Since the age of 10, Julian H. Preisler has been consumed by history and architecture. His childhood interests have morphed into a long and prolific career as a researcher and author, with a special focus on synagogue architecture.
Preisler’s latest book, “America’s Pioneer Jewish Congregations” (Fonthill Media), continues his fascination with history, shuls and architecture.
“My parents and grandparents were Holocaust survivors,” says Preisler, 54, a resident of Falling Waters, W. Va. “I have always been interested in the family history and their life in Europe pre-World War II, and their life when they came to Detroit, where I was born.”
Preisler describes himself as a “secular-oriented” Jew raised in Reform and Conservative congregations. As an adult, he has belonged to Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues in the greater Philadelphia area, as well as a Reform temple in Washington, D.C.
He currently has a “non-local membership” with the historic St. Thomas Synagogue in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“One rabbi I knew told me that I knew more about synagogues and Jewish communities than anyone she had ever met,” says Preisler.
Preisler’s early interest in history, Jewish community life and synagogue architecture has resulted in numerous books published over the past two decades, including “Jewish West Virginia” (Images of America) and “Synagogues of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley” (The History Press).
“Buildings fascinate me, and I am drawn to synagogues,” says Preisler. “This is my passion, and it is vital that we document our ‘built’ Jewish environment and share what we find. Placing importance on our past is as vital as the time and energy given to the present and future of our communities.”
“America’s Pioneer Jewish Congregations” is an updated version of Preisler’s earlier book, “Pioneer American Synagogues: A State by State Guide” (Heritage Books), but this time with color and black-and-white photos instead of drawings.
The reason behind the new book, Preisler writes in his introduction, is that “our American Jewish community is diverse, historic, and the second largest in the world. It is always growing and changing. This is one reason why documentation is so important.”
Preisler acknowledges that the book is not meant to be an in-depth look at each congregation, but a means of providing an informal introduction to the history of each shul and to showcase the synagogue buildings in use over the years. Preisler worked on the book for a little more than a year, contacting all the synagogues featured, in addition to libraries and historical societies, both Jewish and secular.
“My favorite synagogues are in the states where I have lived — Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia,” says Preisler.
Preisler describes the book as “part history, travel guide and photograph collection. … Many of the vintage images have never appeared in a publication intended for a wide-reaching audience and help tell the story of the beginnings of organized Jewish religious life all over the country.”
The only state that does not have a photograph included in the book is Indiana, though not for lack of effort on Preisler’s part. “No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get one,” he says. “It was very disappointing.”
Maryland’s entry in the book features the various incarnations of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, which began as Nidche Yisrael in East Baltimore in 1830, served as the original home of the Lloyd Street Synagogue, was located at the Madison Avenue Temple from 1891 to 1951, and has ever since been at its current location at 7401 Park Heights Ave.
Preisler is currently working on his next book, “The Synagogues of Eastern Pennsylvania,” which will be released later this year. His future projects include books dealing with the work of the late Percival Goodman, the American urban theorist who designed more synagogues in the United States than any other architect. Preisler also plans to write about the synagogues of the American South.
Signed copies of “America’s Pioneer Jewish Congregations” are available at jpreisler.com. The book will also be available on Amazon and other online retailers. Preisler’s earlier books are available on Amazon and through Arcadia Publishing/The History Press.
Carol Sorgen is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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