Our old Synagogues: What happens to synagogues when no one is left?

Can a Jewish person forget the place where he celebrated his bar mitzvah and read in the Torah for the first time? Is it possible  to forget the place where a person once dropped to the ground on Yom Kippur and asked for forgiveness from G_d?

Over the years I moved quite a bit. I don’t remember the addresses of the places I once called home. I don’t remember the phone numbers that once were part of me, but I do remember every synagogue I ever visited. There is something special, holy, in these places that touches the soul and connects to a Jewish person in a way that no other structure does.

As Jewish people moved to newer communities they left behind their synagogues. Places that once were the center of Jewish life where people celebrated their most important events. What happens to these synagogues after everyone is gone?

Here are some of their stories:

Palm Beach, Florida

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In 1924, six Jewish families started Temple Beth Israel in a small, domed white structure. The building has a second floor mezzanine and a small dome in the front. It has a hollow clay tile roof, Pine floor, thick plaster walls, stained glass windows, and cypress beams. In 1930, Carl N. Herman became the Reform temple’s first full-time rabbi. Within a few years, the congregation split into the Reform Temple Israel and the Conservative Temple Beth El. Temple Israel stayed in the building but Beth El moved to Fern Street.

In the years following WWI, the building became too small for the growing congregation and the congregation moved into a larger building. The old structure became a Catholic church, a Greek Orthodox church and then a missionary Baptist church.

The developer, WCI Communities, bought the site where it stood in 2004. The structure was designated a historic building in 2005 and efforts were made to find someone to take care of it. In 2012, the structure was loaded on a large dolly and moved about a mile north, from 2020 Broward Ave. to its new home at 2815 N. Flagler Drive. It is now once again a Jewish synagogue.

I visited the small synagogue few times since it was renovated. It is a beautiful small synagogue. It is so welcoming that  it is impossible not to fall in love with it. 

Chicago, Illinois 

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“When it was first built in the 1920s, this Chicago synagogue was a majestic place of sanctuary for the city’s North Side Jewish population, and glimmers of that grandeur still remain a century later — though they are largely hidden from public view.

Since the Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation synagogue, located at 5029 N. Kenmore Ave. in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, closed to the public in 2008, there have been efforts to save the remarkable building, considered to be the city’s last remaining sanctuaries of its kind.

But the costs to renovate the 23,000-square-foot building today are staggering, due to its level of disrepair and incidents of robbery and vandalism, including anti-Semitic attacks on the structure. A recent Chicago Patterns feature on the synagogue reported its full renovation would cost at least $3 million.” [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/24/abandoned-chicago-synagogue-photos_n_4661270.html

Liverpool, England

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“The red-brick, art deco synagogue was designed by the noted Liverpool architect Sir Ernest Alfred Shennan and built in 1936/37. It served its congregation until January 2008, when dwindling numbers forced the community to move and close the building. A 2008 proposal to turn it into apartments was blocked — thanks to the efforts of the 20th Century Society, which got the building upgraded to Grade II heritage status — and the building has stood empty since then.

In March 2013, it was reported that the synagogue was to receive £70,000 in rescue funding from English Heritage and the Liverpool city council  the building, which has been on the “English Heritage at Risk” list since 2010, can be refurbished and its long-tern future assured. Jewish Heritage UK estimates that repairs would still require a further £1 million.” [http://www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu/2014/04/06/abandoned-greenbank-driver-synagogue-in-liverpool-detailed-new-pictures/%E2%80%9D]]

Gemiluth Chessed Synagogue, Port Gibson, Mississippi

 

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Gemiluth Chessed Synagogue, Port Gibson – (1892) Also sometimes spelled Gemiluth Chassed. Although not a large building, Gemiluth Chessed Synagogue is, depending on how strict one is with architectural styles, the finest and most purely articulated Moorish Revival building in Mississippi (Longwood in Natchez and the Hamasa Shrine Temple Theater in Meridian are classified by some as Moorish Revival; neither are purely Moorish in style or massing). The cornerstone for Gemiluth Chessed was laid on January 3, 1892 and the synagogue served Port Gibson’s Jewish community until 1986, when the congregation dwindled down to two individuals and closed. The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life has a page which more fully details the history of Congregation Gemiluth Chassed. The exterior of Gemiluth Chessed features a Moorish keyhole doorway below the prominent squared onion dome. The windows in the turret supporting the dome are also Moorish keyhole windows. The windows on the brick main floor of the building appear from the exterior as simple arched windows; however, the stained glass windows are in the form of Moorish keyhole windows set into an arched, masonry window openings, a device that gives the effect of Moorish windows without the expense of intricate brickwork. Gemiluth Chessed Synagogue, despite its architectural and historical significance, was almost demolished for a gas station parking lot in 1987, until an eleventh-hour save by Bill and Martha Lum (not Jewish) who spared the building from the landfill. [ http://misspreservation.com/101-mississippi-places-to-see-before-you-die/gemiluth-chessed-synagogue-port-gibson/ ]

