Monday, June 30, 2008

Fate of early modern synagogue in Phoenix, Arizona, linked to Holocaust survivors and Steven Spielberg, remains unresolved

Fate of early modern synagogue in Phoenix, Arizona, linked to Holocaust survivors and Steven Spielberg, remains unresolved
by Samuel D. Gruber

Demolition of the former synagogue known in Phoenix as Beth Hebrew (or Beth Hebree), an important early modern American synagogue, is still a likely possibility, despite efforts of local preservationist and developer Michael Levine who has sought to save the building. Many architects and historians in the United States and Europe have written to the Phoenix Mayor and other officials to save the building.

The former synagogue served until recently as the home of the Phoenix's Black Theater, which despite receiving grants to restore the building, decided to sell it instead, preferring new and bigger quarters. Levine unsuccessfully tried to purchase the building in order to save it, but it was recently sold to another buyer who may demolish it outright, or allow it to be destroyed through neglect.

The former Beth Hebrew at 333 E. Portland Street, while a small and seemingly simple building, is large in architectural and historical significance. It was designed in 1954 by Max Kaufman, and is an important and even exemplary example of early modern synagogue architecture in United States, and is among a handful of innovative modern interpretations of the traditional synagogue form which were built across the country – often by small congregations of modest means – in the first decade after World War II. These synagogues, almost all of which were inspired, sponsored or designed by Jewish refugees from Europe, laid the foundation for the widespread acceptance and use of modern architecture not only for synagogues in America, but for religious buildings of all denominations. Synagogue congregations, since they are independent bodies, could quickly decide to build in the new style for both practical and philosophical or religious reasons – they could be stylistic innovators and leaders, not followers. Other religious denominations, which are organized hierarchically, had to wait several years for stylistic (and functional) changes to be broadly accepted before adopting modern designs.

Orthodox Jewish congregations, of which Beth Hebrew was Phoenix's first, were particularly drawn to the modern style for religious and aesthetic reasons since they more strictly interpret the Bible's Second Commandment which forbids many types of decoration. Orthodox Jews also especially value the practical and symbolic qualities of light – in which Kaufman's design excelled. According to the book of Genesis light was a creation of God on the first day. Natural light also facilitates the required (thrice-weekly) reading of the Torah, and daily prayer. Orthodox Jews are also more apt to view the synagogue building as a container for prayer for their community – rather than as civic or public monument (or the sort that had become popular in American in the pre-War period). Such congregations favored intimacy over ostentation, which explains why Beth Hebrew was easily adapted for use as a small theater.

Kaufman's design relates to the first synagogue building of the great German-Jewish refugee architect Eric Mendelsohn – B'nai Amoona (1947-50) in St. Louis, and also to two 1960s synagogues of another Holocaust survivor, Werner Seligman (perhaps not coincidentally, B'nai Amoona is now used a performance space in a community culture center). To understand the continuing influence Beth Hebrew's style on synagogues you need only travel to nearby Scottsdale to see Will Bruder's Kol Ami. Like Beth Hebrew, Kol Ami uses simple forms and inexpensive materials to create a dynamic shape, and open flexible interior space, and it uses light as a dramatic and symbolic element.

The materials of Beth Hebrew are simple, but the design is elegantly refined to serve its function. Sightlines and especially the placement of the high clerestory windows are carefully considered. The high windows of the sanctuary provided light without distraction (as prescribed by many rabbis). There is also a kind of skylight set above the reader's desk where natural light falling on the desk (bimah) could offer dramatic effect, but it also helped the Torah reader to see – especially at the Sabbath morning Torah reading, when the use of artificial lights is discouraged.

Beth Hebrew is important for another reason. Like the mythical bird the Phoenix, for which its home city is named, the synagogue represents a Jewish community of Holocaust refugees that was reconstituted and reinvigorated out of the very real ashes of their destroyed communities, and the ashes of the six million European dead. Phoenix-like, Jewish survivors, led by the real Jewish hero Mr. Elias Loewy, rebuilt their lives in their new home of Phoenix and significantly rebuilt a new Jewish identity and life. Like so many across America after the war, their urge was to sustain identity but break from history – a history that had failed them. Architecturally, this meant finding a style of synagogue that was practical, but also managed to translate traditional forms into a new and modern idiom.

The need to appreciate the aspirations and achievement of these survivors is enough in itself to force us to give this small building great consideration. Loewy's story is as remarkable as any that one is likely to hear from the Holocaust period. He saved hundreds of people in France through his courage and wits, and when he came to Phoenix he continued to aid the needy through the founding of the Jewish Free Loan Society, a critical lifeline for the displaced and forgotten. This Society helped recent immigrants enter the American mainstream quickly and with dignity.

