Preservation with Purpose

Since moving to Pittsburgh, I’ve been thinking a lot about historic preservation. Everything here is old–from the house we bought to the streets to the infrastructure (see: falling apart Greenfield Bridge. Thanks for the press CBS!). And there are an enormous number of former churches and religious buildings that have been both preserved and repurposed, in a way that I had not seen much of in the South. This makes sense, right? In the Triangle, the population is growing rapidly and there’s lots of space, so you see storefront churches and megachurches and new religious buildings all of the time. Pittsburgh, while it may be currently on the rise, has suffered from population loss and as congregations dwindle, folks must decide what to do with the buildings they once used.

In our neighborhood alone, Highland Park, there are several examples of religious buildings that have been repurposed, many of them former synagogues.

This is perhaps one of the most impressive buildings, now used as a charter school by the Urban League of Pittsburgh.

Former Congregation B’Nai Israel, now a charter school.

As you can see, there have been almost no changes to the exterior. This picture is from the 1950s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other synagogues in the neighborhood have been put into private use. The one below, Torath Chaim, was the last to close in Highland Park and is now in use as an artist’s studio. This Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article shows some interior pictures from more recent years, while some from 1980 are available at the Rauh Jewish Archives of the Heinz History Center.

The former Torath Chaim in 2015.

The former Torath Chaim in 2015.

Others in the area are now, as far as I can tell, private homes.

Former Machsikei Hadas synagogue, now private home (?).

Former Machsikei
Hadas synagogue, now private home (?).

And of course, there is the Union Project a former church now realized as community space for art classes, yoga, gallery shows, and more.

Stained glass window of the Union Project.

Stained glass window of the Union Project.

Highland Park is one of many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh where these transformations are taking place. Neu Kirche is a Northside gallery slated to open soon, housed in a former Methodist Church. There are hotels, restaurants/breweries, and even the Altar Bar and Mr. Small’s Funhouse, where you can catch some decidedly unholy [musical] acts. Depending on where you live, seeking out this type of reuse could be an interesting class activity. What does it say about population changes or religious communities in the area? About changing values within the urban landscape?

Using the built environment like this also encourages students to really consider the meaning and symbolism in the buildings themselves. Does a congregation, in any religion, need a building to create space for worship? Or can the community itself create that space. Judaism answers this with a hard and fast rule–all you need is ten adult Jews to make a space fit for public worship–nothing is said about the state of the building. In other religions, there may be no set number, but the facility is often secondary to the people that would use it. (Are there exceptions to this in certain faiths?)

Generally, I like these examples of creative reuse. In most cases, they allow the buildings to continue to serve as community meeting places and often act as shelters for new projects and new ideas.  But, this could also be a point of discussion among students. Is it right to use old religious buildings for certain purposes (a bar, for example)? Is commercial development in these formerly sacred spaces in poor taste?

Some additional resources I found regarding reusing religious spaces:

  • Partners for Sacred Spaces is an organization dedicated to helping congregations determine what to do with their buildings and how to best preserve them
  • Repurposing Dying Churches by Ministry Matters argues for using development or repurposing as a way to save buildings and congregations–some spaces can be used part-time for worship and part-time for other activities
  • Hagia Sophia, the original example of repurposing. Might be useful in making the point to students that this is not necessarily a new idea.
  • fancy modern architecture version that is just beautiful to look at.
  • And an opposing point of view, if you want to discuss why some people might be against the redevelopment of sacred spaces.
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Spring Rites

The Vernal Equinox has come and past, and although I hear it is still snowing a few states north of here, the buds and blooms around in NC. This year I tried out two new spring rituals–some self-education that will perhaps spill over into the classroom someday.

Homemade hamantaschen.

Homemade hamantaschen.

The first was an attempt at hamantaschen, the traditional cookie of Purim. Celebrated on March 4th and 5th this year, Purim marks when Queen Esther defeated Haman’s plot to kill the Jews of Persia. Apparently what originated as a fairly minor holiday has now developed into something more meaningful, a marker of how so many times throughout history the Jewish people have survived and thrived despite persecution. The celebration itself is joyful–in Jerusalem there is a carnival aspect as people dress up in costume, use noise-makers, and drink and feast. The cookies are meant to represent Haman’s tri-cornered hat. I used the recipe found on Judaism 101 (a wonderful general resource for information on the religion, from an Orthodox perspective), but there are many online. One of my favorite cooking blogs, Smitten Kitchen, has a few different versions–more options to try next year!

Right around this time in my classes, my students were presenting projects on different rituals and holidays in Judaism. Many of them kept showing Sesame Street video clips dealing with Jewish topics that they found online. I had no idea where they came from, but when reading about Purim I found the source: Shalom Sesame. An American version of an Israeli version of Sesame Street, the show aimed to introduce Judaism to kids unfamiliar with Hebrew, the show has a number of famous guest stars and your favorite traditional Sesame Street characters. Apparently, Cookie Monster LOVES hamantaschen!! The clip below was great inspiration for my baking.

The other ritual I took part in was far more spiritual, for me, but was also very much a physical practice. I read that a local Methodist church was setting up a labyrinth during the Lenten season and was opening it up to the public. I’ve always been curious about walking labyrinths: how has the tradition survived since the Middle Ages? What does it represent? How does the physical movement encourage reflection and prayer?

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