Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, No. 2 / Summer 1997
American Report Part II


Tucson’s Stone Avenue Temple to be Jewish Cultural Center

Stone Avenue Temple, TucsonPhoto: Stone Avenue Temple, Tucson, Arizona.
© Samuel Gruber 1997

The Stone Avenue Temple, Tucson, Arizona’s oldest standing synagogue, will have a new future as a community center promoting the Jewish art and culture of the Southwest through exhibits, cultural and educational programming, and community events, according to Toby Anne Sydney, President of the Stone Avenue Temple Project. The 1910 former Temple Emanu-El is located at 560 South Stone Avenue in Tucson's Barrio Libre Historic District.

Since 1949 when the synagogue was sold for $9,000, the Temple has been the home of a variety of organizations, including several Christian congregations, a Spanish radio station and headquarters for a local theater group. In 1982, although declared an historic site by both the Arizona Historical Society and the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission, the site became an "unofficial refuge" for many of Tucson's homeless.

Three years ago, a small local group formed the Stone Avenue Temple Project and bought the property for $122,000. Their goal is to preserve and use the building as an active site of Jewish history, educational programming, family celebrations, and community events. Although the temple will not hold religious services, the future plans will involve establishing a center for research and writing on Jewish arts and culture in the Southwest with a focus on Judaism.

Tucson’s Jewish history stretches back to the mid-1800's with the influx of "pioneer Jews" from Central Europe who were later joined by other European Jews. In 1880, under the auspices of Jewish businessman, Isadore Gotthelf, Jews began gathering in his home for religious observances. As the community grew, they began to rent space for services. Eventually, the need for a synagogue became too pressing. The Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society (later known as the Hebrew Ladies Aid Society and today as the Sisterhood of Temple Emanu-El) spearheaded the move to raise money to construct the Stone Avenue Temple. Funds were gathered both locally and internationally and the cornerstone was placed on June 20, 1910. The inaugural service took place on October 3rd to welcome in the Jewish New Year.

There have been no major alterations to the building since 1949. The synagogue is built of exposed brick, except for its stuccoed facade. Each side has six large arched windows and the tri-partite facade has a pedimented central section flanked by two square towers. A Jewish Star is prominently displayed within the pediment. The pediments are carried by four pilasters which divide the wall into three arched window bays. The doors in the towers are reached by short flights of steps and each is surmounted by a small pediment.

The Project’s immediate goal is to pay off the mortgage. In addition to the more than $26,000 raised last year from small contributions, the Southwestern Foundation for Educational and Historical Preservation gave a $25,000 grant in April. The organization hopes to stabilize and secure the building by the end of the year. The last two phases of the restoration will total over $200,000 and will include renovations of both the interior and exterior of the structure. Funding will be sought from a variety of sources including national, state and local governments as well as charitable trusts for renovation and restoration and individual contributions.

For more information contact: Toby Anne Sydney, President, the Stone Ave. Temple Project, Inc., 822 North Forgeus Avenue, Tucson, Arizona 85703, tel. (602) 327-2424.

Much of the information above was taken from the Arizona Jewish Post, June 13, 1997.

NEA Awards $60,000 to Document Maryland Synagogues
The National Endowment for the Arts has awarded $60,000 to the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland (JHSM) for the photographic and architectural documentation of eighteen important remaining pre-1945 synagogues in Maryland, and the creation of an exhibition based on this documentation. Synagogues in Maryland will examine the development of synagogue architecture in the state from 1845 until 1945 and will include textiles, furniture, ritual objects and ritual art, paintings, and presentational calligraphy from the standing synagogues and demolished buildings. According to the project director, Bernard Fishman, the study will provide a physical record of the region’s Jewish architectural, ethnic and social history, "all (the synagogues) are statements about the endless American drama of an ethnic community’s finding its proper place in American life, and using architecture to express its self-image, aspirations, connections with the past, and its place along the complex spectrum of intra-religious expression." According to Fishman, "all of the Jewish communities located in Maryland towns and cities are suburbanizing or is imperative that this type of research and documentation take place in the immediate future."

Since its founding in 1960, the JHSM has saved several important Jewish sites from destruction, including Maryland’s oldest synagogue - the Lloyd Street Synagogue, built in 1845. A similar rescue and restoration of the B’nai Israel Synagogue took place in 1984-7. In 1987, the two buildings were combined to create a museum which houses the largest single collection related to American Jewish history.

The museum is dedicated to the preservation and appreciation of the Jewish cultural and historical experience through the collection, preservation and educational interpretation of material of every kind related to Jewish life in Maryland. In addition to the synagogue documentation project, the JHSM has been involved in ongoing folklife and other documentation efforts.

