Tuesday, September 29, 2009

USA: Lexington, Mississippi Synagogue Set to Close

Lexington, Mississippi, Temple Beth El.
Photo: Bill Aron from Shalom Y'all (used with permission)

USA: Lexington, Mississippi Synagogue Set to Close
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) The other day I posted about a Polish synagogue celebrating Rosh Hoshanah services for the first time in a quarter century. On the side of the coin, and from the other side of the world, comes news that yet another small Southern American synagogue is set to close. Andrew Muchin in the Forward (click here for article and photo) reported that the 104-year old Temple Beth El in Lexington, Mississippi celebrated what is likely to be its last High Holiday service.

Lexington is the smallest place in Mississippi where a Jewish community has survived for a considerable period of time. The future of the building has not been decided. Fortunately, there is no urgency to destroy, move or reuse it. This closure is due to a dwindling Jewish presence in the small Mississippi town, not a deteriorated building or pending development. There are several paths the congregation may choose to follow.

The Lexington story is just a chapter in the continuing history of transformation of small town American Jewish communities. I have written about this process many times before, since I visited Mississippi in 1991 to speak at the centennial "celebration' of the (now former) synagogue in Port Gibson. The likely closure of Lexington follows that of Brookhaven (see my earlier post). That synagogue will be used as a town museum. The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in Utica, Mississippi, now a constituent part of the Goldering Institute for Jewish Life has long tried to track and manage such synagogue closures. In a few cases former synagogues have become branches of the museum - but needs and funds can only support a limited number of such institutions. In the worst case scenario, it is now hoped that congregations plan in advance for the eventual closure of their synagogues, and work to carefully preserve their records and their Judaica, and consult with local and national experts about the proper way to protect and preserve this heritage and their building.

Many of the Mississippi synagogues were built at the turn of the 20th century and are fine examples of vernacular religious architecture and in many cases, local versions of the preferred (after about 1900) Neo-Classical style favored by the Reform movement. The Lexington synagogue is a fairly simple and restrained version of this style, but is still a member of this group of structures which once included synagogues in Meridian (demolished 1964), and the still-extant buildings in Natchez (1905) and Greenville (1906).

Meridian, Mississippi. Former Synagogue, demolished 1964. Will the Lexington Synagogue building survive?
Photo: postcard.

Muchin's story begins:
“As the members of Temple Beth El in Lexington, Miss., pray this Yom Kippur for inclusion in the Book of Life, they’ll be attending a funeral of sorts. The Ne’ilah, the day’s traditional closing service, will be the last scheduled worship to be held in their 104-year-old white wooden synagogue. “Our last regular service had four people,” said Phil Cohen, 72, operator of Cohen’s department store which his grandfather founded on Lexington’s town square in 1908.”
He goes on to write:
“Next year, he and the other local congregants will attend synagogues in nearby Mississippi cities. Meanwhile, he expects that Beth El will open its doors for an occasional life cycle ceremony.

Cohen and former Lexington businessman Bob Berman have ideas for moving the building, or perhaps its contents and windows, to the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford, but they have no formal plan.”
According to Munchin "the synagogue’s well-maintained interior is 90% sanctuary. Each side wall features four tall stained-glass windows with intricate Tiffany-style patterns." This is in keeping with Natchez and Greenville.

Munchin writes "the simple symmetrical exterior with its tall, gabled front porch resembles a rural church. The only visible Jewish symbol is a round window with a small, six-pointed star above the entry." This is not entirely true, since few churches at the time would have had such a prominent arched facade. The Brookhaven synagogue was more "church like." But the limited decoration was certainly par for the time. For a later example see the facade former Chevra T'helim, an Orthodox Congregation in Portsmouth, Virginia).

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