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From Boise

Moving the synagogue

published12 days ago
10 min read

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Editor's note: Today's story was written by Sharon Fisher. It explores Boise's Jewish community and their decision to pick up and relocate a century-old synagogue. Enjoy! - Marissa

We all know how much of a bear moving is, but what if you had to move not just your stuff, but your entire building?

And what if your building was a century-old synagogue?

That’s what happened to the Temple Ahavath Beth Israel synagogue in October, 2003.

Boise’s Jewish history

Boise, and Idaho in general, had a Jewish population fairly early on in its history. In fact, it had two, said Rabbi Dan Fink of Ahavath Beth Israel, who arrived to Boise in 1994.

“For much of the history of Jews in Idaho, there were two congregations,” Fink explained. The first was Temple Beth Israel, at 11th and State Streets, founded in 1895 by German Jews. Members included Moses Alexander, elected Idaho governor in 1915 and who was the first practicing Jewish governor in the United States, and David and Nathan Falk, of the Falk Department Store in Boise.

At the time, 11th and State was the outskirts of town. “I’ve seen pictures,” Fink said. “There were hardly any buildings, there was lots of vacant land, you could see the Capitol in the background.”

The second was founded about 20 years later by Jews moving from eastern Europe. At that point, the German Jewish immigrants had become somewhat assimilated into American life, and their religious approaches were different, so the second group founded its own synagogue, Ahavath Israel, at 27th and Bannock. “So for 80 years, there were two synagogues,” he said.

In 1986, the two congregations merged, forming Temple Ahavath Beth Israel. However, they kept both buildings, with the building on State Street becoming the sanctuary building, while the building on 27th and Bannock became classroom space, Fink said.

The need for space

But by the turn of the century, the community needed more space, Fink said. “We needed more classrooms, a larger hall, and a larger kitchen,” he said. “We knew we needed to build.”

Also, the community wanted to bring its two sites together. “Anything we held at the school felt very separate,” said Rebecca Groves, current vice president and upcoming president of the Temple board of directors, and one of the four co-chairs of the capital committee for the project. “We knew we wanted one location to integrate all of our generations in Jewish activities.”

The problem is that neither site the community owned had room to build. “The synagogue on State Street had two parking places,” Fink said. “That’s what we had.” To get the space the congregation wanted, it would not only have to tear down the existing building, but build a high-rise on the site, which was more expensive, Groves said. The site on 27th and Bannock wasn’t much better.

“Initially, we thought, maybe there’s some property around the synagogue we could buy, so we looked into that,” Groves said. But the Subway next door didn’t want to sell, and a nearby office building wanted more than the congregation could afford.

Conversely, while the organization considered selling the facility and constructing a building somewhere else, it didn’t want to do that, either, Groves said. It had been listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1972, and while that doesn’t restrict an owner from changing or even tearing it down, “we felt we couldn’t do that,” she said. “We felt a connection to the founders who had built the building,” such as Alexander. “That did not seem to honor our past. If we sold it, we knew what would happen – it would turn into a coffee shop or an office building. We wanted to have it continue as a place of worship.”

Fortunately, the congregation had an ace in the hole. At one point, the synagogue had been gifted with several hundred acres in southwest Boise, which it decided not to use for the purpose. “There was no connection,” Groves explained. “We were still trying to be close to downtown and having some sort of connection.”

But the city of Boise had a 13-acre property at the end of the Morris Hill Cemetery. Not only was it right next to the Jewish cemetery, but the land had also been purchased by the same founders who bought the synagogue. “It felt like it was a way of honoring the founding members of Temple Beth Israel and moving forward,” Groves said.

So the board had an assessment done of its property, and of the Morris Hill property, and swapped equivalent values. “We got half that location” – about five acres – “and the city of Boise got several hundred acres in southwest Boise for parks,” Groves said. The property is deed-restricted – the board can’t sell the property for another purpose. “And we agreed, because that’s not what we wanted,” she said.

What about the building?

Once the land was acquired, however, the congregation didn’t want to leave its building behind.

“We could build a new place and leave the old building where it was, but nobody really wanted to do that,” Fink said. “It was a beautiful building and had a place in people’s hearts.”

And then somebody – Groves wasn’t sure who – suggested moving the building instead.

It wouldn’t be the first time. “We’d seen other buildings that had been moved,” Fink said, such as the Bishop’s House, moved from its previous location near St. Luke’s downtown to the Idaho Botanical Garden near the Old Penitentiary, said Paula Benson, board member of Preservation Idaho, in an email message. “Many of the St. Luke’s homes were moved to avoid demolition,” she said. “There was a house that was moved to make way for a parking lot and water retention area in the North End. It was a sandstone house, so it was large and very heavy.”

In addition, several houses were moved from the Central Addition neighborhood in downtown Boise to various locations. “The Fowler house was moved to the North End, and one of the other smaller homes there was dismantled and taken to Atlanta, Idaho,” Scigliano said. “I don’t know if it was ever reassembled, but that was the plan.”

