About two years ago, Zoe Cohen began driving around, looking for churches in West Philadelphia.
She wasn’t searching for a new congregation to join as a convert. She was on the hunt for buildings that had traces of Jewish iconography left on them — telltale signs a church had previously been a synagogue.
As she found these buildings, she started doing freehand, watercolor portraits. Ultimately, she did 16 portraits of the structures, plus four larger portraits, as well as soundscapes of a few of the congregations she came across. All of this work will be on display for her “Shul/Church Project,” a nearly two-month-long solo exhibition at Abington Art Center starting Feb. 5.
Open Heart Church, on the 6000 block of Larchwood Avenue, was one of the first churches she found. The church, she soon learned, was the previous home to Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol in West Philadelphia.
“I started finding the ones that were churches,” Cohen, program manager at University City Arts League, said, “and then finding the ones that specifically are now churches where the Jewish congregation that had existed in that building still exists somewhere else and getting interested in the stories of how those transitions happened.”
The architectural patterns in the buildings made it easier to spot what she was looking for: they were generally two stories tall, with a main entrance in the middle as well as sometimes on the sides for men and women, and they fit nicely with the rest of styles of houses on the block.
“I’ve always been interested in patterns,” she said, “so I started collecting the patterned imagery I was seeing in the architecture — the scrolls, the vines or the brickwork on some of these buildings — and making drawings based on some of them.”
She wanted to find three specific congregations: one that left where there was complete agreement among the congregation that they should leave West Philly; one where there was some kind of controversy about leaving; and one that never left.
“I sat for a while and it wasn’t becoming something that was interesting to me,” she explained of when she first embarked on the project. “I decided to kind of think more about the buildings themselves and start focusing on the communities that have been formed around these buildings.”
When Cohen talked to the Open Heart Church leadership, it turned out the history of the building interested them as well.
“The pastor” — Bishop Derrick M. Hanna — “just said some lovely things about wanting to honor the DNA of the building,” Cohen said, “and that they felt that it was meant to be — that God meant this building to continue to be a place to worship Him.”
The sound recordings aren’t focusing on the services themselves — there are no songs or sermons in the recordings. Rather, Cohen wanted to capture how people sound in the space. She recorded people greeting each other and catching up during the first 10 or so minutes of the service.
“The sound recording,” she said, “allows people to hear what it’s like to be in both the churches that are in these former synagogue buildings and also to make a connection to the former congregations. It’s almost like getting to bridge the years between when these were in the same space.”
The phenomenon of Jewish communities migrating to the suburbs made similar impacts in places like New York.
Bradley Gardener, a professor at Middlebury College, did his doctorate research on synagogues in the Bronx that have since been changed to churches while in the graduate program at City University of New York.
Gardener, who was a visiting professor at Temple University from 2013 to 2015 in the geography and urban studies department, focused on the change in the Bronx particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
White flight played a role in the Bronx possibly as much as it did in West Philadelphia.
“What’s kind of going on there at the surface is very easy to see: It was a racially motivated thing,” Gardener said. “Folks didn’t want to live with people of color or people who are different, and that leads you into getting into the pull of the suburbs and new lifestyles that were available at that time.”
For his research, he spoke with many older women who had lived in the areas where the churches now were who said many people didn’t want to leave simply because there were black neighbors moving in. Once the synagogue was converted, their social lives changed and they followed” the community’s new direction.
“I don’t think people were intolerant to the culture of other people,” he said, adding that they weren’t put off that the synagogue was turning into a church — or specifically an African-American church — as opposed to something else. “It’s in the aesthetic and way of living they appreciated, and when they couldn’t do that anymore, that’s when they moved.”
The idea of the building being changed into a church also was symbolic, he said. A synagogue recognized a Jewish “place.” Once the synagogue was gone and a church was in its place, it was a sign that “their neighborhood had completely changed.”
However, similar to what Bishop Hanna told Cohen, Gardener said many might have also been excited at the idea of their synagogue converting into a church because it provides a religious anchor for a new community.
While white flight and the pull of the suburban lifestyle definitely had an impact on those who left — both in New York and Philadelphia — Gardener said that racially charged attitudes weren’t the whole reason why people left.
“I think the true narrative is the synagogue meant a lot to people,” he said. “They didn’t want to leave, but they felt pressure — everyone else was leaving and the place they had known was dissipated.”
The connections between the uses of these buildings was one of Cohen’s initial goals, which she met in many ways and hopes to continue to build.
“I really wanted part of this project to be a project of connecting to my community,” she said, “and the people who live in my neighborhood who — whether they are interested in it or not — inhabit a space that ‘my people’ built and used to use. I don’t have a specific thesis I’m trying to present — I’m trying to create an opportunity for reflection — that’s the power of visual art.”
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