Bronx

“At one time the Bronx was home to an estimated 700 synagogues. Today, now that the borough’s seen half a million Jews leave it, that number is down to 34. The borough is littered with former synagogues. Some of these have morphed into churches, government buildings or grocery stores. Others couldn’t be sold, and sit forlorn on blocks no Jew has walked down in years. Their doors are chained shut, their walls graffitied. Recently I visited an abandoned synagogue on Morris Ave. and 196th St., formerly the Beth Shraga Synagogue. It closed in 1999. On the corner a group of Hispanic teenagers hung out, eyeing anybody who walked by. I stood in front of the closed temple and contemplated the Star of David carved into the stone above the chained gold doors. The brick front of the temple was scarred with graffiti, and a small metal sign hung by a window, announcing that it was for sale… Over the phone I later talked with Elliot Markson, 58, a retired schoolteacher and now a Brooklyn resident, about abandoned synagogues in the Bronx. Markson is a bit of an expert on the subject, as his father was the principal of the Hebrew school at the Adath Israel Synagogue on 169th St. and the Grand Concourse. Markson was bar mitzvahed there in 1955–as was Bronx serial killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, in 1966. The temple was closed in the 70s, Markson thinks, and is now a Seventh-Day Adventist church… I spent a recent evening driving around the South Bronx in my car, searching out dead synagogues. It doesn’t get much bleaker than that. Mid-January, with the dirty snow crusted over the trash in the gutters, and human shadows loping along under the razor-wire fencing. I turned up the car’s heater, and thought about what it must have been like at the last service held at the South Bronx’s last synagogue. When there were no longer enough of the faithful left for a minyan, and the cantor was packing up after singing his last note. And the rabbi snuffing the candles, cutting off the power that connects the place to the eternal light, and thinking of the more than half a million Jews who once called the Bronx their home. It’s amazing to think that, as young man, the rabbi must have thought that, in the South Bronx, his community had found a home. But he carries the Torah scrolls down the aisle and sees that they’ve rolled up the ark curtain and that the bima’s been shipped to a synagogue in Westchester. He chains the temple doors shut and leaves.” [http://nypress.com/twilight-of-the-gods-the-south-bronxs-abandoned-synagogues/] [http://www.bronxsynagogues.org/ic/bronxsyn/survey.html]

Detroit

 

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Tushiyah United Hebrew School 609 E. Kirby now abandoned. Tushiyah United Hebrew Schools is located a short distance behind the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit’s Cultural Center.  Its status is unknown as of this writing. [http://www.shtetlhood.com/Tushiyah.htm]

South Bend

“Well, this is certainly creative reuse: One of South Bend’s first synagogues is now the team store for the South Bend Silver Hawks (Low Class A; Midwest League). The 111-year-old building was empty until Silver Hawks owner Andrew Berlin was struck with the notion to take over the space. ‘Being adjacent to the ballpark and having survived three different ballparks over 100 years it seemed natural to pull it within the ballpark and make it part of the complex,’ he told Fox 28.” [http://ballparkdigest.com/201207035141/at-the-ballpark/the-front-office/abandoned-synagogue-becomes-silver-hawks-team-store]

B’nai Abraham Synagogue in Virginia Minnesota

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“Dedicated in 1909, the red brick synagogue of Virginia’s B’nai Abraham congregation was called the most beautiful religious building on the Iron Range. In the early twentieth century, the synagogue was the heart of Virginia’s Jewish community. A declining congregation forced the synagogue to close its doors in the mid-1990s. However, community support and renovations have made B’nai Abraham a center of Virginia’s cultural life once again.

Virginia became a hub of lumber and mining industries in the 1890s. Jewish merchants and clerks soon settled in the newly established town. In 1894, Jews from Virginia and nearby communities began to hold religious services in Virginia’s old North Pole Hall. Most of Virginia’s Jewish population were immigrants from the Russian Empire (an area that is now Lithuania).

As the town boomed, so too did its Jewish population. Members of Virginia’s growing Jewish community founded the congregation of B’nai Abraham in 1905. They held their first meeting in Virginia’s Socialist Opera House on November 20. Their first goal was the construction of a synagogue. Other Iron Range synagogues in Hibbing and Eveleth were converted churches. B’nai Abraham was the first synagogue to be built on the Range.

The women of the congregation formed the B’nai Abraham Ladies’ Aid Society in 1908. They began to raise funds for the construction of a synagogue and were very successful. Among their contributions to the building effort was the donation of $700 to purchase one of B’nai Abraham’s thirteen stained glass windows. The Ladies’ Aid Society continued long after the synagogue’s construction was complete. The group of women called themselves the Sunshine Club. They visited sick members of the congregation, hosted community events, and assisted new Jewish immigrants in the area.

The synagogue served as the heart of Virginia’s tightly interwoven Jewish community. Visiting rabbis conducted services. Holidays and Bar Mitzvahs were celebrated in the synagogue. B’nai Abraham was also used as a gathering place for weddings, birthdays, and retirements. The synagogue served as a meeting place for the Virginia chapters of several Jewish organizations including B’nai Brith and Hadassah.

The synagogue’s distinctive stone foundation, beautiful windows, Romanesque style, and red brick exterior make B’nai Abraham one of Virginia’s most recognizable landmarks. In 1980 B’nai Abraham was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was the first Minnesota synagogue to be listed.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the Jewish population on the Iron Range declined. Falling membership had the forced the closure of synagogues in Hibbing, Chisholm and Eveleth. By 1990 B’nai Abraham was the last synagogue on the Iron Range. In the mid-1990s B’nai Abraham also closed its doors. By 2002 the congregation had declined to two members. That year the building was listed as one of the most threatened historic structures in Minnesota.

In 2004 a non-profit group, the Friends of B’nai Abraham, formed to save the building. They acquired it from its previous owners and began to restore the historic building with the help of state and local grants as well as donations. Through their efforts, the B’nai Abraham synagogue in Virginia has been transformed into a museum and cultural center.”  [http://www.mnopedia.org/structure/bnai-abraham-synagogue-virginia]

 

Related articles:

Synagogues and history

About a Synagogue

 

 

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