A HEBREW HAMLET IN THE CATSKILLS
Where did early 20th Century Jewish shopkeepers earn so much that they wintered in Paris’ most elegant hotel? In Fleischmanns, a summer home for wealthy German-American Jews, founded in the Western Catskills, in 1883 by Charles Fleischmann of the yeast company fame.
These wealthy summer residents drew lots of Jewish entrepreneurs, many of Hungarian origin, who set up stores, hotels, and camps to service this affluent community. Beginning in the second decade of the 20th Century Eastern European Jewish farmers, storekeepers, and summer visitors also added to the area’s population.
Did Baron Hirsch assist these farmers or contribute funds for the synagogue the Fleischmanns’ Jewish community built in 1920, Congregation B’nai Israel? The answer will have to wait until I can visit the Baron Hirsch archives in New York sometime this year. But meanwhile here is some history of this community taken from a presentation at Congregation B’nai Israel I made in July 2021 which you can watch here.
How did Fleischmanns become a Jewish village? It all started with Joseph Seligmann, a Jew from Bavaria. He arrived in the US in 1837 at the age of 18. By the late 1870s, he was a multi-millionaire, his family having made a fortune clothing the Union army. Years later they even helped finance the Panama Canal.
In the summer of 1877, Seligmann took his family to Saratoga, NY a very fashionable resort, to stay at the Grand Union Hotel where they had stayed before. But this time he and his family were turned away because they were “Hebrews”. As we shall see, it could be said that this act of anti-Semitism was what caused Fleischmann’s founding.
“The Hebrews they need not apply; the reason we do not know why; But still they do say, it’s a free country; where the Hebrews they need not apply!“
Charles Fleischmann, the founder of his namesake village, would have been well aware of this scandal. Charles had arrived in the U.S. from Austro-Hungary in 1869 and only 14 years later, in 1883, when he was seeking to spend his summers in the healthy Catskill mountains, yeast and distilled spirits had already made him a multi-millionaire. He would probably have been looking to summer in an area at least relatively free of anti-Semitism.
So when Fleischmann stayed at the elegant Grand Hotel in Highmount ( an area included later in the Fleischmanns village), and found a non-discriminating welcome, he decided to build his family compound right there. (It is an assumption that Fleischmann stayed at the Grand for where else would he have slept? The only other available accommodations in the area at that time were rooms being rented out in large farmhouses.) Don’t miss this musical presentation of the Grand Hotel.
The Newport of the Catskills
Many other wealthy Jews followed Fleischmann, building magnificent summer homes. By 1897, the Delaware Gazette was calling Fleischmanns the “Newport of the Catskills”.
And, the 1905 guide published by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle cited Fleischmanns as having “the finest residences to be found in the Catskill.
In that same year, 1905, two hundred guests were attending Sabbath services at the Hotel Switzerland in Fleischmanns, led by visiting rabbis from Erie, PA and New York City2 , and the charity events held in Fleischmanns such as the 1906 benefit for the Hebrew Orphans Asylum on Amsterdam Avenue, were reported in the society pages of the Times. 3 .
As early as 1897 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had reported there were close to 1500 people in July of that year in Fleischmanns’ hotels and boarding houses, a number that grew to 10,000 by the 1930s. Where there are affluent and lots of tourists, businesspeople will follow and that is what happened in Fleischmanns. By 1912 there were 60 hotels and guest houses and over 100 in the succeeding decades.
A Synagogue Is Born
And many of these business people were founders of Congregation B’nai Israel.
During the period 1820 – 1920, three million Jews emigrated to the Americas from Western and Eastern Europe, about a third of all the Jews in Europe and Russia. Approximately 2.2 million came to the United States.
Who were these founders of B’nai Israel and where did they come from?
Charles Fleischmann and the other very wealthy Jews who built large summer homes in the Fleischmann area in the 1880s and 90s came from Germany and nearby German-speaking areas, principally Bohemia and Austro-Hungary. Many of them arrived in the US between 1830 and 1880, during the first wave of European Jewish immigration.
