Small-Town Judaism: Fleischmanns, NY, Part I

By Bill Simons

Fleischmanns, NY, sits in the Western Catskills, approximately 100 miles from Binghamton. Metropolitan areas dominate the demographics of American Judaism, but for more than 125 years, Fleischmanns, with a population of about 350, has reflected Jewry’s small-town presence. John Thorn, a historian of culture and baseball, captures Fleischmanns’ essence: “an appealingly forlorn spot… 50 if not 100 years [separate it] from the rest of America. Its old-fashioned Catskills summers – fresh air, cool mountain nights, porch sitting, ball playing, swimming, and dozing off in lawn chairs – have been swallowed up… In Fleischmanns, the mangled evidence of its former glories has not yet become unrecognizable; on the contrary, the eerie remains… form the spur to memory.”

To escape the blistering summers of the Midwest, the Fleischmann family – Jewish yeast and whiskey moguls, owners of the Cincinnati Reds, and Ohio political powerbrokers – came to the area, then known as Griffin Corners. The Fleischmann family and their cohorts built great mansions, installed heated pools, funded a uniformed band, created a spacious park and founded and played for a local baseball team. At a time when antisemitism often restricted accommodations to white Protestants, other Jews joined the Fleishmann family in the summer sojourn to the area, establishing seasonal homes, bread-and-boards and opening grand hotels featuring amenities and entertainments. Lake Switzerland, an idyllic construct of human endeavor, hosted swimming, boating, and fishing. In 1913, the incorporated and consolidated village adopted the name Fleischmanns. The first half of the 20th century was the heyday of Jewish resorts in Fleischmanns and other Catskill communities. 

By the late 1950s, the summer world of Fleischmanns’ Jewish resorts experienced declension. Over the next generation, interstate highways, air travel and air conditioning increasingly made summer vacations in mountain enclaves appear sedate and antiquated. The grand hotels closed, prompting suspicions that insurance incentives prompted certain resort finales by blazing fire. More recently, flood waters wrought devastation. Two rather dark commercial movies filmed on location in Fleischmanns. The community came close to formal dissolution. Amidst the remnants, several impressive Queen Anne and Victorian homes survive. And memories of the halcyon days linger. 

In the Clovesville Cemetery, along old Route 28, there is a poignant reminder of the old Fleischmanns. The Jewish portion of the cemetery rests on a gentle rising hill. There, a granite monument denotes the Edelstein/Berg family plot. It domiciles the graves of Jacob and Dinah Edelstein, immigrant Jews, who operated a hotel in Fleischmanns. Their daughter, Gertrude, and her husband, Lewis Berg, share the family plot. The dates on the gravestones indicate that Jacob was 20 and Dinah 17 when their daughter was born. Young Gertrude would write and perform skits in the family hotel. In time, Gertrude Berg achieved fame as a scriptwriter, producer and actress. From the 1920s through the 1950s, she immortalized the character of Molly Goldberg, chronicling Jewish family life on radio and television in comedic drama, breaking ground for the fictive Mrs. Maisel. Fleischmanns figures prominently in the arc of Gertrude Berg’s life and legacy. Before departing, I placed a small rock on her gravestone. 
A summer resort, Oppenheimer’s Regis Hotel, survives in Fleischmanns. The food is ample and kosher, and the clientele is Jewish. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews figure prominently in the summer migration to Fleischmanns. 

Over the years, tensions between Jews in Fleischmanns have emerged. Demarcations between summer and year-round residents, downstate and upstate sensibilities, and Orthodox/Hasidic and liberal/secular Jews have flared. The COVID pandemic brought these fissures to a peak in 2020. Disputes took place over the donning of masks. Violation of public health edicts that ordered the closure of several summer enterprises – camps, lodgings, restaurants and a yeshiva – owned by observant, seasonal Jewish residents of Fleischmanns generated confrontation. In response to his insistence on enforcement of public health regulations, Fleischmanns’ then-mayor, Fred Woller, was accused of antisemitism by the owner of summer businesses frequented by observant Jews. The mayor, secular in his orientation, countered that he grew up Jewish. 

By June 2021, the COVID pandemic and tempers had receded in Fleischmanns. On Sunday, June 13, about 100 members, friends and public officials gathered on the front lawn of Congregation B’nai Israel for the 2 pm dedication ceremony of a roadside marker. It was an older group that assembled outside the synagogue on the pastoral setting at 357 Wagner Avenue. Few wore masks and most sat on folding wooden chairs. The program began with the recitation of the Shehecheyanu prayer of gratitude. Presiding over the ceremony, synagogue President Gil Rubin remarked that it was good to once again look upon smiling faces. The threat of thunderstorms proved illusionary and this picture-perfect late spring day mirrored the congeniality of the assemblage. 

Congregation Bnai Israel had previously received recognition on the United States and New York state historical registries. After significant research and rigorous documentation attesting to the historic importance of the site, the William C. Pomeroy Foundation awarded the synagogue a roadside marker. With yellow base, post, and lettering, the blue face of the roadside marker reads: “B’Nai Israel Founded in 1918 By Jewish Farmers & Businessmen From Fleischmanns & The Catskills As A Synagogue For Worship. Building Funds Raised 1919. William C. Pomeroy Foundation 2020.” Congregation Bnai Israel is one of the most venerable synagogues in the Catskills. 

Affiliated with the Conservative movement, Bnai Israel is inclusive and egalitarian. A white, wooden framed exterior announces the sanctuary, its bima forward, Stars of David emblazoned on stained-glass windows and seating for about 250. From late June until the shofar marks the conclusion of Yom Kippur, Cantor Shai Simonson conducts services.
At the dedication of the Bnai Israel marker, Assemblyman Chris Tague observed that the history of the synagogue is a “truly American tale… [created in] classic small-town fashion.” The Assemblyman wished the synagogue an additional hundred years of “worship and love.”
Right next to Bnai Israel is another site central to Fleischmanns’ Jewish history, a park centered by baseball. Part II of the series will examine Fleischmanns’ field of dreams.

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.