International Survey of Jewish Monuments

Catskills Synagogues Documentation Project

Maurie Sacks

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Dr. Maurie Sacks, professor of anthropology at  Montclair State University in New Jersey continues her project to document the synagogues of the Catskills (New York State) with regards to architecture and the social construction of sacred space.  Most of the resort communities built synagogues which are now in danger of abandonment because of the decline of Jewish communities in Sullivan County, NY, that accompanied the deterioration of the resort industry.

Until the current study, nothing had been done to preserve a record of the synagogues.  Though there is limited literature on urban American synagogues, very little is known about rural American vernacular synagogues.  This research seeks to fill two gaps in the ethnohistory of American Jewry:  that of religious life in the Catskill resort area, and that of rural American Jewish architecture.

Dr. Sack's work has been supported by a sabbatical leave from Montclair State University, a New York State Department of Education Documentary Heritage Program grant to establish a special collection "Sullivan County Synagogues from the Age of Immigration to the Decline of the Resort Industry," at the  YIVO Institute in New York, and a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities, that was used to commission Ben Halperrn, an architectural photographer, to provide slides of Sullivan County synagogues.  The University of Illinois Committee for Jewish Studies (a long-time supporter of ISJM) has granted funds for a small exhibit on the Sullivan County synagogues.

Plans call for a complete architectural survey and photo-documentation of the synagogues, analyzing the size, arrangement, and kinds of space included in each, and looking for aesthetic forms carried from the communities' places of origin and their American adaptations.  Key members of each community are being interviewed to elicit the rhetoric of Jewish sacred space, and to examine how Jews construct a sense of "place" through building synagogues.  These interviews are revealing changes in demographic, economic, and religious characteristics of the communities throughout the century, and how these are reflected in relationships of the people to their synagogues.

To date, between forty and fifty oral history interviews and a documentary survey of all the synagogues are complete.  Dr. Sacks and her team are now seeking funding to conduct the architectural survey.

An ISJM grant of $500 is intended to assist photographic work required in the preparing of NRHP nominations for many of the synagogue buildings.

For more information about Jewish life in the Catskills, visit the Catskills Institute.

International Survey of Jewish Monuments
c/o Jewish Heritage Research Center
Box 210, 118 Julian Pl.
Syracuse, New York 13210-3419, USA

tel: (315) 474-2350
fax: (315) 474-2347

Last updated: January 6, 2003