Pam Rhodes joined Temple B’nai Sholom in Huntsville nearly four decades ago.
She raised three children and taught religious school there for 25 years. A Huntsville transplant and mortgage loan officer, Rhodes has held numerous leadership roles within the Jewish congregation on 103 Lincoln St. S.E.
Despite her lengthy history with the Temple, Rhodes is still taken aback by its beauty.
“It is not only beautiful, but in my mind, it’s very spiritual, when you walk into the sanctuary with the beautiful stained-glass windows,” she said. “If you come in at the right time of day with the sun streaming through them, it’s almost overwhelming and emotional.”
Like many who have marveled at the 121-year-old house of worship, Rhodes isn’t alone in her experience.
Temple B’nai Sholom
Temple B’nai Sholom, erected in 1899, offers a glimpse into the Romanesque style of 9th to 12th century Europe. With influences of the Renaissance Revival in the west front gable, the Temple is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in Alabama today.
Rabbi Eric Berk, who came to the Temple from Los Angeles two years ago, said leading a congregation there is a special honor he doesn’t take lightly.
“It is a very impressive space for any purpose, especially for worship,” he said. “There are synagogues of that age and even older, but having spent over 15 years in Los Angeles, that’s not where you find them. So, encountering one is a unique experience and getting to actually serve the Jewish people out of one is remarkable.”
Encountering one is a unique experience and getting to actually serve the Jewish people out of one is remarkable.”
According to the Alabama Historical Association, Huntsville’s first Jewish citizens arrived during the 1840s. About three decades later, 32 families founded Congregation B’nai Sholom (“Sons of Peace”) before affiliating with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform Movement.
Members of B’nai Sholom worshiped in rented rooms at the Masonic Lodge on Lincoln Street until almost the end of the 19th century. In 1899, they decided to put down permanent roots by building a Temple at the corner of Lincoln and Clinton Avenue.
A new beginning
With help from Chattanooga architect R.H. Hunt, construction – valued at $16,000 (roughly half a million dollars today) – began soon after. B’nai Sholom members dedicated the Temple on November 26, 1899 and the rest is history.
After many lean financial years, the Temple began a full-scale renovation of the sanctuary in 1975, just in time for its centennial celebration. The congregation, which did additional work on the Temple in 1994, continues to maintain the structure today.
Margaret Anne Goldsmith, a member of the Temple since her birth in 1941, said it’s costly to preserve historic buildings, but well worth the effort.
“They give you a different feeling when you look at them than the newer buildings that come and go,” she said.
The Temple became the permanent home for a Holocaust Torah in 1997. Dr. Louis Weiner helped lead the effort to acquire the Torah and dedicated it in memory of his daughter, Julie Ann, who died in 1971 at the age of 11.
Temple B’nai Sholom is also home to the Huntsville Jewish Heritage Center, which opened in 2017. Visited by tourists from around the world, it highlights the original sanctuary mantel, artifacts and desk used by the Temple’s early rabbis.
Located just off the sanctuary, the center showcases Jewish holidays, life cycle events, and sacred objects, symbols, and traditions. Guests can view artifacts from historic Jewish events, the Holocaust and the Declaration of the State of Israel.
“It’s a lovely little space that I think very effectively demonstrates some of the principal ritual and traditional items associated with Judaism,” Berk said.
The City of Huntsville is wrapping up its all-digital #ThisPlaceMattersHsv campaign this week in honor of National Historic Preservation Month. Held annually in May, the effort highlights the critical role history and historic places play in the growth and progress of Huntsville.
Goldsmith, whose great grandfather, Isaac Schiffman, was chairman of the Temple B’nai Sholom building committee, said it’s important for Huntsville to recognize and maintain its historic spaces because doing so connects us with our past.
A congregation is the people. They’re the heart of the congregation – but the Temple is a symbol. We love it, cherish it and take care of it.”
“The historic buildings here that have been preserved give us a sense of place, whereas so many buildings come and go,” she said. “Those that are preserved and remain are part of our history.”
Temple B’nai Sholom may be small, but Rhodes said no one wants to move anywhere else.
“A congregation is the people,” she said. “They’re the heart of the congregation – but the Temple is a symbol. We love it, cherish it and take care of it.”
Tune in today, May 29, 2020, at 2 p.m. for a live Instagram interview with City Preservation Planner Katie Stamps. She’ll talk with Rhodes and Goldsmith about the Temple and its impact on downtown Huntsville. The interview will be available for viewing later on Instagram and Facebook.
For more details about the Temple, click here.