In a time when it’s increasingly difficult to coax people into synagogues, you just can’t keep Julian Preisler out of them.
Preisler, an author and genealogist from Falling Waters, W.Va., simply loves synagogues. He loves their architec- ture; he loves their history.
Most of all, he loves to write about them. In fact, two of his five published books deal with synagogues: One book focuses on synagogue life in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley; the other, in West Virginia.
Now, Preisler is at it again. He’s hard at work on a book about the synagogues of central and western Pennsylvania.
The book, “The Synagogues of Central & Western Pennsylvania: Architecture, History & Community,” has been in the works since January and will contain some 200 photos of shuls in 60 boroughs and cities when it comes out next year.
“If it does well, then they [his publish- er, Charleston, S.C.-based Foothill Media] will want me to do one that covers eastern Pennsylvania. So between those two books, and one I did on the syna- gogues of Philadelphia, that will cover the state pretty good.”
That’s just fine with Julian. The 50- year-old writer is taken with synagogue life in Pennsylvania.
“Pennsylvania fascinates me,” he said. “There seems to be more locations in Pennsylvania that either have synagogues — or, at one time, had synagogues — than places like New York. Clearly, New York has more Jews than Pennsylvania, but they’re concentrated in one area. In Pennsylvania, I’m amazed at all these small towns that either have a synagogue or one time had a synagogue, and they’re spread all over the state.” To research this book, Preisler has depended heavily upon the congregations themselves to provide photos of their houses of worship. Sometimes, he finds volunteers in the communities willing to shoot original footage for him.
And sometimes, he comes across photos of synagogues long since demolished in communities where Jewish life ceased to exist many years ago.
He has also made two visits to western Pennsylvania to research his topic — journeys that led him to the Rauh Jewish Archives of the Senator John Heinz History Center, and to its archivist, Susan Melnick.
“She’s been very helpful,” Preisler said of Melnick. “I’m going to be getting a few synagogue photos from their collections.”
To Melnick, Preisler is writing and compiling about a subject rarely touched upon by authors.
“I think this [book] will fill an important niche,” she said. “In the late 1990s, Rabbi Walter Jacob started a project called the ‘Synagogue Documentation Project’ to identify and describe the buildings that had been synagogues in the small towns of western Pennsylvania.”
However, “much has been lost about the history of the regional small town Jewish communities,” she continued. “We know very little about many of them. Julian Preisler’s book will be a valuable resource for those interested in Jewish life in western Pennsylvania.”
You may think all congregations, when contacted, would be eager to help with this project.
And you would be wrong.
“Some congregations are not at all that enthusiastic about participating,” Preisler said. “Either they don’t have images or they don’t have time. Some congregations you have to send two, three, four emails. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.”
That’s regrettable, he said, since there will inevitably come a time when a congre- gation will want to record its history — for a milestone anniversary, or for its closing.
“It’s much easier to make sure history is saved,” he said. “It’s easier to think ahead than to backtrack.”
Preisler is the first to say, his books are not scholarly works, nor are they intended to be.
“These are books for the general pub- lic to enjoy, for them to learn a little bit. They’re easy to read, they have extensive visual information. I’m not writing the history of each congregation, I’m enclos- ing as much information as I can as to when the congregation was established and when it was built. Was it Reform, Conservative or Orthodox? When did it close? Did it merge with another congre- gation or did it completely disband? [But] it’s not extensive information on each of the congregations.”
The son of Holocaust survivors, Preisler said he comes by his love of Jewish history honestly
“It’s the main reason why I do it,” he said. “My thing is we have no family heirlooms; we have no pictures older than the 1920s; there are only a couple tombstones in Europe for the family. For me I’ve always been interested in this; it’s what drives me.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)