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Presidents and Synagogues
By Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, November 13, 2008

In the spirit of the American presidential election day we point out a long association of presidents and synagogues.

As early as 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant attended the dedication of Washington, DC's first permanent house of worship: Adas Israel. That building, moved to 3rd and G Streets, N.W., and restored is now a Jewish museum run by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. It is reported that President Grant was seated on a small sofa near the front of the sanctuary during the dedication on June 9, 1876, and that he stayed for the entire service (unlike many congregant who left early). Grant, who despite anti-Jewish policies as a Civil War general, was popular with Jews as president. He entertained Jews at the White House and appointed Jews to Federal jobs. He also made a donation of $10 to the synagogue.

More recently, presidents make a point of visiting synagogues at home and abroad. George W. Bush visited the restoration of the Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg, Russia on May 27, 2002. He also praised the Chabad Lubavitch leadership there, helping to secure support from the Lubavitch and other Hasidic Jews in the United States. In Washington, DC, Bush visited on September 14, 2005, another former Adas Israel building, now the restored Historic Synagogue at 6th and I Streets.

The list of presidential visits to synagogues is probably quite long. Likewise, the tradition of royalty in Europe visiting synagogues became popular in the emancipated 19th century and continues today. I invite readers to contribute instances of visits where politics and Judaism sit side by side in the synagogue.

Grants at the Southern Jewish Historical Society
June27, 2008
The Southern Jewish Historical Society (USA) offers grants for project completion, research and travel, and preservation of archival materials in the area of southern Jewish history and culture. Application deadline is August 1, 2008. For further details, see or contact Dr. Phyllis K. Leffler.

Friday, June 13, 2008
National Trust for Historic Preservation Names New York's Lower East Side to 2008 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
By Samuel Gruber
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, America's foremost historic preservation organization, announced on May 20th its list of eleven most endangered sites in the United States.  As in many recent years, the Trust has chosen not to emphasize specific buildings, but has sounded the alarm about the real or potential destruction of entire historic neighborhoods, cityscapes and landscapes.  On this year's list is New York City's Lower East Side, the historic home to multiple waves of immigrant populations, including hundreds of thousands of East European Jews who settled in the area (mixing or displacing earlier immigrant groups) especially between the 1880s until the First World War.  The area has remained, or has been re-invented, in the popular American Jewish imagination as the historic heartland of American (read: East European) Jews. After the destruction of so much of the Jewish culture of Europe in the Holocaust, the Lower East Side (or East Side as it was earlier known) took on greater significance for American Jews – many of whom were now embracing suburban life - as a potent reminder of "from where they came." The area is usually recalled with mixture of fact and myth (see Hasia Diner's excellent book "Lower East Side Memories").

Even today, however, there remains a substantial Jewish population in the area, and numerous synagogues.  But the Lower East Side is also the home to increasingly trendy commercial establishments and high-rent apartments.  Conversion and renovation are transforming social and often physical aspects of the neighborhood. There is increasing demolition of old buildings in order to build bigger newer ones, and this more than any single factor puts the area at risk.  The Lower East Side has always been an area of transition.  Preservations cannot stop change, and most do not want to. But they hope to slow down development and to force greater review and consideration of new projects in the area, and more closely watch the impact of single building projects on the neighborhood as a whole.  New York is not alone with this problem. Many European cities including Budapest, Paris and Rome all face increased development pressure on the former Jewish centers of their cities.  New development and higher rents, as well as demolition and new construction, are changing the character of those formerly quiet places.

See for example "Paris Jewish quarter fights tourism, commerce in battle for soul"

Read more from the National Trust

Remarks from Lower East Side Preservation Coalition Executive Director Katy Daly

Friday, June 13, 2008
Museum at Eldridge Street (New York) wins Award for Interactive Installation
By Samuel Gruber
The Museum at Eldridge Street (formerly the Eldridge Street Project) has won the Gold MUSE Award for Interactive Installation from the American Association of Museums for its interactive tables, an exhibition that allows visitors to explore many layer of history, art and architecture through interaction with a model of New York's Lower East Side.  Located within the Limud DiscoveryCenter, created in the basement level of the historic synagogue next to the still-used Beth Hamidrash - the tables blend technology and traditional materials to introduce sacred Jewish architecture and ritual to visitors. According to the MUSE judges, the tables "provide visitors with dramatic, fun experiences that promote an appreciation of the built environment and historical context of the museum and surrounding neighborhood." 

