Cultural anthropologist Alanna Cooper is undertaking a comprehensive study of the objects brought from buildings left behind as Cleveland’s Jewish congregations have migrated from their synagogue buildings in the center of the city to suburban locales.
She was named one of four 2020-21 faculty fellows at Case Western Reserve University’s Freedman Center for Digital Scholarship. Her grant is for a project entitled “Digital Stores of Cleveland Synagogue Dispersion: Moving Pieces of Congregational Life.”
The program is funded by the Freedman Fellows Endowment, established by Samuel B. and Marian K. Freedman.
This year, through a collaborative initiative of the university’s libraries to support campus-wide digital scholarship, the fellowship program will include additional funding provided by the Cleveland Health Sciences Library, the Judge Ben C. Green Law Library and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences’ Lillian and Milford Harris Library.
Cooper, the Abba Hillel Silver chair in Jewish studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said the study of artifacts of Greater Cleveland’s synagogues will take about a year to complete and is part of a larger, national project that will culminate in a book.
She said Cleveland was a natural choice for her, for several reasons. First, she’s here; second, Cleveland’s Jewish community, its size and number of congregations allows for a breadth of study. As part of the study, Cooper will review existing research. Then she will tour current synagogue buildings to learn what each congregation chose to bring with them to their current home. Cooper will establish a database and present findings that congregations may use to refer to as they contemplate relocating.
Cooper discussed the project via email with the Cleveland Jewish News.
CJN: How did you decide to study artifacts and synagogue movements?
Cooper: I’ve always been interested in studying the motion of people and their things. While doing research for my first book, “Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism,” I lived amongst the Jewish communities in Uzbekistan in the 1990s, while they were in the midst of massive movement. Jews lived in that part of the world for millennia, but when the Soviet Union dissolved, they migrated en masse. They took what they could in the suitcases, but left behind their community structures in the landscape. I’ve spent some time in congregations here in the U.S., in the Rust Belt of Western Pennsylvania, and I’ve watched similar processes unfold. I am fascinated by this idea that we are all always in motion, and love to pay close attention to the moments of transition. We build homes and institutional structures that are strong and durable. But our communities and our buildings have life spans, just like we do.
CJN: How will congregations benefit from this research?
Cooper: Generally when synagogues face the prospect of downsizing, merging, relocating or disbanding, they go through the difficult decision-making processes on their own – even though what they are going through is part of a much larger historical and social phenomenon. Using a wide-angle lens, my work is intended to connect the dots. I hope it will allow congregations feel less isolated and help to usher them through the process of change.
CJN: Did the migration of Cleveland’s Jewish community strike you in any particular way?
Cooper: As soon as we moved to the area in 2013 and joined Oheb Zedek Cedar Sinai Synagogue, I was interested to learn about the congregation’s predecessors. I noticed the plaques in our building, which had been moved from previous buildings. I have always been fascinated by this way in which history makes it mark – very literally – in the present.
CJN: How did you decide to study this particular facet of Jewish life in Cleveland?
Cooper: I am currently writing a book about the relationship between congregations and their sacred objects, and the decisions they have to make about what to do with these things as they move, merge, downsize or disband. Cleveland offers a great case study of the congregational movement across the landscape, from the city, to the outer ring of the city and into the suburbs. And with so many famous, and well-documented buildings, designed by some of America’s greatest architects – Eric Mendelsohn, Percival Goodman and Charles Greco – it’s a rich playground for this sort of research.
CJN: Was there a particular moment, building, or story that inspired you?
Cooper: Yes, when The Temple-Tifereth Israel moved to the new building in Beachwood a few years ago, I was interested to learn that they took their (Arthur) Szyk windows with them and designed their chapel to accommodate those windows, where they are a stunning addition. By contrast, when Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple moved to Beachwood in the 1950s, they left their beautiful Tiffany windows behind. In the years following World War II, synagogue architecture was new, modern, forward-looking, and even anti-historical. Synagogues and their architects were keen to unburden from the past. Today, nostalgia is a mark of the times.
CJN: Have you done any similar research?
Cooper: I am working on designing a database, that will be integrated with GIS software to offer a digital study of the movement of Cleveland’s Jewish congregations over space and time. It will also provide a visual study of trends in preserving and relocating synagogues’ sacred bits (such as stained glass windows, Torah arks, and memorial plaques), as the congregations have moved. I am mining the research of Jeff Morris, which he presents in “Haymarket to the Heights” and the work of Arnold Berger, which he presents on his rich website Cleveland Jewish History. My goal is to take the research that they’ve done, add to it, and present it in a way that is visually clear and beautiful, and easy to access and use in the digital space.
Those with information on the movement of particular synagogue objects may contact Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org.