Church’s history buried, but not forgotten

The old house on Court Street in Keene is hard to miss.

A stained outline of the Star of David can be seen above the double-doors to the two-story structure.

For years – decades, more likely – the outline of the star that once identified the building as a place of worship was covered by paint.

However, recent renovations to the building at 91 Court St., now office space, reveal that history never goes away, it just sometimes gets buried and forgotten – in this case, by a coat of dark red paint that workers scraped away.

The history here is the house, with its four bay windows and its cupola overlooking the prominent city street. It served as the first permanent synagogue for Congregation Ahavas Achim for about 20 years starting in 1947.

Long-time Ahavas Achim member Jerome J. Weinrieb, of Swanzey, remembers attending services there when he moved to Keene in 1950.

He recalled the grandeur of the old synagogue in a phone interview Monday, and said he planned to drive up Court Street later in the day to see the outline of the Star of David for himself.

"When you walked up those stairs – I think there were about six stairs – you came into this great big hallway with a beautiful mahogany staircase that went up to where the rabbi lived," Weinrieb said.

To the right of the hallway was a small living room with a couch and chairs, and that is where meetings were held, he said. On the right side, he added, was the temple where worship took place.

The congregation, now at 84 Hastings Ave., in the city’s west end, has a more than 100-year history in Keene.

It starts with about 10 Jewish peddlers holding services together every Saturday morning in a clothing store, according to history of the Ahavas Achim written by Michael A. Schuman. The document covers 1887 to 2000.

Before settling on Court Street, the congregation moved around, holding services at various locations around downtown Keene, including at a clothing store, a restaurant and on the fourth floor of a building at the corner of Main and West streets.

Dr. Arthur Cohen, another long-time member of the congregation, said Monday that about 25 families attended the synagogue regularly when it first moved to Court Street.

However, on the high holy days, Jewish people from cities such as Hartford, Conn., New York City and Springfield, Mass., would come up to Spofford Lake and Granite Lake, and would attend services at Ahavas Achim, he said.

The result would be an overflow crowd, which wasn’t always good, he noted.

Cohen, then president of the congregation’s board of directors, called a special meeting in 1966 to discuss building a new synagogue, according to Schuman’s history.

The proposal passed, but by a slim majority, 15 to 12, Schuman wrote.

The congregation then acquired property on Hastings Avenue and set to work fundraising for the new synagogue. The building opened in 1973.

Aaron A. Lipsky, of Keene, said Monday the Court Street building played an important role in the history of the Jewish community in Keene, especially as it was the first place of worship the congregation could call its own.

For him, it’s where he attended many services with his family, Hebrew school and had his Bar Mitzvah.

Like Weinrieb, Lipsky said he planned to drive up Court Street Monday to get a glimpse – and photo – of the outline of the Star of David as a record of what once was.

Meghan Foley can be reached at 352-1234, ext. 1436, or mfoley@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @MFoleyKS.