Congregation Gemiluth Chassodim–the Jewish Temple in Alexandria—celebrated two major historic milestones, just before Rosh Hashanah, 5775: the synagogue’s admission to the National Register of Historic Places and the 155th Anniversary of the founding of the Congregation, an event called “An Afternoon of History”.
Current and former members, friends of the Congregation, neighbors and the general public gathered under a giant live oak tree, planted in 1950, when the synagogue was built, to witness the dedication of the gold-lettered historic marker about the National Register of Historic Places. Two remaining living members of the building committee, Harry Silver and Myron Wellan, participated in the unveiling, along with Jerry Heinberg, son of the architect Max J. Heinberg, a former member and president of the Congregation, as well as members of the architectural firm Barron, Heinberg and Brocato. Temple President Art Williams welcomed us, followed by an invocation by our current Rabbi, Harley Karz-Wagman, and a cordial introduction by event coordinator, Marilyn Wellan.
Our Temple’s architectural design shows the post-war Mid-Century Modern style, with elements associated with Frank Lloyd Wright, reflecting an architectural style that envisioned synagogues as “temples of light”. Barnet Brezner, a member of the Congregation, headed the construction.
The historical marker further described the building in this way: “The original section, built in 1952-53, includes the social hall, kitchen and classrooms…In 1960-61, the Temple (added)…classrooms, administrative offices, conference room, library, museum, two foyers, interior courtyards, and most importantly, a sanctuary…‘a work of abstract sculpture’…(with) floor-to-ceiling art glass panels . The synagogue’s most unique feature…is a sharply angled prow-like…‘lantern’ that rises above the Ark…filling the area with natural light. This is (our) third home, (first) founded October 2, 1859.”
After the dedication, refreshments by members of the Temple Sisterhood were enjoyed, as guests heard the sounding of the Shofar, followed by remarks and memories by Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy, Temple’s Senior Past President Harry Silver, Architect Jerry Heinberg, and Historical Preservation Consultant Paul Smith, who played a key role in gaining our historic status. Mr. Smith beautifully expressed his observations: “Upon closer examination, one begins to realize the genius of design that combines extraordinary functionality with artistic sensitivity and even subtle symbolism…(to) mark the division of sacred from secular, (with a) roof (that) suggests the nomadic existence of the people of Israel in the wilderness for 40 years. The (overall) significance is an extraordinarily well executed expression of faith, hope and optimism, in the all-too-often rigid medium of architecture.”
An important part of the history of the Congregation is in our roster of Rabbis–24 of them since 1873. A portrait was presented to Rabbi Emeritus Arnold S. Task, who served the Congregation for 22 years from 1989 to 2011. His portrait will hang in the Task Garden Room at the Temple. The event reception was held in Hinchin Social Hall, named for Rabbi Emeritus Martin I. Hinchin, who served the congregation for 31 years from 1956 to 1988. Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman joined the Congregation as its Rabbi in 2013.
A tour of the distinctive features of the building’s architecture, including its unique history, our Torah scrolls, and the Jewish History of Central Louisiana Museum followed the celebration.