History of Congregation Kol Ami
Elmira of 1861 was a richly diverse city - with Protestants, Catholics, Irish, Scots, Welsh, Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians - and approximately 100 Jewish citizens of the “German Rite” (Rite an established religious & social practice)! In that same year several informal K’hilot, (assemblies) were meeting at various private homes. In 1862, one k’hilah decided to become a formal organization and on October 12, 1862, Temple B’nai Israel "Sons/Children of Israel” held its first meeting. Temple B’nai Israel consisted of 29 families, when they acquired the white-frame building on High Street in East Elmira as the Temple in February 1863. Family names from historical documents include Holzheimer, Sittenfield, Friendly, Strauss, Sebersky, Gladke, Rosenbaum, Unger, Desky, Pollack, Levy, Tellner, Pelte, Stein, Danelowich.
Initially B’nai Israel was an orthodox congregation -- complete with a mechitza (Hebrew: מחיצה, partition or division, pl.: מחיצות, mechitzot) in Jewish Halakha (Interpreted Religious Laws) is a partition, particularly one that is used to separate men and women and a Mikveh (Hebrew: מִקְוֶה / מקווה is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism to achieve ritual purity.
By 1875 B’nai Israel had grown so much that the mechitza had been enlarged and there was talk of obtaining a larger, more appropriate building. It was not until 1885, though, that the congregation decided to build a new Temple on the High Street property.
The building was sold to and moved by a new K’hilot, (assemblies) with Jews of the “Russian/Polish Rite” which started in 1883 and was officially formed October 10th, 1883, they founded Congregation Addassah Anshai Newstadt “Compassionate People of Newtown” on Orchard Street. The organization was officially recognized by the Orthodox Union on Oct. 3, 1886. The name was then determined to be Shoymrey Hadas “Guardians of Religion”. Family names from historical documents include Ginzburg, Rosenthal, Rozenbaum, Jacobson, Kantz, Rubin, Hesselson, Heyman, Horwitz, Siskin, Golos, Lovitch, Etkind, Hoffman, Sadinsky, Paltrowitz, and many more.
In 1884 Temple B’nai Israel had developed a desire of what was considered a drastic change as the relatively new Reform concept of Judaism. Reform Judaism was gaining acceptance amongst the Jews of the German Rite with fundamental changes in traditional Jewish practices and beliefs, such as mixed seating, single day observances and the use of a cantor or choir. Many early leaders took a very “rejectionist” view of Jewish practice, such as replacing Hebrew with German, a Bar Mitzvah was replaced with confirmation, and Kashrut and family purity were officially declared repugnant, and traditional restrictions on Shabbat behavior were not followed.
Temple B’nai Israel had to decide which to follow, Orthodox or Reform. Rabbi Adolph Radin from 1885-1890 was the source behind the move to Reform and when several members agreed this created a large riff with eventual resignations. Those not willing to follow this new concept chose to leave B’nai and created their own Orthodox Synagogue Talmud Torah “Teaching the Law” on Sullivan Street in 1886. The names of some of the original members include Waxman, Platt, Spiegel, Stemermen, Herman, Epstein, and Wladis plus many more.
Sometime from 1894 through 1918 Rabbi Marcus of Temple B’nai Israel deemphasized Bar Mitzvahs in favor of confirmations and the Reform ideology firmly took hold in Elmira. In 1892 a constitution for the Khevra Kadishe was established for the Orchard Street Shul known as The KHEVRA KADISHA KHESED SHEL EMES, Elmira, NY, organized according to the laws of New York State. Khevra Kadishe is an organization of Jewish men and women who see to it that the bodies of deceased Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition and are protected from desecration, willful or not, until burial. Two of the main requirements are the showing of proper respect for a corpse, and the ritual cleansing of the body and subsequent dressing for burial. It is usually referred to as a burial society in English.
In 1915 a Constitution written in Yiddish was agreed to and signed by members of Orchard Street Shul officially called Congregation Shomray Hadath. During this same time most of the Jewish men of that day were peddlers covering a radius of 100 miles in all directions from Elmira carrying packs of everything from dry goods to eyeglasses. The East Side where most of the Jews lived was almost empty of men during the week. But on Friday, by twos and threes, they would trickle back to Elmira to settle accounts and bathe and dress. By sundown the roads in front of the Shuls were jammed with men and their sons who gathered to greet one another and to usher in Shabbos.
The Synagogue, Temple or Shul was their rallying place in time of joy or sorrow. It was a place for studying, for arguing, or just plain visiting. Drama to these men was everyday life and on Shabbos it was summarized for the week. As the Jewish population grew with many that were either sponsored or were looking for a place to start a business, Elmira became THE stop from East to West for business and entertainment in New York State.
By 1935 the well-established Reform movement had a reevaluation where members began to question the original reforms and a movement had begun to return to a more traditional approach to Judaism-distinctly Jewish and distinctly American but also distinctively non-Christian. The platform also formally shifted the movement’s position on Zionism by affirming “the obligation of all Jewry to aid in building a Jewish homeland. Temple B’nai had changed to Congregation B’nai Israel when they joined the UAHC, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Today UAHC is known as URJ the Union for Reform Judaism.
The last Yiddish Sermon at CSH was given by Rabbi Abraham Samuels in 1935 which created a sense of change that was apparent for better or worse.
