A historic view of Temple Israel in Memphis; image courtesy Julian Preisler

America’s Earliest Jewish Congregations Included Plenty of Southern Sites

A new book explores the architectural wonders of America's beautiful and varied "pioneer" synagogues

“The first Jewish congregation in [Tennessee] was founded in 1851 in Bolivar, but lasted only a few years. The oldest existing Jewish congregation is in Memphis. Temple Israel was formed in 1853 as B’nai Israel Congregation – Children of Israel…” – Excerpt from America’s Pioneer Jewish Congregations

Some people are just born with a love of history; I count myself among them.

I am the son of Holocaust survivors from Germany and the Czech Republic, and my family often talked about their history, culture, and the arts in the old world. Even at an early age, I was fascinated by where my family came from and what their lives were like before, during and after the Holocaust. As a family, we went to museums, the theater and historic sites. When I was old enough to begin attending Sunday School, I found the synagogue building itself to be a special space filled with beauty.

Later on, I learned that the “beauty of the building” that so fascinated me was called architecture. Since both the synagogues I frequented in my youth were mid-century modern structures, I became an early fan of the style. I soon learned to appreciate a variety of styles of architecture and wanted to explore synagogues and other buildings.

Fast forward to college, where I studied Historic Preservation and began seeking out all kinds of synagogues. I took lots of photos. (Admittedly, some of my photos weren’t great—but some were good!) Each synagogue that I found was special in one way or another. As the years passed, I amassed quite a collection and began to wonder what to do with all these photographs. And what about the synagogues I was unable to photograph in person?

I began enriching my collection with other images, first with print photos provided by friends and congregations and then, as the Internet grew, with digital images. To make a long story short (perhaps too late now), spurred on by “encouragement” from my parents, I sought a way to share my collection and supplement my income from my work as an archivist. A half-dozen book projects and 30-some years later, I have completed my latest work with the widest geographic scope yet.

America’s Pioneer Jewish Congregations, published by Fonthill Media, is part travel guide, part history book, and part photography exhibit. My goal was to organize all of these historic congregations, which span our entire country and its outposts, into one easy-to-read volume that would not only provide a history of each congregation, but also be a delight to the eye, enriched with photographs and vintage images. My archival training spurred my internal need for organization and clarity, and my love of images called me to share the physical beauty of the synagogues.

My book covers the oldest continuing Jewish congregation in each of the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands—and what many are surprised to learn is that some of the scene-stealers in the collection are the synagogues of the South.

The Southern states represent a beautiful mix of old and new synagogues, some small and some quite large, and all with extensive histories. There is a wonderful diversity of styles represented. One of the things most important to me about this book is that it showcases the diversity of Jewish congregations and their synagogues that are found in small towns, large urban areas, suburban locales and in places that one does not normally associate with having a synagogue, much less a historic one.

To learn more, you can visit my website; I encourage you to peruse the book and find the same wonder at the beauty of the southern synagogues and congregational architecture across the nation that I found delight in at such an early age.

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