If they were doing so well in Europe, why did they leave for America? Because in Europe they were not considered full citizens. They could not be university professors or serve as military officers, for example. And worse they had great difficulties obtaining commercial licenses and even marriage licenses. In Germany a marriage license could cost them today’s equivalent of $40,000 dollars and often regulations would only grant one per each Jewish family, leaving many siblings in an untenable state. And the same for commercial licenses, many times only one per Jewish family was allowed.
German Jews spread out across the United States, often beginning as peddlers, then as merchants, and then as financiers and political and intellectual leaders. They were amazingly successful. These included Mayer Lehman, a founder of the Lehman Brothers whose son Herbert replaced Franklin Roosevelt as Governor of NY and built a hunting lodge near Fleischmanns in Big Indian.
Once severe anti-Semitic laws were passed in Russia and Romania around 1880, Russian and Romanian Jews started to reach our shores. By 1914 millions had arrived, and three-quarters of them settled in New York City and would eventually fuel business in all of the Catskills, including Fleischmanns.
Already by 1900, these Eastern European Jews were arriving as guests in Fleischmanns and nearby Margaretville, some self-paid and some sent by the Baron Hirsch-sponsored Jewish Working Girl’s Society. Even the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, author of Tevye the Dairyman, better known in its musical version, Fiddler on the Roof spent a summer in Fleischmanns. Some of these Eastern European Jews helped establish Congregation B’nai Israel including synagogue incorporator Israel Kaplan and founding member Harry Solomon.
But even though Israel Kaplan had a farm as did some other founding members most of the founders were business people, principally merchants and hotel owners.
The Entrepreneurs of Congregation B’nai Israel
Many of the hotel owners among the B’nai Israel founders can be found in these 1921 ads: J Edelstein of the Fleischmann Mansion on Fleischmann Hill, the Lowys of the Manhattan Hotel, Samuel Berman of the Breezy Hill Hotel, Phil Frankel of the Palace Hotel, Isaac Dincin of the Hillcrest Hotel and Mrs. Halpern of the Hotel Washington.
In 1922 the papers were calling Fleischmanns a boomtown, proclaiming the village one of the most important resorts in the country. And fortunes were being made in both retail sales and real estate. In the summer of that same year Felberbaum’s bakery, owned by a B’nai Israel founding member, located on Main St where the Delaware Court Motel is today, was producing 10,000 loaves a day. And prices for properties were literally doubling in short order. So much so that as we will see many of the B’nai Israel founders wintered in Miami or spent months during the low season traveling around Europe.
But by 1928 and 29 we see more and more bankruptcies involving B’nai Israel founders. Most survived and even continued to prosper. But, for some, it was the end of their Fleischmanns adventure.
John Jacob Sameth
Founding trustee John Jacob Sameth was one of these. He was born in New York City to Hungarian Jewish parents where his father had a saloon/restaurant and brewery on the lower East Side. In 1908 he and his father opened Sameth Cottages on Breezy Hill to great success. Eventually, Sameth Cottages had room for 200 guests. Sameth was also the owner of the near-by Mountain Casino.
As reported in the New York Tribune, 500 hundred people attended John’s wedding in 1914 at the 116 St synagogue in Manhattan including the former NY Secretary of State S.S. Koenig and owner of one of the nation’s largest breweries, George Ehret.
In 1922 Sameth applied to the State to build Fleischmanns’ first village-run electrical plant. I couldn’t figure out for sure from the reports if his application was successful, but I think not, based on the rest of his story. For a while, John was on a roll and in 1924 was even elected President of the village. But in 1926, he filed for bankruptcy and the Sameth Cottages were taken over by the bank. The 1930 census shows Sameth working in a movie theater in Manhattan and the 1940 census says he is still in Manhattan as a clerk in a theater.
Let’s look closer at some of the others who founded Congregation B’nai Israel. With the help of ancestry.com and the digital archive of the Margaretville Catskill Mountain News and other newspapers, I have pieced together some of these stories.
