History and Architecture of Temple House of Israel

History of the Congregation

In the early to mid-1800s, Staunton attracted a number of Jewish merchants.  Main Street (now West Beverley Street) was lined with stores owned by proprietors with names like Cohen, Weinberg, Strauss, and Switzer.  Many of these merchants came from Germany and Prussia, seeking a better life in America.  They ran clothing stores, dry goods stores, jewelry, and furniture stores.

These merchants started meeting in each other’s homes, primarily to help new Jews in the community.  In 1876, under the leadership of Major Alexander Hart, the group decided to form a congregation, which they called Temple House of Israel.

After nine years of meeting in homes, the congregation purchased an old school building at 200 Kalorama Street, diagonally across from the present Hotel 24 South.  The first official meeting of the congregation was held February 1, 1885.  The minutes listed 24 members.  At that meeting, Major Alexander Hart was formally elected president, and other officers were elected.  Dues were assessed at $8.00 per family.  All the temple members pledged to close their places of business by 7:00 P.M. on Fridays in order to attend “Divine Worship Services” at 7:30.

In 1886, the congregation purchased land north of Staunton to be used as a cemetery.  The ground was purchased in June 1886 for $150.00.  The first burial there was in 1887.  This cemetery, on what is now known as North Augusta Street, is still in use today.

The first mention of a religious school was in the minutes of September 1887.  The Board voted to present $5.00 to the “Sabbath School” for books and supplies.  Sabbath School was mentioned again in 1895, as being run by Miss Switzer and Mrs. Josie Loeb on Saturday mornings.  In 1904, the schedule was changed so that the Sabbath School met on Sunday mornings.

The congregation soon outgrew the small building on Kalorama Street.  A lot on North Market Street was purchased from Mary Baldwin College, and the firm of T.J. Collins and Son was engaged to design the new building.  The cornerstone, dated 1925, can be seen to the left of the main entrance on North Market Street and was set by the local Masonic lodge.  Since that time, this building has been in continuous use by the Jewish community.

One notable member of the congregation was Miss Fannie Strauss, who founded the temple’s religious school and taught in it for 45 years.  As Professor at Mary Baldwin College, she taught German, Latin, mathematics, and comparative literature.  Miss Fannie was also treasurer of the temple from 1942-1973, during which time the temple never ran a deficit – Miss Fannie disliked red ink, and made up any shortfall out of her own funds.  She also disliked cars, and up until 1951 drove her horse and buggy through the streets of Staunton.  In those days the temple utilized student rabbis from the New York seminary.  If Miss Fannie felt that the young rabbi’s sermon was below par, she’d reach up in the most ostentatious fashion possible and turn off her hearing aid.

In 1929 the congregation joined the national organization of Reform Jewish congregations, then known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.  It is now the Union for Reform Judaism.

Biography of Major Alexander Hart, Founder of Temple House of Israel

Major Hart’s grandfather, also Alexander Hart, was born in Portsmouth, England.  He and his wife and eight children sailed to America in 1828.  Major Hart’s father, Isaac, was 12 years old at the time.  Grandfather Alexander Hart, a goldsmith and watchmaker, became the cantor at congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City.  In 1836 he re-married a widow who had family in New Orleans, and moved there.  Isaac Hart, Alexander’s father, married Julia Cohen, whose family had also come over from England, in 1838.  Isaac became involved in the retail shirt trade in New Orleans.

Isaac Hart, Alexander’s father, married Julia Cohen, whose family had also come over from England, in 1838.  Isaac became involved in the retail shirt trade in New Orleans.  Eventually he became secretary and then president of Shaarei Chesed congregation.  Isaac also was the vice president of the Association for the Relief of Jewish Widows and Orphans, an organization to help those whose husbands and fathers had died in one of the many yellow fever epidemics that swept through New Orleans.

Alexander Hart was the eldest of the twelve children of Isaac and Julia Hart.  Born in New Orleans in 1839, he started out life as a store clerk.  When war broke out, he joined the 2nd company of the Orleans Cadets, Louisiana Militia.  He was appointed first lieutenant of this company, which later became Company E, 5th Louisiana Infantry, and eventually joined the brigade known as the Louisiana Tigers.

