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Jewish congregation mourns Closing, remembers blessings of their ‘Disco Shul’

Sale of East Memphis property leads to another move

Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth Rabbi Joel Finkelstein (left) and synagogue vice president Linda Joffre take inventory of the Torah scrolls on Wednesday, Oct. 7. The 50-year-old synagogue in East Memphis has been sold and is closing for good next week. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

In normal times, members of the synagogue would take turns this weekend dancing the sacred Torah scrolls around their bold, beautiful sanctuary and kissing them.

This weekend, because of COVID-19 concerns and restrictions, only one person will remove the Torah from the holy ark and dance around with it. No one else will touch it.

In normal times, the congregation would gather around the Torah while one person read the story of the death of Moses, from the end of Deuteronomy, and another made a blessing over it. Then one person would read the story of creation, “In the beginning …” from the beginning of Genesis, and another would make a blessing over it.

This weekend, one person will read the stories. Those who make a blessing will stand at least 6 feet from the Torah and each other.

“Usually all the children would gather around the Torah as the reader reads and they would say the blessing, but this year it will all be by distance,” said Rabbi Joel Finkelstein, who with his wife, Bluma, has raised four children in this shul. 

These are not normal times at  opens in a new windowAnshei Sphard Beth El Emeth Synagogue (ASBEE) in East Memphis, a congregation that has existed in some form since the Civil War.

In addition to the social-distancing precautions that they have been taking for months, Finkelstein and members of the Orthodox Jewish congregation are preparing to move.

The “disco shul” on East Yates has been sold and is closing for good next week, but the congregation plans to live on in shared space a few blocks away at Baron Hirsch Congregation on South Yates.

This weekend’s celebration of Simchat Torah, a holiday of “rejoicing with the Torah,” will be the last holiday celebrated at the 50-year-old synagogue.

ASBEE, once a congregation of nearly 400 families, in a synagogue built to hold as many as 900 worshippers, has seen membership decline over the years to about 250 families.

So while the remaining members are rejoicing in the holiday, the final day of the harvest festival of Sukkot, ASBEE members also will be reminiscing.

While they are keeping their physical distance from the Torah and each other, they will be mourning the closing of their home for half a century and celebrating its blessed memories.

“We’re trying not to be too melodramatic,” said Finkelstein, who moved here in 1997 when he was 34 and his first child was six months old. “We are hoping to have a continuing existence as a congregation for many years to come, but this place has so much meaning for us and so many sacred memories. This is a bittersweet time.”

‘The purple spaceship’

This isn’t the first time the congregation now known as Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth has moved.

The Beth El Emeth congregation was organized in 1861 “over Prescott’s lamp store” Downtown on Jefferson between Front and Second streets.

Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth Rabbi Joel Finkelstein looks over his office that is in the process of being packed up on Wednesday, Oct. 7. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

The Anshei Sphard congregation was organized in 1893 in rented space at the corner of Main and Beale.

When the two Orthodox congregations agreed in 1966 that they would be stronger together, Anshei was at 1188 North Parkway, Beth El was at 3771 Poplar.

“When we decided to merge, we wanted a new building that would speak for our times,” said attorney Ronald Harkavy, who was synagogue president at the time. “We wanted to bring the building to the people, not just people to the building.”

Harkavy and his wife, artist Iris Harkavy, shared their hopes and ideas with Francis Mah and Keith Kays, two local architects who designed the new synagogue in the striking  opens in a new windowBrutalist style of the Modern Movement.

Brutalism is named for the beton brut (raw, unfinished concrete) it employs, not for the rough, spare and imposing lines and surfaces of its designs.

From the outside, the ASBEE synagogue looks like it could be a high school. It has a flat roof and windowless brick walls assembled in irregular sections. Rows of clerestory windows provide natural light inside.

Inside, however, color, texture, style and light abound.

Original maple doors open to a stunning sanctuary of four descending sections with nearly 700 plush red seats on purple carpet under a vaulted ceiling.

The walls and the acoustical panels suspended from the ceiling are silver, covered in Mylar-coated aluminum that refracts color and light.

The reflective material was intended to “dematerialize” the space “so that you never are conscious of the limits of the space,” Mah told The Commercial Appeal in 1970.

When the synagogue first opened, some members felt like they had landed in outer space. Over the years, the synagogue, amusingly and affectionately, has been called “the disco shul” and “the purple spaceship.”

“When I first saw it, it took my breath away,” said Lynnie Mirvis, a member since the late 1970s. “It was so different I wondered if I would be able to pray there. I was. The space encompasses you. It’s soaring but you can see and feel the reflection of all the people around you.”

Mirvis now sees the sanctuary as “a mirror of the mishkan of old.” A mishkan, or tabernacle, was the portable sanctuary the ancient Israelites carried with them in the wilderness.

In July, the Memphis Landmarks Commission endorsed Mirvis’  opens in a new windowapplication to place the 50-year-old synagogue on the National Register of Historic Places.

About a month later, the congregation sold the synagogue and its four acres for $1.5 million to Worldwide Property. The company hasn’t revealed its plans for the property, nestled in a well-kept residential neighborhood.

“No one knows what their plans are,” Mirvis said, “but we are hoping someone can find a way to reimagine or repurpose this unique and beautiful building. We need more beauty in the world.”

‘Preserving the past’

A synagogue is a house of prayer and a house of study filled with sacred spaces and holy objects. It is not easily moved.

“Moving a synagogue requires more than packing boxes and putting them on a truck,” Finkelstein said.

For example, the congregation had 11 Torah scrolls. They are taking three with them to their new space. The other eight had to be disposed of properly.