Moving historic buildings is always a mixed blessing for historic preservationists. “When we talk about best practices, it’s always ‘leave it where it is,’” said Dan Everhart, State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) outreach historian for the Idaho Historical Society. “Our historic places benefit from understanding their original context and their original setting. The synagogue was not built in the farm fields of the Bench. It was built in downtown to serve its historic congregation. When we move a place from its location, we sometimes cause irreparable damage. We always say we would rather see a building in its original location.”

In fact, for a building that’s been listed on the National Register, moving it could even remove its designation, Everhart said. “If it’s been moved, it needs an overarching reason why it’s still important,” he said. But the organization consulted with SHPO about how to retain its National Register status, and SHPO was willing to make a justification for the building to retain it, because the project pretty carefully kept all its architectural elements, both interior and exterior. “Despite being in a new location, it had all its features still,” he said.

Historic preservationists are pragmatists as well. “If the alternative is outright demolition and putting it in the landfill, I think anyone would say, ‘a moved synagogue is better than a demolished synagogue,’” Everhart said. “They raised the funds and put in the effort and made the commitment to their historic building. A lot of other religious institutions and congregations never considered relocating.”


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Moving a temple

The next step was finding someone to actually perform the move. “There’s not many people who do it,” Fink said. The board selected a vendor, Pacific Movers. “This is what they do – they move old buildings,” he said.

“They worked on the Titanic movie,” Groves said. “We thought, ‘If they can do things for that, maybe they can do it for us.’” It was also a local company, she added.

But it was a complicated process. “First, they took out the windows,” Fink said, including the synagogue’s classic Moorish rose window. (The windows were later restored in a separate project for $137,000, completed in 2012.)

Next, the building was largely wooden frame, but the lower portion of it was Boise sandstone. “So they cut the wood off from the stone, took the stones apart, numbered them, and put them back together on the new site,” Fink explained.

During that point, the board got a phone call. The workers disassembling the foundation had just found something beneath one of the stones at the entrance. It turned out to be a time capsule nobody had known about. “There was no record of this, no way you would know it was there unless you had moved the stones,” Groves said. The group agreed to wait to open it until the night of the move.

Only the wooden frame building was moved as a whole, but even that was an elaborate process, as choreographed as a ballet.

“Moving buildings is not really common, as it is labor-intensive, specialized work, and costly,” Scigliano said. “Especially as Boise has grown and our trees have matured, the routes for moving become more difficult. I have been told that it’s not the distance, but the obstacles that make a move challenging. You have to take down power lines, trim trees, close roads, etc. Even with that, damage can be done to the building and to items and buildings on the route.”

“They do it in the middle of the night, because otherwise it would be a big traffic jam,” Fink said. “We left about 1 in the morning, and it took about five hours, so we got to the new site around 6 a.m.” The building actually left an hour later than expected, because it was the first day back to standard time after Daylight Saving Time.

In the meantime, the group opened the time capsule. “It was interesting random things,” Groves said. It included a list of people who donated, such as not only Alexander and the Falks, but also Levi Strauss of blue jeans fame. “They had reached out to prominent Jews in the region,” she said. It also included newspaper articles and a collection of coins from a variety of countries. “We cannot figure out, to this day, what the significance was,” she said.

Finally, the time came to start. A ceremonial ram’s horn, the shofar, was blown, and the building started on its three-mile journey to its new home.

As the building crept through downtown, it wasn’t alone. “At differing times there were from 500 to 1,000 people,” Fink recalled. “We had a band that played. It was a festive night. It was also very cold,” he added.

The building rounded the corner of Americana and Latah past the cemetery just as the sun was coming up, Groves said.

Once at its new site, the process wasn’t done. “It’s not like we were in it three days later,” Fink said. “It took six months of putting it back together at the new site.” In the meantime, the congregation met at the nearby All Saints Episcopal Church.

The move also meant the organization could modernize the building, such as by installing a sprinkler system and making the facility handicapped-accessible, Fink added.

The final cost? “I want to say about $170,000, but I don’t remember exactly,” Fink said. “It was kind of a wash because the YMCA purchased the site where the building was, and the money we sold it for paid for the move.”

The synagogue today

Would the congregation do it again? “We’ve never had any regrets about taking the building with us,” Fink said. “To me, it’s a much happier building in its current site. When we moved it, the building had gotten encroached upon – Subway had opened a restaurant and we had a sign on the front lawn. When we moved it out here, it was more like its original setting. It had room to breathe.”

Since the move, the congregation has probably close to doubled, Fink said. The synagogue is still large enough to hold the congregation most of the time, except during the fall holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but now the overflow can gather in the large community hall, he said. Previously, the congregation had to meet in a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stakehouse on Bogus Basin Road during the High Holidays, he said.

“What we wanted was our community to be in one place and continue to have a historic building used as a place of worship,” Groves said. “In that, we have succeeded.”

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Marissa

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This story was written by Sharon Fisher. Sharon is a digital nomad specializing in history and tourism. Check out her book out about the history of Kuna, Idaho. You can read more of her work here.

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