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Willson Avenue Temple (Tifereth Israel) 1894 - 1924


In use since 1894, The Temple on East 55th Street and Central Avenue (originally known as The Willson Avenue Temple) is our oldest still-standing Cleveland synagogue building.

Never having been in the building I asked its owner, Friendship Baptist Church, to let me know when it would be open for a visit. They called a few days ago and invited me to visit this morning before services. They were welcoming a family reunion group -- the Rabbi Moses Gries and Frances Hays Gries Family Reunion. Some members of the group can be seen in my photos of the sanctuary.

As I was leaving, church members, men and women of all ages, began to arrive for the morning service. I sensed energy, fellowship and devotion in this building that once had been the spiritual home of more than a thousand Jewish families.

Arnie Berger  Sunday September 2, 2018

To see Cleveland's oldest still-standing synagogues click here.

In 1850 Tifereth Israel (Glory Unto Israel), Cleveland's second-oldest congregation, built its first home on Huron Road and Miami (now East 6th) Street downtown. It was known as the Huron Road Temple. In 1861 they expanded the building.

The congregation, with more than 100 member families, most having moved east of downtown, built a much larger building on Central Avenue and East 55th (before 1907 named Willson Avenue). It was dedicated in September 1894.

The architect, Israel Lehman, a member of the congregation, had already designed a synagogue for Anshe Chesed in 1887 (Scovill Avenue Temple) and would in 1912 design another for Anshe Chesed (the Euclid Avenue Temple.)

For a while newspapers called the congregation "the Willson Avenue Temple", though soon they would refer to it as "The Temple," the congregation's English name.

Moses Gries, named rabbi of Tifereth Israel in 1892, officiated here. Only 10 years after the move to this building he told the congregation that it was time to move to a new building. (More on this below.)  Gries resigned in 1917 and was followed by Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.

In 1924 The Temple moved to Ansel Road, near University Circle and sold the old building to Mount Zion Congregational Church, now located on Magnolia Drive in University Circle. In 1940 the Friendship Baptist Church bought the building.

Below: The exterior: from an old picture postcard

Looking southeast. The streetcar is headed north on Willson Avenue, renamed East 55th Street in 1906.

In these pre-automobile days, streetcars were the main way to get places. This was a prime location: the intersection of two lines, one east-west, the other north-south. By 1894 nearly all street cars were powered by electricity.

The eastern building, 5600 Central Avenue, held the classrooms, offices and a large library.

East 55th would become a street with many Jewish institutions, including B'nai Jeshurun Congregation, which also stands. One of the new apartment buildings in the neighborhood can be seen in the lower left corner of the postcard.

Below: The view from Central Avenue   (taken 9/06/18 by A Berger)

It is the last building standing on Central Avenue between East 55th and East 58th streets. Once home to upscale apartment buildings, the street is now barren. A man with a large bag that may hold his clothes sits at the front door. That red door, with its address 5600 Central, led to offices, to classrooms for one of the nation's largest Sunday schools, and to a library said to be one of the largest congregational libraries.

Below: The front of the sanctuary   (taken 9/03/18 by A Berger)

This organ may have been new, but it was not the  congregation's first. It had installed one in 1861 when the Huron Road Temple was remodeled. The individual seats on the lower level could hold 800 persons. The balconies would seat 200 more. The congregation faced south. Reform rabbis would say there is no imperative to face east when praying; God is everywhere. Further, our Jewish bible includes examples of praising the Lord with music and song and does not require men to cover their heads when praying.

Below: The rear of the sanctuary   (taken 9/03/18 by A Berger)

The balcony runs along the northern and western walls of the sanctuary. Who sat in the balcony? Anyone. The Temple had adopted mixed (family) seating in 1861. Many seats in the lower level were "owned" by members. The sale of seats was a practice that allowed many congregations to erect new buildings without mortgages.


The Plain Dealer praises the "New Jewish Temple"

  A story that ran on the front page of the Plain Dealer of Saturday, September 22, 1894 and continued on the second page began "SPLENDID" and contained the highest praise.

The main speakers were:

  • Martin A. Marks
    41 years old. Born in Madison, WI. Insurance executive, community leader. Married to a daughter of banker Kaufman Hays. President of The Temple, he  had hired Rabbi Moses Gries.
  • Rabbi Moses J. Gries
    26 years old. Born in Newark, NJ. Temple rabbi since 1892. In 1898 he would marry Frances, youngest daughter of Kaufman Hays, and become a brother-in-law of Martin Marks. Ordained by the Hebrew Union College, founded by Rabbi I. M. Wise.
  • Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise
    75 years old. Born and ordained in Germany. Rabbi of a large Cincinnati congregation. The great organizer of Reform Judaism which he saw as American Judaism. Editor of the newspaper American Israelite.
  • Rabbi Michaelis Machol
    49 years old. Born in Germany. In 1869 ordained in a moderate seminary in Breslau and just awarded his PhD, came here to pulpits in Leavenworth KS, then Chicago. In 1876 he became rabbi of Anshe Chesed, Cleveland's first synagogue, on Scovill and East 25th.

Read the Plain Dealer story    page 1 (pdf)       page 2 (pdf)

 Why, after only ten years, did Rabbi Gries want The Temple to move?

He wanted a larger sanctuary

He voiced his concern that the congregation had grown so large its sanctuary could no longer seat all members and their adult children. Very likely The Temple began to hold multiple services during the High Holy Days.

He may also have wished to move to be near the homes of the members. Around 1880 Cleveland began to grow rapidly. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were pouring into the low cost places in the older neighborhoods. Housing was expanding, but in areas far from the central city.

Temple members were moving east, to new apartments along Euclid Avenue, to the Hough area, and then to streets near University Circle.  The 1900 US census shows Moses and Frances Gries living nearly 40 streets east of The Temple, on Oakdale (East 93rd) Street.

Glenville and Kinsman are not yet a major part of this narrative. It would not be until the late 1910s that Jews born in Eastern Europe and their children would begin to move northeast to Glenville or southeast to Kinsman - Mt Pleasant.

Cleveland population 1840 - 1930 
Source:   R. Exner 

September 13. 2018

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