Let’s start with Albert A. Halpern, president of the congregation when the synagogue was built. Albert and his brothers arrived in the U.S. in 1882. And just five years later in 1887, he was in the Catskills marrying Bessie Goldman.
Bessie’s father was a clothing merchant in Pine Hill, next door to Fleischmanns, where just the year before, in 1886, he had built a boarding house for the “Hebrews”. At that time Albert had a clothing store in Sidney just 60 miles west of Pine Hill.
In 1888 Albert’s brother, Simon started a clothing store in Margaretville, a larger town just 6 miles west of Fleischmanns. Together with Albert, they bought their own building in 1891. They sold dry goods, clothing, carpets, shoes, boots, etc.
Around 1900 they opened a second store, in Fleischmanns, expanding it to a full department store a few years later. “The Macy” of the Catskills was their motto.
Then in 1918 with Max Silberman who we will hear more about soon, they opened an additional store that sold hardware goods, furniture, toys, and building materials. I believe the Halperns moved all their operations to Margaretville in 1963 where they had the Halpern Plumbing Supply Company.
The Halperns were creative retailers and good PR agents. In 1902, for example, they obtained a long front-page story in the Catskill Mountain News on the growth of their business. This is just the beginning of that article.
That same year,1902, for a big sale Halperns offered two cents/mile to any customers who traveled to their store.
Or they would bring the merchandise to you. In the early days, they not only sold from the store, but they also had wagons that would go peddling around the countryside. Albert ran that end of the business. He had the necessary experience. We have reports that when he first came to Delaware County that’s how he earned a living, peddling. But, in the 1920s we find him traveling to New York City to study the latest fashions.
That was probably more in line with his destiny. For as Albert told it in 1905, in this letter, the Halperns were related to a highly placed Warsaw family in which “girls received a college education[and] moved in the finest society.”
Albert’s second cousin lived in this mansion in St. Petersburg, having married Sergei Witte, the head of the 1905 Russian peace delegation following the Russo-Japanese War, and the head of the constitutional Russian government that followed the October 1905 revolt.
Witte, by the way, was a foe of anti-Semitism saying once that if 50% of the Russian revolutionaries were Jews, as the Russian government asserted, it was the government’s fault for treating them so badly.
Another retailer was B’nai Israel founding member Harry Solomon who had a grocery store in the building with the second story porch in this old photo.
Born in Kiev, Solomon arrived in New York in 1904 at the age of 19 and six years later he already had his own grocery store in Manhattan and by 1914 he was a Democratic County committeeman. In 1920 he bought the building with the second-story balcony on Main Street in Fleischmanns, opening his next store. He lived in Fleischmanns for the rest of his life, serving as president of the school board for 13 years, 1930-43.
Max Silberman, one of the original synagogue trustees was also a major businessperson in Fleischmanns. Silberman’s support for Congregation B’nai Israel continued throughout his life. He donated the land for the cemetery and in 1953 just a year before he died, he donated all the paint for the repainting of the cemetery fence. Reaching the US at age 13 in 1899 we find Max as a paperhanger in Norwich, Conn in 1910 but he wasn’t going to stay a wage earner for long. He arrived In Fleischmanns in 1913. Soon, he had a bakery and then a grocery store.
But those businesses were too sedate for Max. By 1915 he is already auctioning horses and whatever else came his way. Often, he organized sales with B’nai Israel incorporator Adolph Greenfield. Silberman’s ads offered to buy anything, I’m “the guy with the cash,” he boasted.
Mr. Silberman was definitely a wheeler-dealer. In 1922 the Catskill Mountain News called him “the financial genius of the Catskills.” In that same year he bought a complete block of brick buildings on Main St. along with the Delaware and Greene Creamery, and 50% of the Halpern’s store.
The newspapers are also full of bankruptcy claims against Silberman, but he always remains afloat, and well afloat, buying and selling expensive properties like the Korns store in Arkville and the Palace Hotel in Fleischmanns. And he never gives up.
