Nu York, New York: Visiting My Former Shul

I have devoted a great deal of my time and energy to researching, photographing and writing about “lost synagogues” throughout New York City, nearby suburbs, and much of New Jersey. I am fascinated by the bittersweet study of former shul buildings that have become re-purposed. I have visited about 350 such sites, and gone inside at least a quarter of these buildings.
Many of these buildings now house congregations of other religions, primarily Christian churches, but also a small number of Buddhist and Hindu temples and a few mosques. Some of these buildings retain a great deal of exterior and interior Judaica; some very little or none. Some of these buildings are in fine shape while others are woebegone.
Until I was six-and-a-half, my family and I attended Shaare Torah, a Conservative congregation in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Located at East 21st Street and Albemarle Road, this early 1950s building was and is handsome and in fine shape. The front features the shul name rendered in a dark metal sculpture, designed by the noted artist Ludwig Wolpert. But while the building still features this sign as well as decorative menorahs outside and inside, it is now Salem Missionary Baptist Church. In 1979 Shaare Torah merged with the East Midwood Jewish Center, my congregation since 1971.
The old Shaare Torah building is an easy drive north of my house and I pass by a few times each year. This past Sunday I visited inside for the third or fourth time in the past decade. Whenever I have stopped by, people are courteous and like to show me around. This time I noticed, with a chuckle, that there were Christmas decorations placed around and inside, such as fabric bows, pine wreaths and colored balls.
Antoinette, a member of the church, brought me around and introduced me to several people, offered me breakfast in the social hall (I took a cup of coffee), and asked me for my memories of the building. She and a few other members told me about how they had done fundraising to keep the building in good shape, and about problems they had with one stained glass window from the synagogue days. In fact, that window, of a Magen David, had been removed because the lead parts had warped and buckled. (I remember that window and do hope that someday they can repair it…or offer it to a Jewish organization for preservation.)
Overall I was pleased to be given this tour and the parishioners were enthusiastic about meeting with me. To some of you, this may seem like a very sad story: a Jewish woman is walking around in a church? The building had been a synagogue but now it is a church? I look at it differently. Yes, it is bittersweet that this shul morphed into a church. But that’s New York City’s demographic changes for you. So here I was, a white middle-aged Jewish woman, being greeted cheerfully by a mixed-age group of African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans. We wished each other a happy (secular) New Year. Building bridges.