This Louisville Synagogue Is Desperate Not To Be A Landmark
When Anshei Sfard became a local landmark, its congregation despaired.
In March, the Louisville Landmarks Commission voted 5-4 to preserve the 70-year-old building, the last non-Hasidic Orthodox synagogue in the state. The vote came after nearly two-and-a-half hours of testimony. A primer on mid-century modern architecture was offered. The synagogue’s lawyer argued that the building was neither historically significant nor beautiful.
But the real issue — the one issue the Landmarks Commission can’t legally consider — is money. That’s because a landmark designation would sink Anshei Sfard’s plan to sell its property and re-establish its 40-odd-member congregation closer to downtown.
“A vote yes to make it a landmark would mean impending doom for the synagogue,” Anshei Sfard’s leader, Rabbi Simcha Snaid said at the meeting.
Now, the congregation’s fortunes may be changing. Next week, Louisville’s city council will likely overturn the landmark status — its planning committee has already voted in favor of doing so. But the saga of Anshei Sfard is only superficially about the value of mid-century modern synagogue architecture. To the community, it’s about the future of Jewish Louisville — and one former member’s personal vendetta against Anshei Sfard. To that former member, it’s about historical preservation. To observers, it’s kind of a mess.
“This is a complicated legal, political, and personal case,” said Brandon Coan, the city councilman who represents Louisville’s most heavily Jewish district. “It’s a really weird sort of a situation to understand — without even getting to the merits of if this building is historically or culturally important.”
”There’s a good future there”
Anshei Sfard is one of the oldest communities in Louisville, founded in 1893 as a Sephardic Hasidic community, according to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. First located in the city center, the congregation was forced to move in 1950 when the city unveiled plans to build a new freeway through their block.
It bought a plot of land across from the Jewish Community Center in the Highlands section of Louisville, a suburban district that runs east from near the city center out to the city’s “beltway,” Interstate 264. The area has been the center of Jewish life in Louisville since the postwar period.
Now, however, the thinning Jewish population of about 8,500 is being pulled in two directions: farther east, where two popular Reform synagogues now stand; and back towards the increasingly popular neighborhoods around downtown. Like many other Midwestern Jewish communities, Louisville — whose Jewish population peaked at about 14,000 in 1937 — has lost numbers as younger generations have left for Chicago and coastal cities. Anshei Sfard is also one of any number of synagogues across the country being forced to sell their buildings as a dwindling membership makes it impossible to fully use or afford them.
Anshei Sfard is the last Modern Orthodox community in Kentucky. Chabad now largely has a monopoly on Orthodox life in the city: In the last few years, they’ve opened three new “houses,” a learning education center and a small day school. The JCC recently considered abandoning its current location and heading ten miles east, effectively betting on the Reform community.
That plan has been shelved. The JCC is staying put. It’s going to overhaul and expand its home of over sixty years, across the parking lot from Anshei Sfard. This year, the JCC signed a contract with Anshei Sfard to purchase its land and likely demolish its building in the process of redeveloping. Of course, they can only do that if the city overturns the landmark designation.
Snaid, who has been at the synagogue since 2016, says that, without a sale, the synagogue will run out of money in about two years. (“We’re going through our endowment fund like Sherman went through Atlanta,” Anshei Sfard’s former president of the synagogue said in 2015.) Currently a few dozen members are paying $750 in yearly dues. They’ve already moved services to a small, low-ceilinged room in the Shalom Tower condominium complex behind the synagogue, to save money on facilities costs.
In the months before the JCC contract, the synagogue twice came close to selling the property to developers from other states, though both deals fell through. Snaid says that, ideally, selling the property would allow them to build a modest new space closer to downtown, and thereby gain some new members.
“There’s more housing options, younger families are moving there,” he said. “There’s a good future there.”
”Anything that he can do to bring down the shul”
The main person holding them up happens to be someone who was raised there, Avram Kahn. Kahn, a concert promoter whose parents were also members at the synagogue, says he fiercely believes that its building is a significant piece of architecture worth preserving. Over the winter he got over 200 signatures on a petition to bring the synagogue’s building before the Landmarks Commission. He compared the synagogue’s presumed fate to the forced demolition of Anshei Sfard’s first location.
“Are we really going to allow the city of Louisville to again tear down an iconic Jewish structure and destroy a neighborhood?” he told the Forward.
But community members — including synagogue leaders, JCC representatives and Anshei Sfard congregants — believe that Kahn’s challenge is actually a personal vendetta against the synagogue. In 2016 he joined in a lawsuit against the synagogue over what he and three other members claimed were improper payments to an outgoing rabbi. (The suit was dismissed, according to a letter from Anshei Sfard’s lawyer to the Louisville planning department.) He also attempted to bring the synagogue before a local religious court over the payments and after the synagogue hired an interim leader who did not have a rabbinic ordination.
“His intentions throughout have been clearly personal attacks on people in the shul, and anything that he can do to bring down the shul are his intentions,” Snaid said, adding that none of Anshei Sfard’s members is in favor of landmarking the building.
