Cooper: B'nai Zion tapestry is 125

Cooper: B'nai Zion tapestry is 125

December 1st, 2012 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

The tapestry of B'nai Zion congregation in Chattanooga weaves in peddlers, a torah-rescuing hero, Moorish, Roman and contemporary synagogues and modern egalitarian leadership.

That's some of what Barry Parker will tell his fellow members tonight as the Jewish synagogue celebrates the beginning of its 125th anniversary, or quasquicentennial, with a gala banquet tonight.

The evening also will include member Reuben Dubrow talking about B'nai Zion's leadership through the years, current president Michael Dzik discussing the Brainerd congregation's future and member Joel Susman talking about the B'nai Zion's order of a colorfully illustrated torah.

The congregation, which is Conservative in tradition, offers traditional worship but is responsive to the needs of the modern era, says Parker.

"[The Conservative tradition] realizes the flexibility to adapt," he says.

B'nai Zion was chartered in 1888, according to a timeline on the congregation's website.

Many of the first Eastern European Jews who immigrated to Chattanooga were peddlers, and they would travel to then-rural communities such as Tyner or Soddy-Daisy, Parker says.

"They would buy goods on consignment from a [downtown] wholesaler and go out and walk from farm to farm and bring goods to the farmers' wives," he says.

Not only did they bring needed items such as cloth, needles, thread and cookware, Parker says, they also brought the local gossip -- what was happening in the community.

His own local ancestors were peddlers, he says, and like many others, as they made a little money, they opened their own retail establishments. His began mom-and-pop grocery stores.

Many retail stores on Main Street and West Ninth Street (now M.L. King Boulevard) were headed by early B'nai Zion members, Parker says. Among early members, he says, was onetime peddler Robert Siskin, whose sons, Mose and Garrison Siskin, were area philanthropists and helped build Siskin Steel and Supply Co. into one of the largest steel distribution companies in the South.

One who came slightly later was Mose Lebovitz, who operated several local movie theaters before going into commercial and shopping center real estate. His successor company, Chattanooga-based CBL & Associates Properties, is one of the largest mall developers in the country.

The physical history of B'nai Zion includes three sites on Carter Street, two of them second-floor halls, according to Parker. When one of those caught fire, he says, Talmudic scholar Louis Slabosky rushed into the flames to rescue its Torahs.

In 1902, he says, the congregation built a synagogue at 14th and Carter streets. The long-gone building, he says, had twin cupolas made of tin and reflected a Moorish influence.

"It was an impressive and unusual building for the city," Parker says. "It was kind of a proclamation that B'nai Zion was here to stay."

The congregation's next home, dedicated in 1931 at the corner of Vine and Mabel streets, was a tall, Romanesque building with stone steps that led up to three walnut doors, he says. High above the doors was a large star of David, signifying it was a Jewish house of worship, he says.

Flanking the doors, according to Parker, were two seven-candle, copper menorahs. Those menorahs, he says, now stand at the rear of the congregation's contemporary synagogue off McBrien Road.

In 1984, under the leadership of Rabbi Richard Sherwin, B'nai Zion began permitting equal roles in service and leadership for men and women, he says.

"It was an important and welcome step," says Parker.

That egalitarian step was important, he says, because it paved the way for the hiring of Chattanooga first female rabbi, Susan Tendler, who came "with a lot of energy and ideas" earlier this year to lead the congregation.

Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooper CTFP.