As it prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday, the Congregation Agudas Achim synagogue in the town of Kingston in New York’s scenic Hudson Valley is honoring the dedication of a community that has helped it persevere since its founding during the U.S. Civil War.

Rabbi Yitzchok Hecht, who has served as rabbi there since 2001, said the congregation will mark the anniversary on Sunday, March 8, at the Seven21 Media Center on Broadway. The rabbi and his wife, Leah, are co-directors of Chabad of Ulster County in Kingston, where he also leads the synagogue. He is assisted by Rabbi Avrohom Boruch Itkin, who is also co-director with his wife, Binie, of Chabad-Lubavitch of Greene County in Kingston.

During the event, the traditional congregation that follows Jewish law and offers Chassidic teachings will present the Jewish Community Award to Barbara Blas, a longtime congregant of the synagogue, and its Humanitarian Award to former Ulster County Clerk Albert Spada, who is not Jewish, said Hecht.

He adds that it’s a great honor to be serving the congregation at such a significant milestone.

“It’s a long time, but we also have to remember those who came before us, and to recognize we are building on their success,” said Hecht. “We’re only here because of them.”

The synagogue was built during a difficult time for the United States as the Civil War between North and South raged, he explained.

“At the end of the Civil War, they came together to build a place for peace and spirituality, and a place for home and community,” he said. “And to think, 150 years later, we’re still here, doing the very same thing, that’s awesome.”

Started in a Private Home

Agudas Achim was founded by two Jewish men who emigrated from Amdur in Belarus and found their way to Kingston’s Rondout district, then a village in its own right.

The story of the founder’s journey to the United States and Kingston started in Amdur when a non-Jewish resident was killed by a cart, he said.

Soon, residents cast blame for the incident on Amdur’s Jewish community, he said. The community was heavily Jewish—perhaps 80 percent—at the time, according to Hecht.

After the incident, two men fled to America and found their way to Kingston, he said.

Rabbi Yitzchok Hecht, the synagogue's leader and co-director of Chabad of Ulster County in Kingston
Rabbi Yitzchok Hecht, the synagogue's leader and co-director of Chabad of Ulster County in Kingston

“When authorities asked for the whereabouts of the men, members of the Jewish community simply said they fled,” he said.

Family after family followed, and Congregation Agudas Achim was founded in 1864 in Kingston’s Rondout neighborhood.

It started in someone’s house, Hecht said. Later, it moved to yet another space.

By 1892, according to a document written for the congregation’s 100th anniversary by a historian by the name of Raphael Klein, it had moved to the corner of West Union and Post streets, where it remained for decades, through two world wars and the Great Depression.

While many of the congregation’s families had moved to the United States before World War I, Agudas Achim couldn’t escape the horrors of the Holocaust.

“Many still had family in Europe,” said Hecht. “Amdur was almost totally wiped out in World War II.”

For many, however, the United States served as a safe haven. A number of members of Agudas Achim were so thankful that they enlisted to serve in the war, Hecht said.

During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, life for members of the congregation revolved around the synagogue. “People were going seven days a week, especially the old-timers,” said Hecht.

But by the end of the 1960s, with the population shifting, and the urban-renewal project that forever changed the fabric of the Rondout getting underway, a decision was made to move to the congregation’s present location on Lucas Avenue.

The move was complete by 1972, he said.

Congregation Agudas Achim, 82 years later
Congregation Agudas Achim, 82 years later

Facing Certain Challenges

Many congregations disappear when neighborhoods change, but that was not case with Agudas Achim. Instead, said the rabbi, the congregation endured, and Hecht knows of several families who have been coming for generations.

Agudas Achim’s 150 years have been filled with many ups and downs, he said, adding that there were talks of closing its doors more than once.

One of the toughest times for the congregation was the late 1990s, he said. After IBM closed in the town of Ulster in 1995, the numbers in the congregation kept shrinking, until his arrival in 2001.

“There were only three to four women, and seven to 11 men when I arrived,” he said.

The numbers have rebounded after he introduced new initiatives that include Friday-night and Sunday-morning services, in addition to the traditional Sabbath-day service on Saturday mornings.

Hecht has also added programs for women, men and teens, viewing the synagogue as both a spiritual and physical place for people of all ages.

A newspaper clipping in "The Kingston Daily Freeman" in March 1946, marking the synagogue's 82nd anniversary
A newspaper clipping in "The Kingston Daily Freeman" in March 1946, marking the synagogue's 82nd anniversary

However, he acknowledged, finances remained pinched. Unlike other religious entities, there is no central organization they can depend on for financial support.

While organizations like the Orthodox Union and Chabad-Lubavitch provide resources, he said they have to rely on being self-sufficient, even as charitable giving shifts.

“In recent years, charities have seen donations sliding away from religious congregations, and moving more towards colleges and the arts,” he said.

And it can be a challenge to raise money in Ulster County—money remains tight among a hard-working, mostly blue-collar work force, he said. “While unemployment numbers are down, people are not making a living wage,” noted the rabbi.

Hecht said he faces the same challenge that churches in the 21st century face, keeping faith relevant in today’s fast-paced world, where there a lot more competition for people’s time.

“We have to remember that spiritual and physical are not two separate worlds,” he said.

He said he strives to create a bridge between those two worlds and tries to make his teachings as relevant as possible.

Hecht, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., said he loves Kingston and Ulster County, which he calls a “very friendly community to everyone.” While many rabbis move around throughout their tenures, he said he wants to stay right there in the Hudson Valley.

The invitation to the community celebration
The invitation to the community celebration

Standing in his study at the congregation’s building on Lucas Avenue, the rabbi shared a story of how he moved with his family into an apartment in Kingston on Sept. 11, 2001. “It was a very difficult time for us, and myself, being a fifth-generation American,” he said. “This was terrible time in our country.”

He said that fact has never left his conscience, and he said it’s shaped his outlook on the world ever since. “The best way to fight darkness is to add light,” he said. “The way to fight negative is to do more positive.”

To that end, he said, he’s always endeavored to make each day better than the last.

“Today should be a better day than yesterday,” he said. “And tomorrow should be a better day than today.”

Adapted with permission from The Daily Freeman. The original article can be read here.

The Chabad House in Kingston
The Chabad House in Kingston