The transformation between CSH and CBI started to once again have the same ideals and learnings as they did in 1880 but with certain differences that would make them stay separate. At the beginning of World War II several incidents occurred in Elmira. By 1941 many Jewish men went to war, the Sullivan Street “Talmud Torah” Synagogue burned down, and all its members move to Orchard Street Shul “Shomray Hadath”. The Hebrew School had overflowed with students and both High Street Temple and Orchard Street Shul discussed a possible move to the West side of Elmira and construct new buildings.
By the late 1940’s and early 1950’s the Elmira Jewish Community Center was established in downtown Elmira and flourished through early 1970 and then moved to the west side with the purchase of a plot of land to follow both CBI and CSH.
Upon the return of the Jewish service men by 1952 CBI “Congregation B’nai Israel” dedicated its new building at 900 West Water Street on September 7, 1952, although the chapel was not yet completed due to lack of funds and a temporary wall was built at back of chapel.
In 1956 Congregation Shomray Hadath with similar designs of a move finally dedicated their new building at 1008 West Water St. The structures were no more than two blocks from one another. On the old Eastside they were with-in a short walk from each other proving once again their identity of companionship.
The “High Street Temple” was sold to the Volunteers of America and the Orchard Street Shul was sold to former Christian residents of “Slabtown”as they developed their own church. The New Temple and New Synagogue flourished with new members with names like; Adelsberg, Seltzer, Berliss, Goldman, Komer, Leveen, Hayman, Granoff, Cadel, Freidman, Greenberg, Kravitz, Luther, Obler, plus many others.
Then by 1976 a new spirit of change arose with-in Congregation Shomray Hadath as they left the Orthodox Union and joined the United Synagogue of America identifying itself with the Conservative movement. They kept as many traditions as they thought important enough and tried to view Judaism with modern ideas.
The 70’s and early 80’s were exciting years for Congregation Shomray Hadath and Congregation B’nai Israel. New Rabbis with modern thoughts, processes and ideas along with a new breed of young professionals joining the Congregations with “Service & Support. In May of 1982, CSH celebrated 25 years in their new building as they became egalitarian. Stained Glass Windows were dedicated. Then on October 29, 1983 CSH celebrated 100 years of service in Elmira. The very first female President Ruth Golos, was elected in 1981. The first female President of CBI was Marilyn Rabinowitz elected in 1980. The first female Rabbi for CBI was Miriam Biatch hired in 1997 and the first female Rabbi for CSH was Rachel Smookler hired in 2001. More changes were on the way.
The first real indication of a possible combination between CBI and CSH started with a combined Hebrew School operated and administered by the Jewish Center and Federation. CBI, CSH, & the JCF created a combined newsletter mailed to all members through the JCF.
The Jewish Center and Federation of the Twin Tiers has its roots in the Elmira Jewish Welfare Fund, also known as the Elmira/Corning Jewish Federation, and the Elmira Jewish Community Center. The Federation and the Center combined their operations in 1998 as the Jewish Center and Federation of the Twin Tiers (JCF).
As CSH and CBI membership dwindled and the cost of maintenance for two buildings became apparent, talks abounded for a possible merger. The major sticking point was the acceptance of non-Jewish spouses. According to the USCJ the Jewish linage is carried by the mother and according to the Reform it is accepted by either.
As fate would have it, by the late 1990’s and early 2000’s the cost of membership in the USCJ “United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism” became more of a burden than a help for CSH so they voted to become an independent Synagogue – talks once again started between CBI and CSH to combine. The catalyst occurred in 2009 with the Sisterhood’s of both CSH and CBI decided to hold a Jewish Food Festival at CBI. The entire Jewish community supported the efforts and it was attended by several hundred non-Jews, it seems they were ready for something new.
Merger talks resumed and the President of CSH, David Siskin and the President of CBI John Goldman established a committee asking for 6 volunteers from each organization to meet as often as necessary to establish a MOU “Memorandum of Understanding” for the amalgamation of CSH and CBI. The first hurdle was for CBI to give up its membership with the URJ and become independent. The decision was made to house all Jewish organizations into the former CSH building. The MOU was approved by the members. In 2011 a new name was chosen as Congregation Kol Ami “All the People” CKA and registered officially with the State of New York.
Rabbis Abraham Golos and Miriam Biatch became co/Rabbis of CKA during the inaugurating learning phase and then in 2015 Rabbi Oren Steinitz was hired as the new Rabbi/Spiritual Leader of CKA, and led the congregation through the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving in mid-2023.
In 2023, Rabbi Tom Samuels became the Rabbi Spiritual/Leader of CKA.
CKA members enjoy a Friday night service and an early one-hour Saturday morning service. Our services are filled with lively discussions on a regular occurrence instead of just a sermon.
Today our numbers are smaller than our building committees of the 1940’s could have imagined, but we’ve adapted, we’ve endured, and we’ve changed. We use the building for all our Jewish Community activities that have been well received. We even accepted some new members along the way. So, you see the one thing that has remained true and will remain true, in the future, Congregation Kol Ami although changed and united has and must remain a beacon of Jewish life in the Twin Tiers.
© 2019 CONGREGATION KOL AMI
1008 W. Water St. Elmira, NY 14905
Shabbat Service Schedule:
Friday Evening Service - 7:30PM
Saturday Morning Service - 9:30AM