Recently, I have started my research into the Jewish communities of Kentucky for our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. A few weeks ago I was all over western Kentucky. In Owensboro, I found one of the oldest synagogues in the United States. Adath Israel, dedicated in 1877, is the 12th oldest synagogue in the country still in use today. In the South, only Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina (built in 1840), and Temple of Israel in Wilmington, North Carolina (built in 1876) are older.
I visited with two members of the congregation, Stuart Spindel and Sandy Bugay, who gave me a tour of the small, but lovely building. When the synagogue was dedicated in 1877, the local newspaper ran a large account of the ceremony, calling the building “an enduring monument to the Enterprise and Liberality of Our Israelitish Citizens.” Though a social hall was added on much later, the Moorish Revival building is still remarkably intact.
The congregation has always been tiny. One of the reasons Adath Israel is still in the synagogue is because they never outgrew it. Owensboro never had more than one hundred Jews during the 20th century. In recent years, the congregation has dwindled, but the remaining members are dedicated to maintaining it for as long as they can.
You can read much more about the history of Adath Israel and Owensboro Jewish community when the Kentucky section of the Encyclopedia is completed (early next year), but in the meantime I just wanted to share some of my photographs of this remarkable jewel of a synagogue:
We hear a lot about “interfaith” and “outreach” programming. In fact, I spend a lot of my time promoting it. But why does it matter? If it might lead to some difficult conversations and such – why bother?
Well, my experiences not only as a director of programming, but also as a proud New Orleans native, have shaped my understanding of the value and vital need for these sorts of efforts.
“….Temple Sinai is a house of prayer for all people and all who enter our doors in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood are always welcome and that includes the members of Greater St. Stephens Ministries.”
These words were spoken by Rabbi Edward Cohn. Since becoming the Rabbi of Temple Sinai in New Orleans 25 years ago, Rabbi Cohn has made interfaith and outreach programming a priority for the congregation. His efforts have led to a strong New Orleans Interfaith clergy group which meets on a regular basis to discuss theological, ethical and political issues as well as forming strong bonds of friendship which have served all of these congregations well. Often times, our opinions or convictions may conflict, but there is always respect and love. In times of celebration and in times of tragedy, these congregations have stood with each other side by side.
In fact, when the Greater St. Stephens Baptist Church burned down, Rabbi Cohn reached out to Bishop Paul Morton and Senior Pastor Debra Morton and offered the Temple Sinai sanctuary as a … sanctuary!
I attended several of the services to see what it was like while the St. Stephens congregation was worshiping in my synagogue. Sitting in the back of that 1,100 seat-sanctuary (completely filled twice each Sunday while they were there), I was blown away by the full Gospel choir and the spirit. Whatever your faith, God was in that place, and I knew it.
That’s why interfaith and outreach programming matters. Because in times of triumph, and in times of trial, it enables us to be better neighbors and experience modern miracles … like when the trial becomes the triumph, and two communities can share one sacred space.
What has been your very best interfaith experience?
Last Wednesday morning, a beautiful photograph of Jerusalem stone appeared in my Facebook newsfeed. The picture shows a large wall with a wooden ark in the middle, part of a new sanctuary being built in Lake Norman, North Carolina. I smiled because four years ago I served as an Education Fellow for the Lake Norman Jewish Community. I worked with their enthusiastic Rabbi, Michael Shields, got to know dedicated young families, and sang songs with a flourishing religious school.
I enjoyed my visits to this congregation, but I always seemed to bring a bit of calamity with me. On my trip during Hanukkah we spent all Sunday morning participating in a Hanukkah Maccabiah complete with dreidel costumes, menorah relays, holiday trivia, and of course latkes! While the latkes were sizzling in the hallway, we managed to set the off the fire alarms and had to finish our potato sack races outside. Much to the students’ delight, we were greeted by two fire trucks that morning and got to feed the fireman what were most likely their first-ever taste of latkes.
The next spring, Rabbi Shields and I planned a morning of Israel activities to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut. When we arrived at the building, however, we realized we were locked out. Always ready for the unexpected, I conducted a session of Aleph Bet Yoga on the lawn to fill the half-hour or so that it took for us to get a key.
These challenges occurred because, like many new or small Jewish communities in our region and beyond, Lake Norman Jewish Congregation did not have a building of its own. They rented and borrowed spaces all across town; those fire alarms went off at an elementary school, and the building we were locked out of was on the campus of Davidson College.
These were worthy places for worship and community, but they lacked the convenience of a permanent home.
That is why I was especially happy to hear that Lake Norman Jewish Congregation had joined with another local congregation to found—and build—Temple Kol Tikvah. The memories made in their other homes are important to the history of the congregation, but I look forward to seeing more pictures from the site of their future joys (hopefully many) and even calamities (hopefully few).