The Richmond History Podcast

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Beth Ahabah Museum & Archives

Beth Ahabah,  1109 Franklin St, Richmond, VA photo by Jeff Majer

Stained Glass, Beth Ahabah, photo by Jeff Majer

Today I went to the Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives at 1109 Franklin St. in Richmond, Va's Historic Fan District just west of Virginia Commonwealth University.  They have three galleries. One was about Jewish women.  At the time of my visit it seemed to be mostly art works by Jewish women including a painting by Sally Bowering that was a winner.  One that was about Jews during the Civil War.  I have read a good bit on the Civil War and it just never occurred to me that folks like Judah Benjamin (Confederate Secretary of State & Confederate Secretary of War) were Jewish,  it just never crossed my mind.  One that was donated by the Virginia Historical Society, about the history of Jews in Virginia.  The first is worth seeing if you are there & the other two are worth going for. But the high light of my tour from the delightful Executive Director, David B. Farris, a Jewish convert from Texas, was the actual synagogue.  It is an octagonal building with four columns that are the bases of four arches supporting a domed ceiling.  Around the outside are a variety of stained glass windows.

Stained Glass, Beth Ahabah, photo by Jeff Majer
Stained Glass from Beth Ahabah, photo by Jeff Majer
Beth Ahabah which translates into English as "House of Love", has more than 200 years of history.  They were one of the Jewish congregations that sent a letter to President George Washington asking for reassurance that there would be REAL religious freedom, not just for Christians.  He assured them there would be.  Another rabbi exchanged letters with Robert E. Lee to get his congregants leave for religious holidays and even trying to keep some out of trouble.  They also have a number of* old Torahs, at least one that survived the Holocaust.

Arch of the octagonal Beth Ahabah, Photo by Jeff Majer

Tiffany stained glass window at Beth Ahabah, photo by Jeff Majer

The current building was built in 1844, a time when the location was way outside of the city proper.  St. James Episcopal Church was built in 1912, about a block west on Franklin, and there has been a close partnership ever since.  In 1994, When St James was hit struck by lightening and very badly burned, Rabbi Jack Spiro invited them to have the Sunday church services at the Beth Ahabah.  Farris also told me that the folks from St James wanted to have a Christmas pageant with a live baby as Jesus. When the newborn from St. James became ill, the pageant was a able to have an actual Jewish baby Jesus from the Beth Ahabah congregation.  (Don't worry I asked and there was a Christmas pageant and in a synagogue and no on caught on fact the lightening strike brought them together).
Interior of Beth Ahabah, photo by Jeff Majer

Visit Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives
1109 West Franklin St. Richmond, VA
open to the public Sun-Thurs 10:00am-3:00pm

*I hate when people use the phrase "a number of".  It could mean anything from negative infinity to positive infinity.  In other words it is just a number of words.  I just couldn't remember how many.  I think it was 5-6.

**Sorry these are not the best photos.


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