When Silberman’s Mountain Casino which he had acquired from John Jacob Sameth burned down in 1928, no problem. He built the Maxbuilt Theater, which is still on Main Street; when first built it was one of the most technologically advanced movie theaters in the state. I went literally dizzy following all of Silberman’s transactions. As reported in his obituary, during his 41 years in Fleischmanns, Silberman owned 87 properties.
Tunis Lake Camp
Original B’nai Israel members Samuel Steinberger and his son Benjamin along with Samuel’s son-in-law Aaron Mirsky found their business opportunity in summer camps opening first, the 700-acre Tunis Lake Camp for boys near Andes in 1923.
The Tunis Lake Camp was considered one of the swankiest camps in the country featuring cabin living instead of tents and hot and cold indoor running water. Then in 1929, they opened a sister camp on 600 acres of its own, Camp Oquago for girls. Each had approximately 150 campers.
Quite a few of the business people on the B’nai Israel original membership list also had businesses in New York and even Miami and several lived most of the year in the New York City area. In 1920, for example, synagogue incorporator Julius Brill, of the Fleischmanns deli was listed in the census as living in the Bronx and working as a tailor, probably his winter occupation. Later he had a newsstand in Fleischmanns in the summer as well as a newsstand in Patterson New Jersey which had become his principal residence.
Another B’nai Israel incorporator Adolph Greenfield, who bought the Wellington Hotel in 1921, owned a hardware store in Newark. Founding trustee Emanuel Klein owned the Maple Villa Hotel in Fleischmanns and businesses in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. Founding by-laws committee member Phillip Frankel managed a ballroom in Manhattan as well as his hotel in Fleischmanns.
Founding member David Kuritzky who established the Progressive Produce Market in Fleischmanns in 1910 with the motto “if it grows, we have it,” maintained his principal residence in Lakewood, New Jersey.
After Mr. Kuritzky’ death in 1924, his wife and daughter, Bella, continued to run the Progressive Market, at least in the summer. In the winter Bella ran the St. Regis restaurant on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Founding member Max Nussbaum also split his business life between Fleischmanns where he had a laundry and was a director of the 1st National Bank and Miami Beach where he had a market.
I imagine these synagogue pioneers kept their businesses in Fleischmanns and vicinity because they literally brought in fortunes, for some they were fortunes that supported many months of leisure. Already in 1922 synagogue incorporator Adolph Greenfield was making so much from his Wellington Hotel that he sailed to Europe for an indefinite stay.
Founding synagogue member Isaac Dincin called his Hillcrest Hotel, “the mountain’s greatest success” and it just might have been. In the early 1920s, Isaac and his wife spent a whopping seven months in Europe. In Paris, they stayed at one of the fanciest hotels, The St. James and Albany, just across from the Louvre.
The Dincins also traveled to California before Isaac passed away in Miami in 1925.
Now there were some synagogue founders who came to the Fleischmann area to farm. One was trustee Nathen Engelman. He was born in Austria and reached the US in 1894 at the age of 9. In 1910 he was a waiter in a hotel in Manhattan. But by 1914 he was the president of the Fleischmanns Hebrew Farmers Association.
Both Mr. Engelman and another B’nai Israel founding member Solomon Lippman were sent that same year as delegates to the national meeting of the Federation of Jewish Farmers of America.
But, both Engelman and Lippman, like many who came to Fleischmanns to farm soon realized that real profits were in boarders, hotels, and assorted businesses. As early as 1912 Farmers Association delegate Solomon Lippman and partner David Kuritzky (later of the Progressive Market) another B’nai Israel founding member, established the Mountain Spring House for boarders in Bedell, 4 miles north of Fleischmanns.
And Engelman made a good portion, if not a majority of his income from summer guests and other business ventures. In fact, on the 1920 census, his occupation was listed as merchant. In this 1919 ad we see him offering his services as a real estate agent and he also invested his own money in new summer cottages and commercial buildings.
Engelman’s boarding house suffered an awful fire in 1915. Maybe that’s why in that same year he opened a produce store on Main Street. Then in 1919 he sold his farm and bought property on Main Street.