Highlights of Major Hart’s Military Career:

• Victory at Second Battle of Winchester

• Helped push back Union troops at the Battle of Smithfield Crossing

• Captured numerous Union troops at the Battle of Strasburg

• Participated in the Battle of Chancellorsville with Major General Jubal Early’s division at Frederiksburg

Major Hart suffered a serious leg injury at the battle of Antietam.  He was taken to a private house after the battle.  The surgeon said that the leg had to be amputated.  The lady of the house begged the surgeon to wait and give her a chance to nurse Hart back to health, proclaiming, “So young and handsome a man should not lose a leg.”  She did indeed nurse him back to health, and after the war, Major Hart visited his friend every year.  Once during his visit, the lady’s daughter-in-law complained that there was no ham on the table.  Major Hart’s hostess replied, “No, there shall be no ham on my table while my ‘Jewish son’ is here.”

Major Hart was on medical leave for 5 months, returned to participate in the Chancellorsville campaign, was injured again at Gettysburg, and certified as permanently disabled.  However, he demanded a review and rejoined his regiment to participate in the battle of Kernstown.  He was captured in the third battle of Winchester, and released through a prisoner-of-war exchange.

In 1864, Major Hart received orders to take his troops from Richmond through Staunton by train, and then to report to General Early.  This appears to be the only time that Major Hart was in Staunton.

After the War, Major Hart went to Richmond, where he married Leonora Levy and went into the dry goods business with her family.  Later Major and Mrs. Hart moved to Staunton, where he was the founder and first president of Temple House of Israel in 1876.  He was elected president and held that position for 18 years.

Major Hart opened up the Grand Dry Goods Bazaar at 110 West Main Street, now West Beverley Street.  However, his store failed, and in 1893 he turned all the contents of the store over to a trustee, to sell to satisfy his creditors.  He then relocated to Norfolk, and is listed there as working for the A&D Ry Company as a soliciting agent.

Major Hart was active in the Confederate War Veterans, serving as a commander in the Pickett-Buchananan Camp in Norfolk.  He was reported to have led services at the Ohef Shalom temple there when the rabbi was absent.  He died in Norfolk at the age of 76 and was buried there.  His tombstone reads: Major Alexander Hart, 5th La Inf. C.S.A.  Major Hart’s ceremonial sword is now on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

Architecture of the Temple

The story goes that sometime in 1924, Abraham Weinberg, a prominent merchant, stood up in the old Kalorama Street building one day and said, “I’m tired of worshipping in something that looks like a warehouse. I’ll put up half the money for a real synagogue if the congregation will put up the other half.”  He did and they did.  A plot of land was purchased from Mary Baldwin College on North Market Street for $7,150.00 on November 6, 1924.  The cornerstone for the new building was laid in 1925.  The synagogue building was erected for a total cost of $17,000.  The firm of T.J. Collins and Son was engaged to build the temple.

The Collins firm was responsible for many of the historic buildings that comprise downtown Staunton today.  They had already designed a number of other Staunton landmarks such as St. Francis Catholic Church, the Augusta County Courthouse, the National Bank Building, and many others.  The unique design of the building is after the Moorish style.

The stained glass windows were created by the firm of Charles Connick Associates (1912 – 1986).  The studios, based in Boston, had some of the most celebrated stained glass artisans in the country.  They designed the great rose window in the church of St. John the Divine in New York City, as well as over 5,000 commissions for churches, libraries, and hospitals.  All the glass in the temple is original Connick glass.  The windows were fabricated in Boston and shipped down by train to Staunton.  Each emblem in the window represents a fruit or plant that can be found in Israel – olives, grapes, citron, pomegranate, and others.  The total cost of the Connick glass for the building was $700.00 for the sixteen windows and the clear interior screen.

The tiles at the base of the ark were manufactured at the the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

A south bay on the other side of the bimah was added in 1947, and the back of temple was enlarged to make room for a kitchen and small social hall.  These additions were designed by Sam Collins, who had originally designed the temple.  In 1965 the social hall was extended out yet farther, to accommodate the growing religious school.