Saving Historic Houses of Worship: Congregation Beth Ahabah
Learn more about the National Fund for Sacred Places and the 2020 grant recipients.
Founded in 1841 as an offshoot of Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome (Richmond’s first Jewish congregation established in 1789), Congregation Beth Ahabah built its first synagogue in 1848. Solidifying itself as an important community asset early on, Beth Ahabah provided school rooms, free of charge, to youth of various religious backgrounds until the Richmond public school system was established in 1871.
While the Richmond Jewish community continued to grow, the congregation kept outgrowing its structures; the cornerstone of its current synagogue being laid on March 4, 1904 at 1117 W. Franklin Street. The structure was designed in the Neo-Classical style, with elements said to have been patterned after Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.
The most prominent feature of the sanctuary at Beth Ahabah is its recently restored proscenium arch, which features a 1913 painting gifted from the Ladies’ Auxiliary, as well as the original pipe organ consisting of over 2,000 pipes, ranging in size from 6 inches to 16 feet.
The sanctuary also features 29 stained glass windows that commemorate important congregants, past rabbis of the congregation, as well as important traditions of the Jewish faith. Most notable is the window depicting Mount Sinai at the moment the Ten Commandments were granted to Moses. This piece was commissioned in 1923 and was designed by Louis C. Tiffany Studios and includes Tiffany’s signature in the lower corner.
Today, Beth Ahabah has more than 650 congregant families and is a cornerstone of the Jewish community in Richmond, Virginia. In 2017 Congregation Beth Ahabah received $250,000 from the National Fund for Sacred Places (NFSP). As a part of a large project to integrate and update the multi-building facility, the NFSP funding helped to modernize the 116-year-old sanctuary building through replacing the HVAC system, lighting and electrical upgrades, enhancing ADA accessibility, sanctuary roof work, and kitchen upgrades to increase usability of the space for events.
“Collective memory of a particular place has incredible value in making a place sacred and having it remain sacred, with the ability to create relationships in and around an organization. The wider we can make those doors, more positive the experience within those doors, the more people will share the experiences and the greater the life of the institution.”Rabbi Scott Nagel
As part of the larger project to connect the three main buildings of its campus, Congregation Beth Ahabah sensitively restored their historic sanctuary while creatively rehabilitating and improving its facility. With three buildings facing West Franklin Street, the center 1957 building was reconfigured, and a front lobby was added to provide an ADA accessible ramp from the street.
In order to facility ADA access to the historic sanctuary, a connector was constructed to the sanctuary building. The new construction sensitively altered the historic building by connecting at an existing window opening, and now leads visitors from the brand-new accessible entrance to the gorgeous historic sanctuary with upgraded lighting and electrical, a repaired roof, and a new HVAC system. Downstairs from the sanctuary, accessible via elevator, is an upgraded kitchen, used by both members and community groups.
Now, access to the entire campus is barrier free through the brand-new entrance, and the new lobby is enjoyed by the congregation and community alike.
But this great improvement project was not without challenges. As a landmark in a designated historic district, the review and approval process for the project was extensive because of the large new construction component, and unfortunately, there were delays to the project start date that caused the budget to increase to nearly $6 million.
However, with fundraising support provided by NFSP, staff at Beth Ahabah leveraged the grant funds to raise an additional $1.4 million—including several million from their community members. They credit the NFSP’s support as helping them to create a new culture of giving in their membership.
From the start of the design process, it was important for the staff to include the community. As the temple is adjacent to a historic residential area, they involved neighbors in monthly design charettes. These meetings emphasized the role of Beth Ahabah to the community and the city of Richmond through conversation and dialogue with those who attended.
“It’s a Sanctuary…you can feel now, the presence of the past and the builders of the congregation and you can see it in the future,” said Rabbi Scott Nagel of the building. “We see the community itself in this space, lasting long after individuals are gone. A powerful feeling that tells us that what we’re doing matters, those that came before us, and those that we pass along to [the] future.”
Since the completion of the project, staff have observed the impact on current members, new members, and the community. The doors of Beth Ahabah have always been open to all, but the new ADA accessibility allows the congregation to engage at a much broader level. The Virginia Garden Club has already hosted their meeting twice at the congregation, and the congregation hosted more community-wide events, such as musical performances and graduations from Virginia Commonwealth University.
They’ve also noticed a difference with members of the existing congregation. Before the construction and update, less than 10% of the members stayed onsite after ceremonies, holding receptions, Sabbath dinners, or cocktail hours—now with the updates in accessibility there has been a marked increase in the use of the space. Now nearly 100% of families hosting a ceremony at Beth Ahabah stay to use the building for functions other than a ceremony.
“Collective memory of a particular place has incredible value in making a place sacred, and having it remain sacred with the ability to create relationships in and around an organization,” said Nagel. “The wider we can make those doors, more positive the experience within those doors, the more people will share the experiences and the greater the life of the institution.
As Beth Ahabah continues to invite more people to experience this place and feel the level of spirituality and the connection to history, they’ve also seen an uptick in new members—bucking the trend of decreasing membership at houses of worship. In just the first few months of 2020, they saw 14 new member families.
“The future is bright, we’re feeling renewed and rejuvenated in our mission,” said Nagel. “We’re excited to be together as a congregation in a renewed space, looking to renew everything that we do in that space, new initiatives, new programs, new ideals while welcoming new families and new energy.”
While COVID-19 has affected the in-person gatherings at the new facility, Beth Ahabah continues to support its community by offering support and streaming services while congregants are unable to attend services in person. Even through these difficult times, the congregation continued to welcome even more new member family through the 2020 High Holy Day season.
The National Fund for Sacred Places
The 100,000+ historic houses of worship across America play a crucial role in shaping the character of our communities, and many are works of art whose beauty and history make them irreplaceable parts of our national cultural heritage. All are places that bring people together, strengthening, and enlivening communities.
The National Fund for Sacred Places, a collaboration between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Partners for Sacred Places with support from the Lilly Endowment, provides training, planning grants, technical assistance, capacity-building support, and capital grants up to $250,000 to congregations of all faiths for rehabilitation work on their historic facilities.
In the four years of this program, 52 houses of worship from Birmingham, Alabama to Alaska, have received more than $10 million in funding supporting projects that range from steeple stabilization to exterior masonry repair to HVAC replacement.