For nearly twenty years, the Eldridge Street Project was an ongoing restoration project of the landmark 1884 synagogue that told the story of the building, its congregation and its neighborhood through the restoration process.  In December 2007 the restoration was declared complete and the building re-opened with a new identity and new mission.  With the restored synagogue museum, the Eldridge Staff is endeavoring to re-invent the institution, and find new ways of teaching history and architecture through the now-pristine building.  In the 1990s, Roberta Brandes Gratz and her associates were at the cutting edge of synagogue restoration, inspiring scores of other projects, many of which were completed long before Eldridge. Now, the Museum at Eldridge Street is striving to be as effectively innovative as an educational institution.

ISJM President Samuel D. Gruber will speak at the Eldridge Street Synagogue on Sunday, October 5, 2008 as part of the NEH-funded academic angles series.  His topic "The Choices We Make," will discuss the preservation of Jewish monuments and what is gained and what is lost in the process.

read more ...

Friday, June 13, 2008
Judaica Auction in New York June 16th
By Samuel Gruber
An Auction of rare and antique Judaica ceremonial objects, silver, art, antiques, manuscripts and books will be held by J. Greenstein & Co., Inc 490 Kings Highway Brooklyn NY 11223 on Oct 30, 2006 at the Radisson Martinique on Broadway, NYC.

Click here for more details and the full online catalog

Friday, June 06, 2008
Screening of Before the Flame Goes Out: The Romaniote Jews in Ioannina and New York, a documentary film by Vincent Giordano at New York's Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) on June 19, 2008
By Samuel Gruber
In association with the photographic exhibition Before the Flame Goes Out: The Romaniote Jews in Ioannina and New York on view at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) in New York (through July 2, 2008), a rough cut of the documentary film created as part of the documentation project will be screened at the museum on June 19th at 6:30 p.m.  Photographer and film maker Vincent Giordano will speak about the project and his work.  Giordano has been documenting myriad aspects of the synagogues, community and culture of Romaniote Jews in New York and Ioannina, Greece since 2002. The ongoing project, consists of high-quality still photography, motion picture film and audio, documenting the synagogues and their art, the congregations, and the life stories of the congregants who have managed to maintain their traditions for millennia.  Before the Flame Goes Out has been supported by major grants from The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, The Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation, The Lucius and Eva Eastman Fund, The Goldie and David Blanksteen Foundation, the Cahnman Foundation and anonymous donors.  ISJM gratefully acknowledges the contributions of these and other supporters.

For more on the exhibition, visit the MOBIA website at:
For more on Vincent Giordano's project, visit his website at:

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Former Beth Israel Synagogue in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, on National Register of Historic Places
By Samuel Gruber
The small Temple Beth Israel synagogue in Stevens Point, Wisconsin (USA) built more than a century ago was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in March 2008. A ceremony will take place on June 15th to celebrate the designation and to open the building, which houses a permanent exhibit about Jewish religious practices and the history of the Stevens Point Jewish Community, to the public.

In appearance, the building is typical of many small town synagogues built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It combines vernacular and historicist architectural elements in a manner typical of local carpenters and contractors.  Beth Israel is a rectangular wood frame building with a clipped gable roof.  Its distinguishing elements are its Gothic pointed windows, particularly a large double window set in the entrance façade.  The doorway is off-center to the right.

Beth Israel, built in 1905, is the third oldest synagogue building in the State of Wisconsin and the oldest synagogue with its sanctuary intact.  In 1985, when the congregation could no longer supply a minyan, they disbanded the congregation and deeded the building to the Portage County Historical Society in 1985 to serve as a museum the Jewish history of the region, and for document various other aspects of local history.

Research for the National Register listing was carried out by Mark Seiler of Stevens Point, who reconstructed much of the Jewish history of the town.  According to Seiler’s research, Temple Beth Israel was the first Jewish congregation in central Wisconsin, established a decade before congregations in Arpin and Wausau. The development of the Stevens Point Jewish community in Stevens Point was part of the third wave of Jewish immigration to Wisconsin after 1880.  Reflecting the traditions of its largely Eastern European immigrant founders, Beth Israel was organized as an orthodox congregation, but in 1940 Rabbi Curt Reach, a refugee from Danzig, Germany (now Gdansk, Poland), was hired, and the congregation affiliated with the Conservative Movement.  At its peak, the synagogue served about forty families from the area.
Read the National Register Nomination for a more detailed history.
See also

