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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Small Town Synagogues In North Carolina

Just a quick posting today regarding some small synagogues in North Carolina... Gastonia, Rocky Mount and Statesville. Three buildings that are each beautiful and important in their own right. Gastonia, North Carolina is the home of Temple Emanuel, a small Reform synagogue, that continues to represent the Jewish Community with vigor. A classical-revival style synagogue that is located on a busy street corner, the congregation was founded in 1913 as the Hebrew Congregation of Gastonia. The current synagogue was built in 1929.

Rocky Mount is home to Temple Beth El a very small Reform congregation, that unfortunately, has seen better days in terms of membership and activity. What was once a vibrant mid-sized Jewish congregation, is now a proud, but almost disappearing congregation. This is an all too present situation in many small towns across the USA. Declines in manufacturing, retailing and changing demographic patters have affected once vibrant Jewish Communities. Temple Beth El is a modest, but nice brick synagogue designed in a somewhat modern style with some traditional architectural touches and beautiful stained glass windows. Founded ca. 1921, the present synagogue dates to 1949.

Statesville, North Carolina is home to the one of the oldest synagogue structures in the state. Congregation Emanuel is located in a quiet residential area hear downtown. Established in 1883, the present building was designed in the Romanesque-Revival style and dedicated in 1892. It is beautifully maintained. Today, Congregational Emanuel is a small vibrant congregation that continues to represent Judaism in Statesville.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Re-Using Former Synagogues

Happy Jewish New Year 5772. I recently became a particpant on Twitter and have posted several interesting synagogue photographs. I have been pleased at the interest shown and now realize how much interest exists within the niche of synagogue architecture and synagogue history. Synagogue life is ever changing especially in times of growth and also times of economic depression. Congregations move, merge, expand, close and/or downsize. Many small town Jewish congregations continue to become smaller due to population declines. This is not always the case as there are examples of new Jewish congregation being formed outside major population centers in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida to name just a few places. There are many smaller congregations in the South and Midwest, that despite their small size, are holding their own and remain vital to the community. I began thinking about all of this when I learned that a small synagogue in Gadsden, Alabama recently closed. The synagogue landscape is always changing, some of it good, some not. One of the most important ideas for me is to assure that a closed congregation's history and records are preserved for future generations and that a photographic record of their former synagogue building is made. This is especially true for the "everyday" type of building. Whether or not a building is historic or grand looking or important really doesn't matter in the scheme of things when it comes to documenting history. That being said, making sure that a historic or architecturally significant building that once housed a synagogue is noted and preserved if possible is also extremely important. Former synagogues that have historic value have become museums and cultural venues, etc. Some have found more utilitarian uses. The Institute for Southern Jewish Learning (Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience) is one group leading the way in making sure that history is preserved and that former Southern synagogues are re-purposed in a meaningful way, thus ensuring that the legacy of a Jewish Community is remembered and preserved. Below are a couple of my photographs of synagogues that have found new uses and escaped the all too common wrecking ball. Often the new use of a former synagogue is mundane such as an apartment building, but I always feel that it is much more important to save a unique building no matter what the use.
Former Temple Beth El - Helena, Arkansas
Use as a cultural & history center

Former Tree of Life Synagogue - Pittsburgh, PA
Community playhouse & theater

Former Gemiluth Chassed Temple - Port Gibson, Mississippi restored though presently vacant

Former Oev Sholom Synagogue - Tarentum, Pennsylvania
Now used as an apartment house

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Temple Beth El - Bradford, Pennsylvania

This is the first in a series of posts I plan to write regarding the subject of synagogue downsizing, the closing of many synagogues and the increase in synagogue mergers taking place. The economy, demographic changes, shifting populations and, in many cases, an aging congregational membership base, all have led to changes in the American synagogue landscape in the past few years. While these phenomena are certainly not new within the American Jewish Community, it is my opinion that the frequency of these changes is increasing steadily. One example out of several that I will be talking about is Temple Beth El located in Bradford, Pennsylvania. Bradford is a small city in rural northern Pennsylvania, about 78 miles south of Buffalo. The area was once a large manufacturing and oil producing area. Established in 1958 through the merger of Temple Beth Zion and Congregation Beth Israel, Temple Beth El ultimately traces its beginnings to 1879 when the Bradford Hebrew Congregation was established as the first Jewish congregation in the city. A new Mid-Century Modern style synagogue for Temple Beth El was dedicated in 1961. It featured simple, modern lines, but had a very unique stylized menorah sculpture on the exterior wall with small colored windows to simulate candles on the menorah. The congregation peaked in the 1960's, and by the 1980's the Jewish population had begun to decline in Bradford. In 2000 the congregation made plans to become a lay-led congregation and find smaller, more suitable quarters. In 2006, Temple Beth El moved to a remodeled former church building on Clarence Street in Bradford. Temple Beth El continues to serve five counties, providing a place for Jewish worship and cultural activities . Despite its reduced size, Temple Beth El took the steps to adapt and change in order to remain a viable Jewish institution in a decidedly non-Jewish area of Pennsylvania. For a more detailed history and an image of their current temple, please visit Temple Beth El's website:

Photo from temple archives, Courtesy of Todd Halpern

Photo by Linda Perlman 2004, Courtesy of Todd Halpern

Image from Temple Beth El website

Monday, August 15, 2011

Beth Israel in Gadsden, Alabama has closed

I recently learned that a wonderful small Jewish congregation in Gadsden, Alabama closed their doors due to a continued decline in the local Jewish population. Beth Israel was one of the synagogues featured in my cd-rom book, "American Synagogues: A Photographic Journey". Their house of worship was a beautiful classical style synagogue built in 1922 and maintained beautifully through the years. Established as a formal congregation in 1908, Beth Israel closed in 2010 bringing to an end another chapter of Alabama Jewish history and small town American jewish history. The leaders of the congregation decided to give the temple building to the city of Gadsden for use as a cultural and historical venue.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Historic Synagogues of Philadelphia & The Delaware Valley

I posted a short photograph slideshow video to YouTube with a selection of images from my book, "Historic Synagogues of Philadelphia & The Delaware Valley" published by The History Press. The book features present-day and vintage images of current and former synagogues with detailed photo captions. The book covers Philadelphia, the suburbs and also Delaware and much of Southern New Jersey. I look forward to your comments and feedback.