tree of life art2 reversed   B’er Chayim

Yom Rishon, 1 Kislev 5775

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   B'er Chayim Temple           Growing Up Jewish in Cumberland

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dedication page31928 Interior

After nearly 11 months, members of B'er Chayim Congregation have returned
home to their remodeled and renovation building. While they were gone,
this 147 year old building underwent major changes, going from a barely
handicapped accessible building to one that will accomodate most needs.  A ramp was built,
an elevator installed and handcapped first floor restroom facilities added.  T
he entire building was rewired, necessitating taking most walls back to plaster and lath. 
New lighting, a new kitchen, remodeled second floor bathrooms, and
new heating and cooling
equipment were installed. 

 

 

ber chayim sanctuary2013 Interior - Before Renovations2014 renovated sanctuary 22014 Interior - After Renovations

 

Probably the most significant change took place in the sanctuary though, where a mid 20th century stark white decor gave way to painted and decorated walls and ceilings, mimicing the historical paint scheme found under layers of protecive canvas in the sanctuary during renovations.  Decoration on the ark, courses of paint following horizontal features and curving around the stained glass windows..all have combined to provide a restful, contemplative space.


 

As the oldest continuously operating synagogue in Maryland, and one of the oldest
continuously synagogues in the United States, we take very seriously
our place in Jewish history. We honor the perseverance of earlier generations
and look forward to the next chapters of our congregation's future.

 

Rededication Weekend Nov 7-9, 2014

How we got to this point

By 1853, twelve Jewish families were known to be in Cumberland, which then had a population of 6,510. This was enough to warrant the establishment of a congregation, and on May 23 of that year the Maryland Legislature passed an act incorporating “Baair Cheiim” (Well of Life) Congregation.  For nearly 15 years, services were held at various locations in and around Downtown Cumberland.  In 1865 a ground lot was obtained on the corner of South Centre St. and Union Street. Prominent local contractor John B. Walton was joined by other local craftsmen, and B’er Chayim was completed in 1867 at a cost of $7,427.02.

In 1899, the congregation purchased the lot adjoining the rear of the temple and built a building to be used as a parsonage. This building has served many purposes, from a parsonage to a social hall for temple members, from offices for the local Board of Education to its current use as Rabbi’s office and Sunday School.

Over the years, many renovations took place. Gas lights replaced by electric, staircases changed, the bimah enlarged, the 1882 organ replaced in 1908 and again in 1924, pot-bellied stove replaced by furnaces,  a kitchen addition on the first floor, and a new front entrance were just a few changes.  Records indicate major renovations in the 1920s, culminating with the Diamond Jubilee in 1928. Another major renovation period in the early 1950s, benchmarked by the 100th anniversary in 1953, saw installation of memorial stained glass windows.  Unfortunately, many of the decorative changes which took place over the years were not well documented, leaving us with very few photos and little information. We learned more about the structural and decorative changes during our recent renovations than we had previously known.

Feldstein-Ridgway bequest and step one

In 2009, B’er Chayim was the beneficiary of a generous bequest from the John Ridgway and Sara (Feldstein) Ridgway Trust.  Sara had grown up in Cumberland and even though she moved to the west coast with her husband John, she maintained a fondness for Cumberland.  The only restriction was that the funds were to be used on our building.  For the next two years plans were discussed, meetings held, and professionals consulted.  A decision was made to start with the exterior of the building, which had several structural issues. On September 1, 2011 scaffolding was unloaded, and the process of safely removing the decades of  cream colored lead paint began. Along the way we replaced the roof, re-landscaped the exterior, restored the 150 year old wrought iron fence, repaired wood trim, repointed the entire building, and replaced weathered lexan window covers with tempered glass. During this time, the congregation continued to meet in B’er Chayim despite the amount of dirt that seemed to filter in through the bricks. By January of 2012 the exterior was considered finished, and the building committee’s attention turned to the interior.

B’er Chayim was honored by the State of Maryland
with the 2012 Maryland Preservation Award
for Excellence in Institutional Rehabilitation.

Step two - the inside

On December 19, 2013 Harbel Construction began the contract to renovate B’er Chayim’s interior. The basics to be covered were updating electrical systems throughout, providing handicapped accessibility by ramping, installing a new bathroom, installing an elevator (made possible by funding from the Leonard and Jane Schwab Jewish Life Fund, and Doug Schwab and Betsey Hurwitz-Schwab), updating the kitchen and building a new staircase to the choir loft. To do this we had to vacate the building and remove all of the furnishings. A temporary home for our worship services was found at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall in Cumberland, and our furnishings went into storage.  We anticipated being out of the building for six months.  In reality it was eleven months before we were able to return.  It took so long because of the surprises weuncovered as we moved through the renovation timeline.round stained glass window

Surprises we encountered

Surprise #1:  When the pit was dug for the elevator it was learned that the first four courses of rock in the original foundation had no mortar between the rocks which lead to the structural cracking found in that corner of the building. The foundation corner was strengthened allowing the elevator shaft to progress.

Surprise #2: As the repair of the ark wall was beginning, we uncovered two symmetrical areas of plaster high on that wall.  Behind the plaster two round windows were found, one of which still had most of the stained glass intact. No one knew about these windows and understandably so...the windows were original to the building in 1867, but the congregation intentionally built on the adjoining lot in 1899, using the common wall between them.  The assumption is that the windows were bricked up and covered at that time, since no light could come through them. The salvageable window was restored and is on display.
round stained glass window











Surprise #3: 
While repairing the walls and ceilings in the
sanctuary, workers found that canvas covered all the surfaces.  The canvas served two purposes.  While it covered gaps and
unevenness in the original plaster work, it also acted as an early historic preservationist tool. Beneath it were painted decorations; courses of stripes that encircled the windows, traveled over the ceiling and around the focus wall in front of the sanctuary.  Up until this point we only had two photos of the sanctuary showing such decorations - in the 1928 Jubilee Anniversary book and the 1953 100th Anniversary book.

Professional preservationists came in to analyze the paint and found still more surprises.  The striping beneath the canvas
covered a stronger, bolder decoration from the mid-nineteenth century.  Amazingly, the shadow of still earlier decoration was discovered.  This decoration was comprised of sectioned circles, painted in red, with rows of dots below it.  These were framed with horizontal bars.

Even more surprises were in store when the paint covering the ark was analyzed.  Built by Baltimore furniture makers in the 1860s, the ark was originally a dark stained wood with courses of darker woods picking out the details. Paint analysis showed that nine layers of paint covered the original stained wood.  Each layer reflected the changing taste of the congregation through the end of the 19th to the mid 20th century. These consisted of shades of cream, blue, lots of gilding, and even marbleization on the columns of the ark.


In the mid 20th century however, the sanctuary was painted stark white - matching the taste of the time for clean lines and no unnecessary decoration.  Only the most senior members of our congregation could remember a time when the walls were not plain and unadorned.  The findings of the historic preservationist were documented, video footage was filmed, and an extensive library of nearly daily photos was kept for our archives.  (Albums of the weekly restoration progress can be found on our Facebook page.)

The current congregation was surprised by these historic findings and needed to find a balance between honoring the decorative past and the taste of the early 21st century.  Many paint designs and color schemes were proposed and rejected.  Finally a compromise design and color scheme was accepted, and the restoration work in the sanctuary continued.  A large section of the original painted wall was left uncovered and available for viewing by congregants and visitors.

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