19 October 2019

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?


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Cleveland developed on the cycle of the ever-widening city center, which means the nicer, newer buildings are on the outskirts, and the old sections decay or transfer over to business and factories. The synagogues (and many magnificent churches too, for that matter) have been a prey to this--the congregations move away until the old location is no longer desirable. One example is the Temple on the Heights (B'Nai Jeshurun congregation), which started out in the city itself. The very old temple is still there, now a church, but in such a bad area that I am afraid to visit it.

Then it moved to the Heights, into a large and attractive building, ( https://1.bp.blogspot.com/_5khJLiM_ZIY/TMCbV9HTmWI/AAAAAAAABIQ/WmFdHmsDZzQ/s1600/081.JPG ) but that was abandoned when the temple moved further into the suburbs, and the Heights building became a community center. A special problem is that these old fancy buildings are expensive to maintain, and their new tenants are typically much poorer than the original ones. I remember going to the old temple for some event, and the main sanctuary was a shambles--the crimson curtains across the altar shredded and torn as though from some horror movie.

The temples you illustrated were lucky to be historic and loved enough to be restored, but I fear for the continued existence of most of these pioneering synagogues, especially those trapped in deteriorating neighborhoods.

Deb said...

Helen remember going on the Historical Ballarat Long Weekend. The synagogue was perfect and still used for holidays. However did you find any museum collections on display there?

Hels said...


you have raised an important dilemma. Of course lots of organisations moved their facilities over the decades, to keep up with their target populations or to move to more suitable, more modern buildings. The modern cultural institution should be located, therefore, in the last building used.

But the historical components of an early community were tied to their first buildings, and would possibly be lost in unconnected locations. Consider, for example, the new immigrants coming off the ships in a city's main port and walking straight to the local synagogue for food and accommodation until they get sorted. Yes the photos and relics could easily be carried to a new location, but important links to the port and inner city would be lost.

By the way, I might visit a deteriorating and dangerous area myself. But I would never allow the grandchildren to visit.

Hels said...


I thought the Ballarat Synagogue had been renovated and maintained beautifully, and that the tour guide explained the services, architecture and interior designs very well. But even though the facility is only open for holidays and pre-booked family occasions, it is still definitely a functioning synagogue and not a museum.

The City of Ballarat's Historical Collections, on the other hand, has photographs, relics, works of art, maps, books and documents, which together provide insight into Ballarat's history.

Andrew said...

Rather amuses me the Catholic Latins sharing with the Jewish. Could the two not be further apart in life? But that is a nice thing really.

Maltz Museum said...

The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage is a lively community space that attracts visitors from the community and around the country. Devoted to diversity and tolerance, it opened in 2005 to build bridges of tolerance and understanding by sharing Jewish heritage through the lens of the American experience. See state-of-the-art exhibitions, interactive and films, oral histories, photographs and artifacts. The Museum includes The Temple-Tifereth Israel Gallery, an internationally-recognized collection of Judaica, and a special exhibition gallery featuring important exhibitions.

Beachwood, OH

bazza said...

This is a familiar story in many parts of the world. We often visit a local synagogue wherever we go. We have had some wonderful results doing that (eg Budapest, Florence and Newport, Rhode Island).
My late mother-in-law came from Dublin, which had seven shuls before the war and now there is one. One of the old central shuls is now the Irish Jewish Museum.
Also, there is a drift of the Jewish population from north-east London, where I live, towards north-west London. Those of my generation are following their children and grandchildren. As a result the local synagogues are merging as an economic necessity.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s literally lachrymose Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


I had a little laugh too :) So I looked up changes in other religious buildings, especially in places I had visited. Mosques in southern Spain became cathedrals after the Christian conquest. In Turkey, churches became mosques. In Britain old Welsh chapels have sometimes become mosques as areas change. Brick Lane mosque in the East End of London started as a church in the 18th Century, later became a synagogue, and has now become a place of worship for the newly arrived Muslim community.

Hels said...

Maltz Museum

many thanks. I will add your fine example of a synagogue-museum into the blog post.

Hels said...


nod... communities often move, from the densely built suburb where they first arrived in the city, to a more spacious area when they had a reliable income, often in the greener outer suburbs. In Melbourne before WW2, almost all of the synagogues, Hebrew schools and kosher butcher shops were within 2 ks of the CBD, all in the close northern suburbs. By the 1950s and 60s, only three synagogues were left in the close northern suburbs and there are now 35 synagogues in the more distant, greener south east of the CBD.

So the question is: what happens to the old facilities?
a] pull them down and sell the land?
b] spend money on renovation, to remodel into ONE merged multi-purpose religious building (synagogue, wedding reception area, youth movement spaces etc)? or
c] withdraw all religious services and instead introduce history-arts-community development exhibition spaces.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - trends change - even religious houses ... but there are some magnificent synagogues ... Heritage Calling has some listed with beautiful interiors. We are finding ways of adapting our buildings ... thankfully here - there's a lot of heritage. Cheers Hilary

Hels said...


many thanks.. I didn't know about Heritage Calling. Their home page says "We protect, champion and save places that define who we are. We rescue heritage at risk".

I particularly liked the site "10 of England’s Most Beautiful Synagogues". A new edition of Jewish Heritage in Britain and Ireland celebrates the undiscovered heritage of Anglo-Jewry. First published in 2006, it remains the only comprehensive guide to historic synagogues and sites in the British Isles. Included are many of England’s splendid synagogues, each with amazing photos.

Joseph said...


Maltz Museum reminded me of Pittsburgh. Look at The Times of Israel, 18 Oct 2019

A year after the massacre, Pittsburgh synagogue plans to become center for Jewish life.
Leaders of Tree of Life congregations say the rebuilt site is likely to include houses of worship, memorial to the 11 victims, an anti-Semitism education center and the city’s Holocaust Museum.

The building in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood has not reopened since the shooting. Tree of Life leaders now envision a rebuilt space that includes places for worship; memorial, education and social events; classrooms and exhibitions. The building was in need of extensive and costly repairs before the shooting. The rebuilding now extends initial plans Tree of Life had to expand cooperation and collaboration among the three congregations and with the community.

Hels said...


I think people will be sincerely moved by the Pittsburgh community's decision not to simply rebuild. It will not be just business as usual.. it will be taking the opportunity to rebuild and to remember. Education and history will be important cores of the new Squirrel Hill community facilities.