That these same survivors appear to have passed the story of their own survival, and of their optimism about America to a young and creative Phoenix Jewish boy named Steven Spielberg, elevates our consideration of this building to celebration. For I believe, after 20 years working with Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the European countries most affected by the Holocaust, that no single individual has done more to change broad popular perceptions of the events of the Holocaust and their significance than Steven Spielberg. While others have done more to document Holocaust horrors or to identify the names of victims, Spielberg has managed through his talents as a story teller to make the Holocaust part of the mainstream narrative of European history in a way that everyday people can understand and to which they can relate. First through the adaptation of the book Schindler's List – which in many ways has parallels to Loewy's own story – and then through the creation of the Shoah Foundation which has sponsored the video recording of personal testimonies of thousands of Holocaust victims and survivors, Spielberg has given faces and voices to the Holocaust victims, and he has salvaged a considerable degree of humanity out horror. I have never met Steven Spielberg, but I have met hundreds of people in this country, and especially in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, whose lives have been great affected by the stories he has told, and those he has and his foundation have collected. And for the victims themselves, the opportunity to record their stories for posterity has often been a kind of vindication of their own survival, and a valuation of their human dignity. From all that I have heard, it seems that the seeds for this terrific work were planted by the refugee congregation of Beth Hebrew – where 13-year old Steven celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in 1960.

The destruction of this small architectural and historic gem - either by planned demolition or prolonged neglect – will be a loss not only to Phoenix, but to the world. There are many alternative uses for this building. There seem no real gain to the public good in destroying the former Beth Hebrew Synagogue, and a great opportunity to enhance the public good by saving it.

For more on the synagogue and illustrations see:

Take an animated tour of threatened Phoenix synagogue

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ukraine: Kremenets cemetery restoration project identifies hundreds of gravestones as parking lot pavements

Ukraine: Kremenets cemetery restoration project identifies hundreds of gravestones as parking lot pavements

Researchers for the Kremenets (Ukraine) Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project have identified several areas in the town where Jewish gravestones from the large cemetery are being used as parking lot paving, first installed during the Second World War by the occupying Germans, and in place ever since. Two areas adjacent to the former Gestapo headquarters have been identified. In addition, it is thought that a large area around the Lyceum – used by the Germans as a military hospital – also has buried matzevot. A project has been developed to move these stones, which probably date from the 18th and 19th century and number in the hundreds, back to the cemetery and to photograph and transcribe their inscriptions as part of a larger project to document, protect and preserve the historic site. The group seeks funds for retrieving the stones and creating a memorial (still to be decided).

The Kremenets Cemetery project was begun in 2004. The project began with photos of the 3,200 individual matzevot that were visible, and continued with removal of excess vegetation from the 25,000 square meter site. Detailed maps identifying site constitutions, types of vegetation and the location and condition of all gravestones and other notable features were then prepared by a team led by L'viv-based Professor V.P. Kucheryavyi developed the plan. Their report and other results of Phase I of the Project are online at The plan provides an exemplary effort of site documentation which should be required before similar cemeteries before any repair or conservation work is undertaken. The examination of the site in phase I more than doubled the number of known gravestones at Kremenets. It also documented the effects of wartime vandalism of the cemetery and the subsequent half century of neglect.

Reports detailing the full results of Phase I and other aspects of the projects are on the website of the KJCPC:

Phase II of the Kremenets Jewish Cemetery Project is designed to begin with some stone conservation and gravestone re-erection on the site. This will be done within the confines of a stone conservation training program which will involve local workers and create a ongoing and economically useful conservation program. The hope of local officials is that these skills can then be transported to other needy sites in Western Ukraine. The training course in Kremenets will be followed by a pilot project in the old part of the cemetery. If done properly, this work will set a new, and much needed standard for Jewish and non-Jewish cemetery restoration work in Ukraine. The primary partners in this effort are the Kremenets-Pochayiv State Historical-Architectural Preserve, the municipality of Kremenets, and the nascent Jewish community in Kremenets. Some grants have been received, but additional funds are needed before Phase II can begin.

Questions can be directed to Dr. Ron Doctor, director of the project

Jamaica: Documentation of 18th Jewish Cemetery at Hunt's Bay

Jamaica: Documentation of 18th Jewish Cemetery at Hunt's Bay
(Ainsley Henriques, Rachel Frankel, Anne Hersh and Samuel Gruber contributed to this article)

In January (2008), Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions (CVE) sponsored a successful project to inventory and document existing conditions of the historic Hunt's Bay Jewish Cemetery, the oldest known Jewish cemetery in Jamaica. ISJM provided logistical support and funds to purchase equipment necessary for the survey.

