Monday, September 28, 2009

USA: Orthodox Synagogue Restored in Portsmouth, Virginia as Museum and Cultural Center

Portsmouth, Virginia. Former Chevra T'helim, now Jewish Museum and Cultural Center.
Photos: Samuel D. Gruber 2009

USA: Orthodox Synagogue Restored in Portsmouth, Virginia as Museum and Cultural Center
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Earlier this month I had the pleasure of lecturing at the Jewish Museum and Cultural Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, housed in the newly restored former Chevra T’helim (House of Psalms) synagogue.

Chevra T’helim was founded in 1917. IN the following year, the new Orthodox congregation purchased its property at 607 Effingham Street, where it began to build a new synagogue. The result is a building that combines Old World and New. The brick exterior is fronted by a Colonial style columnar façade. Inside, the architecture and furnishings maintain a traditional Eastern European synagogue arrangement with galleries for women in three sides and a central bimah. The brick exterior is fronted by a colonial style columnar façade. Or so it seems at first but it's not as simple as that. The façade columns are much taller than one expects in a traditional Georgian/ Colonial Building, and above, in the pediment, is a Magen David. The columns are sheathed in metal; something strange to me, but that I was told was not uncommon in the South- apparently wood in this climate is susceptible to rot and insect infestation. The Magen David, however, is decorated with light bulbs, and that is something I know is uncommon everywhere.

Inside, the classical Ark breaks tradition, too; it has decorative lightbulbs along the intrados of the arch. Crowning the Ark, as in many Eastern European and American immigrant synagogues of the time, is a pair of carved lions flanking a Decalogue. But these lions are special, too. They have red eyes, lit by colored lights that flash on and off. Chrevra T’helim isn’t the only example of this love of (electric) lights. In Baltimore, the immigrant Orthodox Congregation that took over the 1876 B’nai Israel Synagogue on Lloyd Street in 1895 installed festive electric lighting on its ark, probably around 1910. Similar lights decorate the Ark at New York’s Eldridge Street Synagogue. Murray Zimiles exhibited several examples of red-eyed lions in his "Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses" exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum. One pair of lions originally from Scranton, Pennsylvania also has light bulbs for eyes. I don’t know if they flashed!

Portsmouth, Virginia. Former Chevra T'helim, interior. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber 2009

The timing may have been coincidental that the region’s oldest congregation, Temple Ohef Shalom – originally Orthodox but Reform since the mid-19th century – also laid the cornerstone for their new Temple in 1917. Temple Ohef Sholom (of which I hope to write more later) is a massive Neo-Classical building designed in tandem with an imposing Methodist Church across the street. At the time Norfolk and Portsmouth were only connected by ferry. The cultural divide between Cheva T’helim and Ohef Shalom was even greater than the geographic distance. Still, both Reform and Orthodox congregation used columnar facades – no doubt to emphasis their American spirit.

Norfolk, Virginia. Temple Ohef Sholom. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2009

Restoration of Portsmouths’s unused and deteriorating synagogue began in 2001 after intense and sometimes acrimonious negotiations among several groups seeking the site. As in Boston in the early 1990s, where at the Vilna Shul a small Orthodox congregation aged and died, leaving the future of its building unplanned, so too, in Portsmouth, where only one surviving trustee remained committed to the building. Eventually, the courts ceded control over the congregation’s cemetery to a Conservative Synagogue that has its cemetery immediately adjacent, but the independent not-for-profit Friends of Chevra T’helim was able to secure the building, with the promise to protect and preserve it. The fact that this not-for-profit citizens' group had already been formed gave it the standing to receive the building without further litigation.

The goal of the restoration project is now partially achieved: the 1918 building itself is secure, intact and restored. It can now host visitors and small events, including the lecture series to which I contributed this year. To do more, however, The Museum and Cultural Center needs more space, and the next phase of the project is to build a modest structure at the north side of the synagogue (where there is now an empty lot). This building will house an archive and exhibition space with memorabilia and historical material from Jewish families of the Tidewater Region. The new building will also house the necessary restrooms, service areas, elevator, and conservation work spaces.

At present, despite the fact that a new $50 million Jewish Community Campus has been erected on the edge of Norfolk on the way to Virginia Beach, there is no active Jewish historical center or archive for the region. The Friends of Chevra T’helim look north to what has been achieved at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore, and also the successful state-of-the-art Jewish archive at Beth Ahabah in Richmond, Virginia, and they have high hopes.

I was tremendously impressed by the talent and energetic dedication of Minette Cooper and Zelma Riven, two of my hosts for the weekend and two of the movers and shakers in this project. It seems possible – even likely – that they can and will achieve what they set out to accomplish. Considering the cost (and the luxury of some the materials used) of the JCC Campus, the budget for the new museum and archive building is quite modest – about $1.5 million dollars. The organization has been developing creative ways to raise this money. The building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and one option being explored is the establishment of an LLC (limited Liability Company) to actually own the building, and thus as a for-profit entity, benefit from available historic preservation tax credits.

Effingham Street is in downtown Portsmouth, an area essential to the long term cultural and economic revival of the city. Civic leaders have recognized this and have gotten behind the synagogue restoration project. Indeed, it was a secular local foundation that provided the first funds needed to restore the building’s roof when the project was just starting. Since then, the building has been included as part of Portsmouth’s “Path of History” that celebrates historic sites in the city with signage and public events.

Portsmouth, Virginia. Path of History Signage for Cheva T'helim.
Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2009

As with many urban synagogue restoration projects in the United States, Jewish organizations have been slow to get involved. As in Boston, Hartford, Tucson and Phoenix and elsewhere, some see these efforts not sufficiently Jewish, or not sufficiently Orthodox, or not sufficiently something this or something that. Federations and established synagogues see historic projects as at best irrelevant and as worst as competitive for resources, for audience and for publicity. Not surprisingly, however, once grassroots and sweat-equality restoration projects are successful, the establishment is often eager – sometimes insistently – to claim them for their own. Things are not as bad as they were twenty years ago. The success of many Jewish historical projects in more than a dozen states has proven their relevance and their popularity. But in Portsmouth, it remains to be seen whether the former Chevra T’helim synagogue will be a thorn in the side of the Tidewater Jewish Community or a jewel in its crown.

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