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Minnesota’s B’nai Abraham Synagogue to Reopen as Cultural Center in Summer 2008
By Samuel Gruber
B’nai Abraham of Virginia, Minnesota, is the only surviving synagogue of the Minnesota Iron Range.  Next year the building will celebrate its centennial.  It almost didn’t make it this long, but thanks to the efforts of local preservationists who banded together in 2005 as the Friends of B’nai Abraham, the building is undergoing restoration, and a transformation form a house of worship to a regional cultural center.  To date close to $300,000 has been raised in grants and from private contributions and restoration of the building is far advanced.   A new sub-floor has been laid, the arched ceiling has been repaired, and the original pews have been returned.  A new lower level has been created nad new mechanical systems are being installed.  Still ahead is the challenging and costly work of restoring the exquisite stained glass windows.  Images of the windows and the progress of the restoration work can be tracked on the Friends’ excellent website:

When completed, the restored building will be used for a variety of cultural and educational programs by the Virginia Area Historical Society, which will manage the building.   Many programs are already planned for June and July 2008, including an open house and tour for all those agencies and organizations that have provided funding and other support for the project.  The Minnesota Humanities Center will use the building as a site for its summer teacher-training workshop: Building America: Minnesota’s Iron Range, U.S. Industrialization, and the creation of a World Power.  ISJM member Marilyn Chiat will speak about the synagogue’s architecture and historical context at one of the workshops.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Former Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage Changes Name, Expands Mission
The organization formerly known as the Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage, Inc., has new goals, a new mission statement, and a new name to reflect the changes.  Under the new name “The Vilna Shul, Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture,” the organization has developed a five-year plan to restore the historic Vilna Shul to its original splendor and revitalize the building as a center of Jewish culture.  Their new mission statement reads: “The Vilna Shul, Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, preserves the historic Vilna Shul on Beacon Hill as a unique Jewish community venue and resource. It presents educational and cultural programs and exhibits that explore the Jewish experience of Boston.”  The Shul is presently hosting programs and cultural events, but the organization has much bigger plans for the future.  In order to reach their goals for 2008, the Vilna Shul must raise $1,500,000 by the end of the year.  Follow the link below to learn more about the project or to make a donation.   

read more ...

Friday, May 02, 2008
Free Lecture Series "Academic Angles" @ the EldridgeStreet Museum in New York
How did the Jews of the Lower East Side acclimate to their new country? How did they express themselves politically, socially and religiously?  The EldridgeStreet Museum is hosting a series of free lectures with leading scholars of American Jewish History who will speak about the adaptation and contributions of immigrant Jews in America. The program will begin with Professor Tony Michels exploring the dynamic political culture of the Lower East Side. The event is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

read more ...

Tuesday, April 29, 2008
$2 Million Grant Awarded to Former Oheb Shalom Synagogue in Newark
Greater Newark Conservancy City Bloom Newsletter
An anonymous, longtime valued supporter and donor recently awarded Greater Newark Conservancy with a $2 million challenge grant to launch the Conservancy’s new $6 million Campaign for the Building. The new Campaign will provide the Conservancy with the necessary funds to complete the renovation of the Main Building, located adjacent to the site of the Conservancy’s Prudential Outdoor Learning Center in downtown Newark. Renovations to this historic building, once home to Oheb Shalom Congregation, Adas Israel and Mishnayes and later MetropolitanBaptist Church, will allow us to increase our year round programming for children and adults in urban communities. The renovated building will include classrooms, a lecture hall, exhibit space and an educational kitchen.


read more ...

Monday, April 28, 2008
Jewish Museum Milwaukee Opens
By Charles Benson
Milwaukee - It has been 20 years in the making, but Monday the doors to the Jewish Museum Milwaukee finally opened to the public. The Jewish Museum is a walk down memory lane. Some of it painful. Some of it powerful. "I think it's a nice way to show an ethnic community involvement with this city," said educator Ellie Gettinger. Gettinger walked us through the museum where there are exhibits and stories about the Jewish heritage and culture in Milwaukee as waves of Jewish people arrived here in the 19th and 20th centuries.


read more ...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008
6th North American Chevra Kadisha Conference
The 6th annual North American Chevra Kadisha Conference will be held in Edison, NJ at the Holiday Inn Hotel - Raritan Conference Center - June 1- 3, 2008 - Sunday 1pm to Tuesday 1pm.  Check the ISJM calendar of events or the link below for more information.

read more ...

Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue & Museum website:

A small synagogue in New York City's Chinatown is virtually unchanged since being built in 1927 by Romaniote Jews from Janina, Greece. In 2004, it was designated a landmark by the City of New York. Both memorabilia and the museum's tour guides describe the story of the Romaniote Jews, from their entry into Greece in the first century to their current life in America.

Eldridge Street Synagogue Restoration Complete, Synagogue Reopened
Hundreds joined us on December 2 to celebrate the re-opening of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. We hope you enjoy the news pieces below that have covered this milestone occasion, and thank you for being a part of this landmark effort.

Sunday to Thursday 10 am to 4 PM
To support this landmark project, email
For more information, call 212.219.0888 Or visit our website at

News Links:

New York Times
Return of a Long Dormant Island of Grace, Edward Rothstein
New Yorker
Face-Lift, Adam Gopnik
WNYC Radio
Eldridge Street Synagogue Restoration Complete, Richard Hake
Associated Press
Historic NYC Synagogue is Reborn, Karen Matthews
New York Post
Back to Shul, Rita Delfiner
New York Daily News
Lower East Side Synagogue Returned to Glory, Jess Wisloski
Repairs Finished On Eldridge Street Synagogue

Gleaming new building houses Chicago Jewish museum
By John DeBaun
JSOnline, December 1, 2007
Chicago - The public museum at the Spertus Institute, a longtime center for Jewish studies and programs in Chicago, is getting a big boost this weekend with its reopening in a new $55 million building that adds another architectural gem to Chicago's lakefront.

link to article

Art stars of David
There isn’t a Chagall in sight in the “new” Spertus Museum’s first show.
By Lauren Weinberg
Time Out Chicago, November 29, 2007
Chicago - There’s an old joke that says, “Two Jews, three opinions.” The 16 Jews in “The New Authentics: Artists of the Post-Jewish Generation” present significantly more than 24—hardly surprising when you consider their diverse perspectives. Most were born in the 1960s or 1970s, but their levels of Jewish education and affiliation vary: A few grew up in observant families; others have a non-Jewish parent; a couple are converts. Some are people of color. Several are from Chicago, but the majority live in Los Angeles, New York City or Europe. Some engage Jewish concerns or values directly; others don’t seem to address religion or ethnicity at all. Senior curator Staci Boris explains that this multicultural, eclectic assemblage is exactly what she wanted for the inaugural exhibition at the Spertus Museum’s new facility. “It needed to explore American-Jewish identity in the 21st century,” she says. “What does it mean to be Jewish today?”

link to article

Return to shul evokes the miracle of Chanukah
By Bryan Schwartzman, Staff Writer
Jewish Exponent, November 22, 2007
Philadelphia - For seven long months, the synagogue building was essentially off-limits: Chaos and disrepair had ensued as the result of severe water damage due to internal flooding. And for the members and staff of Congregation B'nai Abraham, it seemed like an exile of sorts. So does that mean that the return to the historic 97-year-old building on Lombard Street in Society Hill makes this Turkey Day a little more stuffed with nachas?

link to article

Spertus now showcase from top to bottom
10-story Institute of Jewish Studies draws visitors inside
By William Mullen, Tribune staff reporter
Chicago Tribune, November 21, 2007
Chicago - It used to be that you had to look pretty carefully at the buildings in the 600 block of South Michigan Avenue if you wanted to find the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, housed in a nondescript little office building next to a vacant lot. Officials of the 82-year-old institution expect to be noticed a lot more now that they have moved into an eye-popping new glass-fronted, 10-story headquarters at 610 S. Michigan Ave., site of the former vacant lot.

link to article

Jewish Federation to create museum endowment
bizjournals, November 16, 2007
Milwaukee - The Milwaukee Jewish Federation plans to use a $1 million bequest from the estate of Jacob Bernheim to create a new endowment fund for the planned Jewish Museum Milwaukee. The Jewish Museum Milwaukee/Jacob Bernheim Memorial Endowment Fund will generate about $60,000 per year for support of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee's operating budget, the Federation said Friday. The fund will be in the Jewish Community Foundation, the endowment development program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

link to article

Contemporary Jewish Museum Opens New Libeskind Designed Building on June 8, 2008
Dexigner, October 27, 2007
San Francisco - The Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) will open its new Daniel Libeskind designed building on Sunday, June 8, 2008. The new facility - located on Mission Street in downtown San Francisco's Yerba Buena cultural district - is an adaptive reuse of the landmark 1907 Jessie Street Power Substation with an extension clad in vibrant blue steel panels.