The cemetery was the burial place for Jews, many fleeing the Inquisition and anti-Semitism in Europe. They came to Port Royal, the 17th century entré port, a desolate sandy spit at the end of what is now known as the Palisadoes peninsula enclosing Kingston Harbor. They found freedom to worship with few restrictions (but higher taxes). Burial at Port Royal were not allowed, so Jews rowed the dead (as in Amsterdam & Venice) across the harbor to the now isolated cemetery at Hunt's Bay. Neglected for the most of the last century, the cemetery was overgrown and unkempt. Aware of the need to care for the historic site where the oldest grave known dates to 1672, Ainsley Henriques of the United Congregation of Israelites Shaare Shalom Synagogue of Jamaica arranged for it to be cleared. CVE's mission is to assist Caribbean agencies and organizations with historic preservation projects. CVE has worked in many Caribbean countries over the past sixteen years and has worked on Jewish cemetery documentation in Spanish Town and Falmouth, Jamaica. The United Congregation of Israelites Shaare Shalom Synagogue of Jamaica together with the Jamaican Heritage Center contributed the boundary survey of Hunt's Bay Cemetery in digitized and hard format, services of a professional local photographer and local transportation for CVE team, all of whom were volunteers, who paid their own expenses.

ISJM member and architect Rachel Frankel, who served as one of the leaders for the Falmouth Jewish Cemetery documentation project, led the work at Hunt's Bay. Ms. Frankel has previously worked extensively in documenting the Jewish sites of Suriname, especially the remains of the 1685 Bracha v'Shalom synagogue, and three historic Jewish cemeteries.

The documentation at Hunt's Bay includes:

• A map of the cemetery
• Photographs of each gravestone (in color digital and black and white 35mm)
• Assessment of the art, architecture and condition of each grave
• Transcription and translation of the multi-lingual epitaphs, checked against the work published in The Jews of Jamaica by Barnett and Wright.
• Indices of names, dates, etc.

All documentation from the project is now being sorted, analyzed and digitized. At the completion of the project, hard and digitized copies will be presented to The United Congregation of Israelites Shaare Shalom Synagogue of Jamaica as well as to the AJA (American Jewish Archives) in Cincinatti. The AJA will also receive the original field notes. ISJM will assure the material is publicly accessible – much of it on-line.

Concurrent with the documentation project was the XIth annual conference of the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean (UJCL), held at Kingston. The UJCL represents Progressive and Conservative congregations in Aruba, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Cuba, Curacao, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and Surinam. Trinidad and Tobago were admitted for membership during the Kingston conference. The highlight of the conference was a tour the Hunt's Bay Cemetery. The entire conference traveled to the cemetery, inspected the graves, heard a short set of lectures on the work being done by the CVE volunteers and then held hands in a large circle and recited the Mourners Kaddish. The project has inspired UJCL members to call for more Jewish heritage documentation and preservation in the Caribbean and South America. ISJM encourages its members to step forward to help achieve this goal.
Photos and Links

For an audio and visual tour of the project see Marco Werman's report on Public Radio International's The World from Febraury 25, 2008 at:

On the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean (UJCL) conference in Kingston see:

For more on the Jewish community of Jamaica see: United Congregation of Israelites

For extensive photos of Hunt's Bay Cemetery taken by one of the volunteers see:

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Architects chosen to design Cologne Jewish Museum on site of ancient synagogue

Architects chosen to design Cologne Jewish Museum on site of ancient synagogue

by Samuel D. Gruber (ISJM)

(June 20, 2008)

Another Jewish Museum is planned for Europe, this time in the ancient city of Cologne, the site of the oldest physical remains of a Jewish community in Germany. The new museum project, which has been discussed for some time, received an official launch on June 13th when the prominent and critically acclaimed German architectural firm of Wandel Hoefer Lorch + Hirsch was chosen winner of an international competition for the museum design. Among the firm's many projects are the recently completed (2007) Jewish Museum and synagogue in Munich. The decision is not yet final, the town senate will decide in August. There remain many concerns about the financing of the project.

The impetus for the museum comes from new excavations of the Jewish quarter of Cologne, right around and underneath the town hall, as well as a dramatic increase in the city's Jewish population which has tripled in the past 15 years. Inter-city rivalry certainly plays a factor. There are now major Jewish museums in many German cities (Munich, Frankfort, Berlin) and smaller Jewish monuments and galleries in scores of other German localities.

