Historic synagogue building worth saving

The old synagogue on Telfair Street was built in 1869.

 

 

The two most profound components of one’s heritage are the history and the values passed on to children. Our history can be composed of customs, rituals and perhaps structures that have endured and have stood as testaments to the most meaningful moments of our lives.

The old Telfair Street synagogue is the oldest building specifically constructed in Georgia for use as a synagogue. An excellent example of the Greek Revival style, the synagogue was built and dedicated in 1869 with the father of the Reform Jewish Movement in America, Rabbi Isaac Wise, delivering the keynote address to a crowd of congregants and dignitaries. Structures such as this are unique and extremely rare.

For my family, many of the most memorable life-cycle events before 1950 took place within the walls of that synagogue, which served as home to Congregation Children of Israel. My father, Howard Jolles, who practiced law for many years in this community, received the first bar mitzvah held in that synagogue when he was called to recite from the Torah in 1943. His younger brother, Isaac Jolles, who would later serve as Richmond County Probate Court judge, would follow in his footsteps when he was bar mitzvahed there a little over a year later. Their sister, Natalie Jolles Miller, would wed within the same walls a few years later in the late 1940s.

 

FAST-FORWARD TO THE year 2015, and this same synagogue is in jeopardy of facing its demise at the hands of a wrecking ball. My longtime friend and fellow congregant Jack Steinberg has launched a valiant and worthy campaign to save this symbol of our past. I join with him on this sacred mission, in essence a labor of love to me.

Mr. Steinberg envisions transforming this structure, most recently used by Richmond County Planning and Zoning Department, into a Jewish museum. I can’t think of a more appropriate use or one that would mean so much to us who have such significant family ties to this beautiful and divine facility. I commend Mr. Steinberg for taking on this endeavor.

Such an endeavor will take time in securing the needed historical grants and funding to convert the facility into a museum that does justice to such an integral part of our past. Perhaps some cost of maintenance can even be recouped if this facility was to be operated for a fee to contemporaneously host wedding receptions and other formal community events and galas.

In the interim, I propose temporarily relocating the public defender’s office – currently in a molding, leaking set of trailers – to the old synagogue. This idea has merit and is worthy of an ongoing serious discussion. This would provide our community sufficient time to devote the necessary resources to transforming the synagogue into a museum that is worthy of our past.

The relocated public defender’s office would be nearer to the new courthouse on James Brown Boulevard. From the outside the synagogue bears a resemblance to some courthouses of our past. Having been recently used as county office space, this facility easily could be converted into office space. With the addition of the adjacent Court of Ordinary and probation offices, the old synagogue’s 10,000-plus square feet would easily accommodate the public defender’s office.

 

FURTHERMORE THE VALUES that shaped the congregants inside that synagogue, until the congregation relocated to Walton Way in about 1950, are consistent with the role of a public defender’s office in providing services to the most vulnerable in our society. By doing so, we are ensuring that the most vulnerable in our society are afforded the due process of law and ideals that are enshrined and contained within our state and federal constitutions.

Just imagine being able to embrace our history and our values contemporaneously.

Imagine a community that places a greater premium on its past than on parking spaces.

Imagine a caring community that unites to find a way in transforming this historic house of worship into a hallowed hall devoted to our past.

Imagine our legal community embracing this structure as a temporary home of the public defender’s office, until a permanent venue can be located to serve those most vulnerable and those who can least afford the protections guaranteed to them under our constitutions.

Imagine a commission that follows the lead of historical communities such as Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, recognizing the inherit values of securing our past as a means to inspire the children of our future.

Finally, imagine – 50 or 100 years from now – future generations looking back, admiring and lauding the forward-thinking leaders in Augusta who were willing to incur the necessary effort and sacrifices to preserve an enduring symbol of our history.

 

(The writer is an Augusta attorney.)

 

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