Kennedy: Vine Street property transformed into Jewish spiritual center

Kennedy: Vine Street property transformed into Jewish spiritual center

June 14th, 2018 by Mark Kennedy in Opinion Columns

Rabbi Shaul Perlstein talks about the local orthodox jewish congregation at the 950 Vine Street location in Fort Wood.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Rabbi Shaul Perlstein talks about the local orthodox jewish congregation at the 950 Vine Street location in Fort Wood.

Rabbi Shaul Perlstein talks about the local orthodox...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

At the corner of Vine Street and Central Avenue sits a splendid 104-year-old house — a mansion, really — with a panoramic view of Missionary Ridge.

Civil War officers are said to have watched the battle of Missionary Ridge unfold from the grass-covered knoll, which eventually would be the site of a grand home built by the late Jo Conn Guild, president of Tennessee Electric Power Company and one of the builders of Hales Bar Dam.

About a decade ago, when Rabbi Shaul Perlstein moved here from Chicago with his family to head the Chabad Jewish Center, he mused that one day the center might find a headquarters as majestic as the Jo Conn Guild house in the Fort Wood National Historic District.

"We were driving through the neighborhood and I said, 'Imagine one day if Chabad of Chattanooga was here,'" Rabbi Perlstein recalls, remembering how he gestured to the house.

As fate — or perhaps divine providence — would have it, the property became available in 2014 when the Chabad Jewish Center was looking for a new home for its educational outreach programs and the small Jewish orthodox congregation in Brainerd that it had absorbed. The center is part of the world's largest Jewish education and outreach organization.

The home had formerly been the site of Boyd-Buchanan School in the 1950s, and more recently the Chattanooga Masonic Temple. A real estate listing from 2014 notes that the home sits on 1.6 acres and includes 11,300 square feet, including a meeting space that has been transformed into a synagogue.

About 40 people attend prayer services at the Chabad Jewish Center's synagogue weekly, with up to 180 people gathering for high holy days events, Rabbi Perlstein said. The synagogue contains elaborate woodwork transplanted from the previous synagogue on Pizgah Avenue.

The worshipers trace from the Beth Shalom congregation in Brainerd that endured a bombing in 1977 by white supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin, who was later put to death in Missouri for unrelated crimes. No lives were lost in the nighttime bombing here, but the Beth Shalom structure was ruined, and a tiny new replacement synagogue was built two years later at 20 Pizgah Ave.

The congregation's hand-copied Torah scrolls survived the bombing and remain in the care of the Vine Street congregation today. To some, they represent God's will for the congregation to endure.

The Chabad Jewish Center has become an educational and cultural hub for many of Chattanooga's estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Jews.

While conceding it is hard to be an observant orthodox Jew in Chattanooga — there are no kosher restaurants or bakeries here — the center has a open-door policy for anyone in the faith, Rabbi Perlstein said. As a result, it has a growing reputation for inclusion.

Restoration of the home has progressed nicely in three years. Drop ceilings have been removed to reveal ornate moldings and columns on the first floor. The second floor, which will become the rabbi's residence, still has signs for "Boys" and "Girls" over two of the doorways, a remnant of restrooms from the Boyd-Buchanan school days. The third floor is an old ballroom that will be converted into residency space.

Slowly, the property is transforming from a generic space to its original silhouette as a grand house on a hill. If walls could talk, these would undoubtedly express delight and relief.

"The response of the community has been amazing," said Rabbi Perlstein. "We want anybody to feel comfortable here."

Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645.