The museum is expected to open in 2010 or soon thereafter. The planning, design and construction will take place contemporaneously with the extensive and important archaeological excavations now in progress on the site of Cologne's ancient and medieval synagogue, and its extensive medieval Jewish quarter. The museum, a private-public partnership, will be erected over the site of the old synagogue, the remains of which will be visible from the museum, but will be administered separately as part of the extensive archeology preserve in the area, already one of the largest accessible underground archaeological museums in Europe. Next door is the medieval mikveh, which has been partially visible to tourists for decades beneath a glass pyramid. Archaeologists and historians are concerned that the construction of the new museum should not disrupt the excavation or destroy the ancient remains.

In recent years city archaeologist Sven Scheutte has been investigating the synagogue and adjacent areas, which were first excavated in the 1950s in the wake of the destruction of the area as the result of World War II allied bombing. Those excavations, by Otto Doppelfield, were hurried due to the demands of reconstruction, but still they revealed four distinct phases of synagogue building, the earliest of which Doppelfield dated to the 11th century. Scheutte has
determined that the synagogue originated in antiquity, and the mikveh dates at least from the early Carolingian period, since its masonry shows distinctive cracks from an earthquake, probably of 789. It is hoped that extensive new excavations begun in the fall of 2007 will determine the early phases of the synagogue, and whether it was continuously used from the 4th century C.E. following, or whether there was a break. In either case, it is clear that the museum
project will link Germany's oldest Jewish building with its newest.

Wandel Hoefer Lorch + Hirsch designed several important Jewish buildings and monuments in Germany in recent years, often as the result of competitions. Among the best known projects are the synagogues in Dresden and Munich, and the Holocaust monument at the Grünwald Train station in Berlin, which commemorates the deportation of thousands of Jews to concentration and death camps; and the monument at the former prison and concentration camp at Hinzert (near Saarbrücken). All of the firms are site specific. Some, like Grünwald, are modest and intimate, others like Munich are monumental. The Cologne project would be one of the most complex – since it must integrate many layers of history, and also serve as an important urban link in the heart of city.

Restoration of Baroque Synagogue in Jičín (Czech Republic) complete

Restoration of Baroque Synagogue in Jičín (Czech Republic) complete.

By Samuel D. Gruber (ISJM)
(June 20. 2008)

Following nearly eight years (2001-2008) the restoration of the magnificent Baroque synagogue in Jičín, North Bohemia (Czech Republic) is complete. The Prague Jewish Community will officially open the building to the public on Thursday, June 19, 2008. The restoration project is part of a continuing effort by the Czech Jewish Community to reclaim, protect and preserver its historic, cultural and artistic heritage.

A Jewish settlement is known to have existed in Jičín in the second half of the 14th century, but Jews were expelled from the town in 1542-45 and again in 1557-63. The now-restored synagogue was erected in 1773, more than a century after Jews are known to have been readmitted to the town. According to Dr. Arno Pařík of the Prague Jewish Museum, "this is an exceptionally pure example of a small, late Baroque synagogue." It is a rectangular building, approximately 12.5 meters long and 8.2 meters wide, with a fairly high saddle roof over a barrel-vault, supported on traverse arches and 90 cm. thick walls. The sanctuary is well-lit by three tall arched windows on the south and north walls. Smaller windows are set in the west (façade) and east walls, the latter dominated by the well-preserved masonry Ark, flanked by twisted columns. The vivid wall paintings – mostly in reds and blues – have been restored to their 1840 appearance.

These photos taken in May 2008 near the end of restoration work are provided by Dr. Arno Pařík and the Jewish Museum of Prague. Additional photos of the restored building will be posted soon at

The building is now one of best preserved late Baroque synagogues remaining in Central Europe.

The restoration of the synagogue was supervised by engineer Mojmír Malý at Matana a.s., Administration of Buildings and Cemeteries. Heritage supervision is provided by the Zecher Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Monuments through Dr. Arno Pařík, and the National Heritage Institute – specialist department in Pardubice. Financing has been provided by the Jewish Community of Prague, the Czech Ministry of Culture, the District Authority of Hradec Králové, and the Municipal Government of Jičín. Financial support for the synagogue renovation has also been provided by the Jewish Heritage Program and World Monuments Fund.

A Torah scroll from Jicin is now in the possession of Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, Massachusetts (USA).

For more on the history and architecture of the building see Arno Pařík, "History and Renovation of Jičín Synagogue," Judaica Bohemiae (40/2004), 104-122.