addition of our Adjunct Rabbi Eleanor Pearlman in 2008.
The core tenets of Reform Judaism stress: Tefillah (Worship), Torah (Education), and Gemilut Chasadim (Social Justice). This congregation prides itself on working diligently in these three areas:
- The supplemental Religious School (stared in 1882) is currently one of the largest in the Capital District, with 230 students from Nursery to 12th grade.
- Many weekly and monthly Adult Education opportunities.
- The Social Action Committee (SAC) has won several recognitions for outstanding programing.
- Some of our SAC initiatives include Temple Community Service Corps (stipends to temple teens to work during the summer at local social service agencies), Mitzvah Day (over 250 members of our temple of all ages go into the community and work in various social service agencies), Pleasant Valley and Keane School (mentors, needed school supplies, and camp scholarships), Schenectady Day Nursery (volunteers and needed supplies), SICM Food Bank and Regional Food Bank (volunteer and food collections), YWCA Domestic Violence Shelter (collections), Bethesda House (collections and meals.)
Some notable features that mark our synagogue:
In the spring, ten beautiful cherry blossom trees outside of our sanctuary bloom, which is a significant attraction in the ccommunity. For the past 20 years, since 1992, we hold a Cherry Blossom Festival each spring with crafts, food, activities for kids, and a 5K Race/2M Walk to benefit ALS.
We hold in our Holy Ark a precious Sefer Torah. Our Holocaust Memorial Torah #651 is one of 1,564 Czech Memorial Sifre Torah looted by the Nazis during World War II from the Jewish communities of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia.
We have eight remarkable sanctuary mosaic plastic-glass windows (four below) commissioned by artist Charles Van Atten in 1962. Mr. Van Atten consulted on the design with Rabbi Michael Szenes regarding the Biblical symbolismm. The mosaic plastic-glass windows represented a new art form that allowed the observer to the enjoy the effects from both sides, this method also made for a very strong and well insulated window. These windows were donated by Harry and Henry Schaffer (photo right) in memory of their parents Abraham and Annie Schaffer. The windows were dedicated during an open house on Sunday, May 3, 1964 during our 110th Anniversary weekend celebrations.