link to article

Rediscovering Modern Synagogues Before it is Too Late, by Samuel Gruber, president of  ISJM
docomomo fall newsletter
American Jewish congregations were among the first to embrace modern architecture for religious buildings. The demographic shift to the suburbs in the post-war period really began the embrace of modernism by mainstream American Judaism—a love affair that remains strong, even though the definition of what is “modern” is less clear.
link to article in pdf
Docomomo promotes the study, interpretation and protection of the architecture, landscape and urban design of the Modern Movement.
link to docomomo

The Possibility Of Renewal
A historic D.C. synagogue finds new life
By Jenna Weissman-Joselit
Forward, September 04, 2007
Washington D.C. - If there’s one strain that runs consistently throughout Jewish history, it’s that of loss: loss of people, places, institutions, languages, sensibilities and identities. Given this litany of woe, I have often thought that the notion of “once upon a time” seemed more apt for the Jews than for the characters of fairytales. Occasionally, though, something breaks the mold, bucks the trend and thumbs its nose at the crushing weight of the past, substituting gain for loss, presence for absence. That something, I’m happy to report, is the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, a restored synagogue-cum-“Jewish meeting place” in downtown Washington, D.C. — an institution whose very name grounds it in the here-and-now and situates it squarely within the grid of urban life. There’s also a magical, indeterminate quality about the place, which way back when in 1907 started out as the second home of Adas Israel.

link to article

Mourning the Loss of a Lower East Side Jewel
By Jenna Weissman Joselit
Forward, April 14, 2006
The razing last month of the First Roumanian-American Congregation, Shaarey Shamoyim, one of the oldest synagogues on New York City’s Lower East Side, hit me hard. Really hard. Following the collapse of the building’s 150-year-old roof, the city’s Department of Buildings felt it had no choice but to tear down the entire structure, lest lives be lost somewhere along the line. Looking for all the world as if it had been bombed, the First Roumanian-American Congregation has been reduced to rubble, not by an act of war or by Mother Nature but by well-intentioned civic authorities.

link to article

The Temple That Traveled
By Phyllis Myers
Washington Post, August 14, 2005
Mayor Anthony A. Williams's proposal that Metro move its offices from downtown Washington to Anacostia as part of his riverside development initiative is a reminder of the constancy of change in urban neighborhoods and the value of thinking small, as well as big, in redesigning cities.

link to article


National Register Nomination Forms and Photos for New York State Synagogues are Now Available On-line
For over thirty years historians and preservationists have been researching and nominating historic synagogues in New York State to the National Register of Historic Places. At present, there are several score former and active synagogue buildings on the register, which recognizes American historic buildings and sites of special significance.Now, the New York State Historic and Preservation Office (SHPO) has updated its on-line database (SPHINX) to allow access to thousands of national register nomination forms, including those on file for synagogues.  These forms generally carry the most detailed descriptive and historical information about particular sites and/or historic districts.  While the standards of research hand writing have varied over the decades, the quality and reliability of the information in these reports is usually high.  Because, however, the mission of the writer of the form is in part to make a strong case for a building’s qualification for National Register designation, sometimes the significance of buildings can be overstated.

ISJM has now begun to provide on its website ( direct links to National Register nomination forms in the SHPO database.  ISJM will continue to expand this survey as more forms are posted in New York and elsewhere, and as new links to other landmark designation forms are identified for other states, and for localities.
click here for National Register Forms on ISJM

State Preservation Historical Information Network Exchange (SPHINX)

The newly revamped SPHINX system, available on the State and National Registers of Historic Places web page provides the user with digital images of documents that include more than 4,000 State and National Register of Historic Places nomination forms and their associated photographs. Users can search for nominations by property name, location, county, National Register criteria, area(s) of significance, and/or historic use as well as by other criteria. This is not a complete set of New York's register nominations; only those currently in the possession of the New York SHPO and considered to be public documents.

American Jewish Sites Database

This is ISJM's searchable database containing information about historic Jewish sites in North America--including synagogues, cemeteries, community buildings, historic houses, etc.  Each record contains information including the name, date of construction, site location, landmark status, and current use and condition.
The past decade has seen a large increase in the number of Jewish sites that have been listed as local, state, or national protected historic monuments.  In addition, significant new information has been collected, regarding many of the sites included in this database. ISJM is preparing a new database which will include this new information.  Meanwhile, the present database remains a useful source of information.


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