One of those families belonged to Sid Gordon of Saratoga Springs.
“My parents were members starting 1925 or 1926 before I was born, so when I came into the picture, I was automatically a member.”
Gordon is one of many members of Congregation Shaara Tfille, a synagogue with long roots in Saratoga Springs that celebrates 100 years this month.
The first synagogue was located at the corner of Broadway and Van Dam Street where today the Saratoga Hilton Hotel stands. After its purchase, the building was dedicated as the synagogue Congregation Shaara Tfille in 1912 and the Constitution was adopted in 1916. The original charter included 25 men.
As the Jewish community grew, they moved first in the mid-1920’s to a new shul that was established on the Corner of Phila and Circular Streets and then to a building on Broadway, where they remained many years.
In the mid-1980s, an old building in a location that wasn’t conducive to parking and in constant need of maintenance would push the congregation to move again, but that wasn’t the only reason.
Originally, Congregation Shaara Tfille was an Orthodox synagogue, said Gordon.
Younger members who were joining what had been an older congregation wanted to change the charter to that of a Conservative one—an act that would decrease the number of restrictions, especially for women.
Congregation Shaara Tfille Rabbi and Cantor Dr. Kenneth Blatt, who has led the congregation since 2010, said, “The congregation saw that the future was going to be more liberal.”
They wanted change—that is to become egalitarian, which gives women equal status.
“That’s a big change. I remember it. It was in 1989, and the change was actually by popular demand,” said Gordon. “They just don’t change. The membership voted to embrace the conservative movement.”
Pamela Polacsek is the president of Congregation Shaara Tfille. Her great grandparents moved to Saratoga Springs before 1910 and were founding members of the synagogue.
Polacsek lived close to the synagogue and walked back and forth to services with her parents. She went to Hebrew school in the old building on Broadway and also had her Bat Mitzvah there.
“When I was there, it was Orthodox. Girls could not have Bat Mitzvahs on Saturdays like the boys, only on Sundays,” she said. “Girls weren’t allowed the same rituals as the boys and although they attended religious school together, there was segregation between the sexes.”
The congregation eventually split, and the new congregation would build a new synagogue at 84 Weibel Avenue. The synagogue changed their charter and became a Conservative congregation.
When the change occurred, Polacsek was in her 20s and in college.
“At that point, being a strong supporter of women’s issues, I couldn’t have been more happy,” she said.
Today, Congregation Shaara Tfille is an egalitarian, inclusive congregation dedicated to fulfilling religious, educational and social needs by promoting the tenets of contemporary Conservative Judaism while maintaining their traditions and values.
They also are proud of their welcoming environment that is open for people of all faiths.
The new building a kosher kitchen. It also has a library, cemetery and a social hall for Weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and other occasions.
“The Jewish Community has always had a strong sense of community, regardless of number, deeply enriched in our traditions and culture,” said Polacsek.
In addition to being a conservative synagogue, the new location was founded as a Jewish Community Center (JCC), which the Rabbi said works like a YMCA but with a Jewish bent. It offers activities like bingo and has a Hebrew school. In addition, they do secular events, like a cantorial concert each year with musicians and popular music.
The use of instruments during service is a recent addition, something that the Rabbi worked to incorporate into the service, but he uses instrumental music very sparingly.
Instruments like the Shofar—or ram’s horn—were used in the ancient temple. But when the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. There were certain things that could not be done until there was another Temple.
The Conservative practice of Judaism allows the use of musical instruments. The musical Shabbat for which Michael Clement from Schenectady plays keyboard, is one of the most popular services, said Rabbi Blatt.
Rabbi Blatt is working hard to grow the congregation. While the community has become much more diverse, there are probably many more Jewish people in the Saratoga area who are unaffiliated. Nationally, statistics show only about 50 percent of Jewish people are members of a synagogue.
It’s more challenging for religions everywhere,” said Polacsek. “Kids do a lot more now. It’s more difficult for families to prioritize participation. People are pulled in different directions.”
Rabbi Blatt has observed that most people who have a Jewish background find something when they return to a synagogue. Interfaith couples are welcome as well.
Today’s community, he said, is very diverse. It’s grown. It’s spread out. We have members that are artists, teachers, and professionals. It’s totally heterogeneous. You can’t really make any generalizations about this community.
“In this day and age, it’s just amazing that we’ve been able to endure and grow,” said Polacsek. “We have been able to be inclusive of different faiths, disabilities and sexual orientation. It’s just wonderful.”
In celebration of their 100th year Anniversary operating in the Greater Saratoga Springs area, Congregation Shaara Tfille and The Jewish Community Center of Saratoga Springs will host a 100th year Anniversary Gala at the Saratoga National Golf Club located at 458 Union Avenue in Saratoga Spring on October 21 at 6:00 p.m. The evening will include a cocktail hour, dinner and desserts, entertainment, music and dancing as well as a silent auction.
Ticket prices are $125 per person. Please call 584-2370 to make a reservation.