But Kahn insists that the current dispute is separate from the previous ones.
“The landmarking has to do with the landmarking,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the ownership or the management of the synagogue. This is attempting to preserve Jewish history in this city.”
Brad Farb, a frequent Anshei Sfard attendee who grew up with Kahn, says he thinks Kahn’s crusade is about his own family connection to the synagogue.
“There’s a lot of family tradition involved,” Farb said. “He would like to preserve the site where he grew up.”
“There’s been a lot of animosity toward him because he hasn’t taken into consideration the practicality of the situation,” Farb added.
”Nothing more than a mundane, mid-century building”
As far as the landmarking dispute goes, the issue — at least nominally — is whether the synagogue’s building is unique and worth preserving. It’s built in the simple, low-slung style of mid-century modern synagogues throughout the Midwest. A report compiled in March by the Louisville landmarks commission tepidly concluded that, though the building remains much as it was when it was built, it is still only “typical” of postwar architecture, and “does not appear to be individually distinctive” — part of the criteria for landmarking stipulated in Louisville’s code of ordinances.
“No known significant historic events are associated with this site,” the report added.
Lee Shai Weissbach, a professor emeritus of the University of Louisville, agreed with the report’s findings.
“On the one hand, you would say it’s a good example of mid-century, functional architecture,” said Weissbach, author of the 1995 book “The Synagogues of Kentucky: Architecture and History.” “On the other hand, it’s just an example, and there’s a handful of others.”
The discussion before the Landmarks Commission was eclectic. Two speakers – one on each side of the resolution – cited their parents’ statuses as Holocaust survivors in making comments. One person made a presentation on the Jewish symbols in the synagogue’s well-known stained glass windows. Donald Cox, Anshei Sfard’s lawyer, argued that, on the basis of the First Amendment, religion should have no place in the commission’s decision-making process. He added, “This building is nothing more than a mundane, mid-century building.”
But the commission voted in favor of landmarking, deciding largely on the architectural value of the synagogue, and sidestepping the issues of religious civil liberties and the stated financial needs of the congregation.
”The fight will continue”
In July, Jon Fleischaker, the executive director and board chairman of the Jewish Community of Louisville, an umbrella organization that runs the local JCC and the Federation, sent letters to city council members urging them to overturn the ordinance. He said that it should be overturned both for the congregation’s sake and because he believes the building is of “no architectural significance.”
“Under no circumstances do I agree with the philosophy that says, ‘Save the building but kill the congregation,’” Fleischaker told the Forward.
Fleischaker said that though the JCC is contracted to buy the property if the landmarks designation is overturned, they don’t yet have a plan for what to build on the parcel. That prospect worries Kahn. Kahn also said he’s concerned that Anshei Sfard has not unveiled a plan for its hypothetical new building.
“They say, basically, ‘Trust us,’ and there’s no set plans to basically verify what they’re doing,” Kahn said. “It seems very childish.”
Kahn wondered why the building’s exterior could not be preserved while the interior is renovated. Fleischaker said that trying to preserve the building “takes away a lot of options.”
“We’re not looking to rehab, we’re looking to build,” Fleischaker said.
Kahn still insists that he thinks there is a way for the synagogue building to be preserved and for the congregation to have its own space. But he and his lawyer, Steve Porter, are vague about why Anshei Sfard’s building should be preserved when its congregation insists it cannot survive without funding from the sale of the property. Kahn said that it is against halakha, or Jewish law, to use a former synagogue site for secular purposes. But the JCC wants to buy the land, and the Orthodox Union, which decides matters of Jewish law for much of the Orthodox world, sent the Landmarks Commission a letter opposed to the landmark designation.
“Whether it is an active Orthodox congregation is probably just a little less important than it being remembered as a prime example of Jewish culture and heritage,” Porter told the Forward
Brandon Coan, the city council member, who is Jewish, pointed to a local independent Jewish fund that could help solve the situation. Last September, the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence, a local not-for-profit, traded its co-sponsorship of a local hospital network in exchange for $150 million. The influx of funds brought the group’s total assets to a quarter billion dollars. Coan said that some of that money could go to buying the Anshei Sfard property. (One of the previous potential buyers of the property reportedly offered $3.9 million.)
“This Jewish community shouldn’t have to have a fight like this to figure out how to both preserve the property and keep the community alive,” Coan said. “We have the resources to preserve all of our assets and preserve our survival.”
In the meantime, the fight has turned undeniably personal.
“This is just round four of Avram Kahn trying drive a stake in the heart of Kentucky’s last Orthodox synagogue,” said Cox, Anshei Sfard’s lawyer. “He’s tried everything else, and now he’s failing on this.”
“I don’t want anything to be written that makes it seem like his intentions are pure, because it’s nothing of the sort,” said Snaid.
“I don’t consider attempting to save a piece of Jewish history in Louisville a vendetta,” Kahn said. “I’m a hero to many people. And the fight will continue.
“It’s not over until somebody quits. And we’re not quitting.”