One, a loaner, was returned. Four were sold for charity. One was given to someone who plans to mount it. Two others were buried.

A Torah scroll isn’t printed on a computer or manufactured by a machine.

It is precisely handwritten by a scribe who must follow numerous laws containing hundreds of details.

It is written with a quill cut from a goose or turkey feather, dipped in kosher ink on parchment made from the hide of a kosher animal, usually a cow or goat.

In Jewish tradition, the Torah is more than just the first five books of the Bible. The letters of the Torah are the DNA of creation.

Any sort of deterioration or damage to any of the Torah’s 304,805 letters or 62 parchment pages can render it non-kosher, or unacceptable according to Jewish law.

Late last month, two scrolls that were beyond repair were buried in white coffins at Zalowitz Beth El Emeth Cemetery.

Finkelstein also buried 40 boxes of religious books (seforim) at the cemetery. He’s given away hundreds of other books to other synagogues and religious libraries.

The holy ark, an ornate cabinet that holds the Torah scrolls used for public worship, and the bimah, the platform and table from which the Torah is read, are staying put.

“Usually, you would take the ark with you or bury it, if you could not,” Finkelstein said. “But the arks are built into the walls, and the bimah is attached to the floor, so technically there are no separate items to take.”

The rabbi and his fellow congregation members haven’t quite figured out what to do with the synagogue’s signature tapestry.

The magnificent, multi-colored tapestry is 30 feet wide and 14 feet high. It forms a backdrop for the sanctuary and acts as a curtain for the Holy Ark.

When the tapestry is closed, it features symbols from the Book of Exodus, including tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Tree of Life, the Burning Bush, and God’s statement to Moses: “I shall cause my goodness to pass before you.”

When the curtain is parted, it appears that the waters of a sea are divided, and the Hebrew letter “Shin,” representing God’s sacred name, is revealed in white.

“The tapestry is glued to boards,” Finkelstein said. “The challenge is to try to preserve it without destroying it. We’re still working on it.”

‘Always felt like home’

Sukkot and Simcha Torah are joyous holidays in the Jewish tradition.

They are celebrated as a time to be thankful for all God’s blessings, especially the Torah, an opportunity to express gratitude for the past and hope for the future.

They are not a time to mourn.

So the congregation officially said farewell to its synagogue on Sept. 24.

“Everyone came in their cars and circled the building seven times, reminiscent of the seven times the Jewish people circled the walls of Jericho, the seven times a bride circles the groom, the seven hakafot of Simchat Torah, and the seven times we circle on Sukkot with our lulav and etrog,” Bluma Zuckerbrot-Finkelstein explained. “I’m glad I was wearing a mask so I could hide my tears.”

Some who participated, and some who wished they could have, shared their thoughts on the  opens in a new windowshul’s Facebook page.

They remembered the pilgrim festivals and Hanukkah dinners, the bat and bar mitzvahs and weddings, fasting and praying and sitting for hours on Yom Kippur.

“It was beautiful!! I cried,” wrote Shira Suzanne Liss. “As I drove around I remembered every inch of the building inside and out. Special memories of y’all, services, friends, conversations, thoughts, meals, classes, tears and prayers.”

They remembered learning to drive in the parking lot, climbing up the air-conditioner vents and counting the silver ceiling panels, and attending the annual Kosher Barbecue Cooking Contest, a Memphis tradition that has been won by Jewish, Christian and Muslim teams.

“I’m going to miss that purple spaceship,” wrote Hadassah Tye. “I had a lot of good memories there. It had a tremendous role in my life. I may have moved all over the U.S. by now, but Memphis, especially Anshei, is always home.”

They remembered their former rabbis, Arthur Levin and Mark Levin (not related), who preceded Finkelstein, and their cantors, including Aryeh Samburg, who has served the congregation since 1988.

“The Levins are long gone from Memphis, but the Anshei was still there, our beautiful disco shul tucked on the corner of Rich and Yates at the bottom of the rolling expanse of grass where we’d spread out for the Jerusalem Day Picnic year after year,” wrote Talya Levin.

Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth Rabbi Joel Finkelstein stands in what affectionately has been called the “disco shul” and “purple spaceship.” Finkelstein, who moved to Memphis in 1997 when he was 34, said, “This is a bittersweet time.” (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian

They remembered Rabbi Efraim Greenblatt, of blessed memory, who came to Memphis in 1952 and spent nearly every waking hour of the next 58 years studying, learning and teaching Hebrew scripture and Jewish law at the synagogue and at Margolin Hebrew Academy/Yeshiva of the South. He died in 2014.

“We had one of the most unique and stunning shuls in the country which served as such a metaphor for our congregation,” wrote Guyla Wanderman. “A place full of deeply caring, beautiful, and genuine individuals, who, as always, will rise above these difficult times, together, and be even stronger because of it. The ASBEE congregation truly has such heart.”

When the synagogue was dedicated on Sept. 13, 1970, Harkavy, then the youngest president of an Orthodox Jewish congregation in America, expressed his hopes for the brand new building.

“In the days and years to come our corridors shall be filled with the voices of our children learning Torah, serving their community and growing up as Jews, devoted to their heritage and traditions,” he wrote to the congregation.

“It is here that we shall meet together, learn together, and together give praise and thanks to G-D. May we have the opportunity, not only to worship together, but to celebrate many simchas in this impressive House of G-D.”

For some observant Jews, it is a sign of respect not to write God’s name in full.

Fifty years and many simchas later, the impressive “House of G-D” will close.

“There’s a Yiddish word, haimesh,” Harkavy said. “It describes things that are homey or familiar. This synagogue always felt like home. It had a good run. But we’ll find a new home. We always do.”

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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