Julian H. Preisler admits he loves synagogue architecture, having possibly photographed more in our region than anyone else.
“I’m just fascinated by the diversity in buildings, where they are, the uniqueness of them,” Preisler said. “Philadelphia once had 150 synagogues. In fact, Pennsylvania likely had more synagogues than any other state.”
A native of Detroit and a former Philadelphia-area resident, Preisler recently published The Synagogues of Eastern Pennsylvania – A Visual Journey, which is bound to bring back memories for those who remember synagogue of both years past and today in its 128 pages of photographs and summaries.
It includes such images as the former Temple Sinai on Washington Avenue and Limekiln Pike that became a church, complete with a Star of David, and is now being nconverted into a mosque.
“What is really different about Philadelphia is there are still thriving congregations in the city,” Preisler said. “A perfect example is [Congregation] Rodeph Shalom, which stayed through the tough times and has expanded.
“That’s not the case in Detroit and the Midwest. When there were problems, all those congregations moved to the suburbs. Not totally the case at all in Philadelphia.”
Preisler has noticed a trend where a church or mosque takes over and uses an abandoned urban Jewish place of worship.
“There seems to be a lot more respect as to the religious originality of a building in these cases, and more of a respect for what the building began as,” Preisler said. “That makes a lot of this even more interesting.”
Preisler’s tome is a companion to a similar book he published a few years ago about synagogues in central and western Pennsylvania and Jewish West Virginia.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Preisler, who now calls Falling Waters, West Virginia, home, is passionate about Jewish places of worship and communities, past and present, and is determined that none will be forgotten.
“I’m really a genealogist with a background in historic preservation and archives administration, in addition to being an author and photographer,” he said. “I want to preserve what these synagogues were for future generations. This book, like my others, is dedicated to those who came before us and those yet to come.
“Our Jewish history is amazing, and it is always being created, thus we must continue to preserve and record it. I have had a love of architecture since I was young. Synagogues nare most interesting.”
Released Oct. 29 by Arcadia Publishing, the book is one of the favorites he has authored.
“We were able to put a lot of beautiful color in the book, both inside and outside,” Preisler said. “About 75 percent of the photographs in the book are mine, with the rest submitted by someone connected somehow with a synagogue, which I really appreciate.
“When a congregation closes, especially in a smaller coal town, for example, I have to find whether some ritual objects are with the area historical society. Torahs, which are so valuable religiously and monetarily, are usually either given to another congregation or sold.”
The book is divided into four sections: the Southeast region, which includes Greater Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley, the Poconos and the anthracite coal region. There are text and photos of synagogues past and present, often tracing the progress of congregations from one building to another, and what became of a synagogue that was sold or abandoned and demolished.
Preisler credited the history and work of the Conservative Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, on Verree Road in Northeast Philadelphia, which includes the former independent congregations of Shaare Shamayim, Beth Judah, Beth Tefilath Israel, Rodeph Zedek, Beth Chaim, Beth Emeth, B’nai Yitzhok, Ner Zedek, Adath Zion, Beth Uziel, Boulevard Park, Brith Kodesh, Ezrath Israel and Fox Chase JCC in unified worship, with preservation of the past.
“Shaare Shamayim has kept the history of all these congregations alive,” he said. “They have done the community a service.”
Shaare Shamayim enjoys that role.
“When a congregation has come to merge, we call it a marriage, not a merger,” Shaare Shamayim Executive Director Jacques Lurie said. “We have over 1,000 memorial plaques from all the congregations who have joined us, an ark that is over 100 years old and many other items. We can trace how the history of all our communities.” l
[email protected]; 215-832-0737