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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

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