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Beautiful old American synagogues revived for a second life.

Paula Jacobs showed that across the USA, historic shules (synagogues) became Jewish cultural centres and museums, breathing new life into dilapidated and empty shule buildings. They preserved the stories of C20th American Jewish immig­rants and their neighbour­hoods, while adding cont­emp­or­ary artistic, cultural and social justice elements.

In Chelsea Mass, the Jews made up a larger percentage of the city’s population than in any other American city. 50+% Jewish back then, the kosher butchers, bakeries and 18 shules were located within the small area. Only in the 1970s did the Jewish population dwindle because of suburban migration. This working-class city just north of Boston is now 65% Latino; Hispanic churches line its narrow streets.

Walnut St synagogue in in Chelsea, Mass
Will become Chelsea Jewish Museum and Cultural Centre

In Sept 2019 Walnut St Synagogue, Chelsea’s only extant Or­th­odox shule, celebrated its Founders’ Day. 250 attendees (des­cen­dants of shule founders, City Councillors, former and current Chelsea residents) came to honour their legacy.

The shule’s size and grandeur made it the foremost site in Chelsea, and wor­thy of efforts to restore it. But note that most mem­b­ers lived outside Chel­sea and were over 60. It became a struggle to pay bills, maintain and heat this large, old struct­ure. The President propos­ed in 2017 to transform the shule, a proposal accepted by the Board of Directors.

Walnut St is a four storey structure listed on the National Reg­is­ter of Historic Places, at the old centre of Chelsea Jewish life. Its magnificent 1,109-seat san­ctuary houses an extant ark made by Ukrainian-born woodworker Sam Katz. An original ceiling painting depicts trompe l’oeil heavens. The shule’s study hall has a fine collection of hist­orical and religious arte­facts from Chelsea and nearby commun­it­ies whose shules closed. See numerous Yiddish signs, posters and newspapers recording C20th Jewish life in Chelsea.

Following the example of other historic USA shules that success­fully adapted themselves for C21st audiences, the shule will become the Chelsea Jewish Museum and Cultural Centre. Walnut St will reach a wider audience and preserve Jewish immigrant by becoming a history museum-cultural centre. Final costs will be determined when they receive the archit­ectural firm’s report, and when the strat­egic plan and capital campaign is finalised. In two years a cultural centre-museum should be open to visitors on weekdays, while shule services will take place on Shabbat and holidays.

The shule’s partner­ship with Chelsea Collaborative will present cul­tural program­mes for the local Latino population eg con­certs of Latin American music. The shule will also work with Boston Jewish organisations to hold lectures and film festivals in its huge sanct­uary.

Vilna Shule was built in 1919 in Boston’s historic Beacon Hill section, the last remaining Immigrant Era shule in Bost­on’s CBD. It sat empty until Boston’s Cen­tre for Jewish Culture purchased the buil­ding in 1995. Since 2008, the centre has hosted concerts, speakers, films, family events, Shabbat and holiday services. An exhibit on the immig­ration history of Boston will open in Dec 2019.

Vilna Shule Boston, built in 1919  
Now Boston’s Cen­tre for Jewish Culture

The Vilna Shule’s previous home, close by, was once the Twelfth Bap­tist Church. It was the site of the African American sold­iers of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, during the Civil War. The church’s C19th wooden pews, now in the Vilna Shule’s sanctuary, are being res­tored, with hand-painted, decorative murals depicting biblical scenes.

Baltimore’s historic Lloyd St Synagogue was built in 1830 by archit­ect Robert Cary Long. The building was later sold by the congregation in 1889 to a Catholic parish which occupied it until 1905. It was then sold back to the Jew­ish community. Saved from demolition by the Jewish Historical Society, the shule now operates as the Jewish Museum of Maryland. The sanctuary has original pews and there is also a C19th bath-mikveh using water from local falls. Maryland Jew­ish history and trad­itions are exhibited in art, historical photos, videos and objects from daily immigrant life.

Was the Lloyd St Synagogue, Baltimore
Now the Jewish Museum of Maryland

The Maine Jewish Museum is housed in Portland’s restored Etz Chaim Con­greg­ation. Due to changing demographics, the formerly Orthodox congregation became non-affiliated and egalitarian when the museum was founded in 2010, resulting in an increased member­ship. The museum houses a permanent exhibition on Maine Jewish history, starting when people arrived in the 1880s. And it now has changing contemp­orary art exhibits, and a permanent photo exhibit of Maine’s Hol­o­caust survivors. 

Dr Joseph Gumbiner was a civil rights leader and founding rabbi in the oldest shule in Arizona: Temple Emanu-El. Jacobs showed that the Jewish His­t­ory Museum & Holo­caust Centre in Tuc­son now attracts c12,000-15,000 visitors annually and connects Jewish history to other marg­in­alised groups eg LGBTQ community, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and migr­ants on the USA southern border.

The Museum at Eldridge St in New York is housed in the rest­or­ed Eldridge St Synagogue (built in 1887), a splendid National Hist­oric Landmark and the last vestige of Jewish life on the Lower East Side NY. The Museum at Eldridge St offers cultural, educational programmes and special events, including multi-language tours for its 40,000 international visitors annually. In 2020, programmes honouring women will commemorate women’s suffrage in 1920.

Eldridge St Synagogue, New York built in 1887
Now the Museum at Eldridge St.

So the trend toward preserving these old religious sites continues across the country. Art and architectural historian Samuel Gruber noted that in addition to the historical and artistic significance of these sites, this generation can recognise the legacy of personal and community memory.

See Gruber’s blog post on Chevra T’helim (opened 1917) in Ports­mouth, Virginia. The Orthodox congregation built a new shule that combined Old World and New architecture. The brick exterior was fronted by a Colonial style columnar façade. Inside the architecture and furn­ishings maintained a traditional Eastern European style with 3 galleries for women and a central bimah. The Friends of Chevra T’helim looked to the achievements of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, then restorat­ion of Portsmouth’s unused and unloved shule began in 2001.

The Jewish Museum of Florida, opened in 1995
Built in two restored historic synagogues buildings

Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, Cleveland Ohio
opened 2005

Temple Tifereth-Israel in Beachwod Ohio was a Reform Synagogue founded in 1850. Unlike the other communities mentioned,  the Jewish community still thrives in Cleveland's eastern suburbs, so the Temple's membership is growing. In fact the Temple currently functions as one of several Jewish centres of community with a number of religious services eg Hebrew School and a library. The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage opened in 2005, connected to Temple Tifereth-Israel. The two galleries show films, artefacts, art, documents and images.

Jacobs recognised that transforming old synagogues into new museums was problematic for some people, but I am not sure why. Was it sacrilegious to turn a house of worship into a secular museum where children played on their mobiles and ate icecream? Was it a diversion of precious community resources away from needed facilities?


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