Another farmer, turned businessman was B’nai Israel incorporator Meyer Dlasnow. In 1915 he was the Secretary of the Fleischmanns Jewish Farmers Association but he supplemented or replaced his farming efforts with an important butcher shop, Meyer’s Meat and Poultry. He also often served as rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel and as related to me by Jeff Slavin, Meyer tutored all the bar mitzah boys right there in the butcher shop. In 1967 a couple of years before he passed away, Meyer even conducted a service with a rock and roll band.
And other farming families took advantage of the building booms in the area. The Slavins first farmed in Halcott Center, adjacent to Fleischmanns. Jacob Slavin had emigrated from Russia, first to western Canada to work in Baron Rothchild’s mines. But Canada was too cold for his wife Ida so they came to the U.S. and with relatives they bought their farm.
Jacob was still listed as a farmer in the 1930 census but later on the family had a Ford dealership and a construction company. They built many of the ski centers.
And the Wadlers Building Supply on Rte 28 in Fleischmanns is owned by descendants of Jacob Wadler who also farmed in Halcott Center, but like others he maintained a business in New York City, a tailoring business.
And Samuel Fried knew when he bought his 200-acre farm in 1914 that the 28-room farmhouse was rented in the summers to New Yorkers who ran it as a hotel, the Mountain View House. So as soon as they arrived from Russia, he housed his wife and five children in a small house he had rented. Summer ended they moved into the big house, moves that became yearly events.
Another farmer was B’nai Israel incorporator Israel Kaplan. He arrived in New York in 1910 from what is now Belarus following his sons who had begun to arrive five years earlier. The 14 member Kaplan family lived in a 1 room flat, and Israel worked as a presser in a sweatshop. He hated it. He wanted to go back to Russia but his memories of the extreme sea sicknesses he had suffered on the way over deterred him. Israel was a blacksmith and came from the countryside so that’s where he went.
With the help of his sons who all worked in the garment trade he bought a farm near Fleischmanns. For a while he too sought the profits of the summer visitors, building a large boarding house named the Sunnyview Hotel. Sadly, it burned down in October of 1932. But Israel and his wife Lena remained on the farm at least until 1940. Today the 70 acres are divided among the descendants of Israel and Leah’s twelve surviving children, one of whom, wrote the application that obtained B’nai Israel its place on the national registry of historic places.
One of the stories the Kaplans relate about their great grandfather reflects the many positive relationships the Jews in Fleischmanns built with their gentile neighbors. Israel was a blacksmith. He didn’t know much about farming. So, he worked out deals in which he would trade black smithing for help on the farm. One of the nearby farmers came from Poland and Israel spoke Polish. They became friends even helping each other keep their respective sabbaths. Israel milked the cows on both farms on Sundays and his Polish friend did the same on Saturdays.
A Multi-Cultural Community
There are many other examples of ecumenical friendships and cooperation. Already in 1905, the monthly Red Cross meeting was held at the home of Mrs. Simon Halpern. In rummage sales, on the lawn of the Skene Memorial Library to raise funds for the blind all three religions were represented. The Jewish ladies sold in the morning, the Catholics from 2 to 3pm and the Methodists from 3 to 5.
Even today websites, like ScenicCatskills.com describe Fleischmanns as a multiethnic community:
I want to thank Bill Bernhardt, Gil Rubin, and all of Congregation B’nai Israel for inviting me to give the presentation that led to this blog post. And I want to thank local historian, Bill Birns, John Duda, of the Greater Fleischmanns Museum of Memories, and Diane Galusha of the Historical Society of the Town of Middletown, for sharing with me documents and data and helping me understand the history of Fleischmanns. And I also want to thank Ellis Tobin, Ron Kaplan and Jim Kaplan for sharing so many stories of their great grandparents Israel and Leah Kaplan, B’nai Israel founders, Jill Schilstra and Lisa Pontell for sharing the story of another synagogue founding member, Samuel Fried and Jeff Slavin for telling me about his family. I am so grateful. Merrie Blocker
- New York Times, June 19, 1877, p. 1.
- The American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger, Aug. 18, 1905, p. 326
- NY Times, Aug. 5, 1906, p.10