The following is a list of the synagogues involved in the study: in Cumberland, Be’er Chayla (1867), in Hagerstown, B’nai Abraham (1892/1925), in Brunswick, Beth Israel (1917), in Frederick, Beth Shalom (1923) and in Baltimore, Baltimore Hebrew (1891), Temple Oheb Shalom (1893), Chizuk Amuno (1895), Shearith Israel (1903), Shaarei Tefiloh (1921/25), Har Zion (1922), Chizuk Amuno (1922), Tzemach Tzedek (1924), Shearith Israel (1925), Beth Tfiloh (1926), Shaarei Zion (1926), Agudas Achim (1929/40), Beth Hmaedrosh Hagadol (1936), and Anshe Sphard (1937).

Anyone with information about these synagogues is encouraged to contact Dr. Bernard Fishman at the JHSM, 15 Lloyd St., Baltimore, MD, tel. (410) 732-6400 / fax (410) 732-6451.

Shaarei Tefiloh Synagogue, BaltimorePhoto: Shaarei Tefiloh Synagogue, Baltimore. To be documented by JHSM. © Samuel Gruber 1997

Borscht Belt Studies
A century ago New York’s celebrated "Borscht Belt" started in the Sullivan and Ulster County Catskill Mountains. New Yorkers hungry for mountain air, good food and the American way of leisure came to the Catskills by the thousands, and by the 1950s over a million people inhabited the "summer world" of bungalow colonies, summer camps and small hotels. These institutions shaped American Jewish culture, enabling Jews to become more American while at the same time introducing the American public to immigrant Jewish culture. Home-grown Borscht Belt entertainment provided America with a rich supply of comedians, musicians and performers.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Borscht Belt reached its greatest popularity, but starting in the 1970s it declined until only a handful of major resorts remain. The once-teeming roads of the Catskills are largely empty with most hotels and bungalow colonies burned, decayed or destroyed. The many synagogues which served this population are now closed or seldom used.

The History of the Borscht Belt conference held in Woodridge, New York in 1995 led to the formation of the Catskills Institute, an organization to promote research and education on the significance of the Catskill Mountains for Jewish-American life. The third Catskills conference is scheduled for September, 1997. Institute plans include the collection of archival material and artifacts (photos, newspaper and magazine articles, hotel menus and brochures, home movies, personal memoirs, interviews); production of a newsletter including summaries of conferences, interviews with people working on Catskills projects, excerpts from works in progress, and bibliographies of Catskills materials; and the creation of a website to provide on-line information and research aid to both a general audience and to scholars. Plans call for a permanent facility to house archives, hold exhibitions, sponsor lectures, serve as a resource for scholars, provide an educational location for the public to learn about the legacy of the Catskills, and make connections with Jewish research institutes, publications, educational institutions, and religious organizations to better link efforts with the larger Jewish community.

For more information contact Catskills Institute, c/o Phil Brown, Dept. of Sociology, Brown University, PO Box 1916, Providence, RI 02192-1916.

Maurie Sacks Documents Catskills Synagogues
Dr. Maurie Sacks, professor of anthropology at Montclair State University in New Jersey continues her project to document the synagogues of the Catskills in terms of architecture and 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 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.

By the end of June 1997, 40-50 oral history interviews will be complete, as well as a documentary survey of all the synagogues. Dr. Sacks and her team are now seeking funding to conduct the architectural survey.

New York City’s Central Synagogue Restored
The exterior of the 1500-seat Central Synagogue was recently restored. The landmark synagogue is one of the most spectacular houses of worship in New York City and a rare surviving example of early Victorian religious architecture. Architect Henry Fernbach developed a design in New Jersey brownstone and a contrasting lighter Ohio stone based on the Dohany street Synagogue in Budapest. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, one of the founders of Reform Judaism in the United States, laid the cornerstone in 1870. The restoration has been designed by the architectural firm of Kopple & Associates of Philadelphia. Missing crenelations have not been restored but the exterior has been cleaned. Restoration of the interior, which is adorned with a dazzling display of stenciled geometric polychrome in maroon, gold, green, and azure, is not now contemplated because of the high cost.

Floods Damage North Dakota Synagogue
The tiny Jewish community in Grand Forks, ND, has been hit hard by recent flooding in the Red River Valley. The entire city, including some 50 Jewish families, was forced to evacuate before Passover. The Art Deco B'nai Israel Synagogue, the only Jewish institution in Grand Forks, suffered damage to its library, kosher kitchen, basement and social hall. But the sanctuary, prayer books and Torah scrolls are intact, according to Robin Silverman, president of the 58 year-old Reform synagogue.

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