Ever noticed the regal, four-columned synagogue nestled on the outskirts of VCU? That’s the home of congregation Beth Ahabah — and there may be more history to it than you realize.
When the congregation was founded in 1789, Richmond had a population of around 3,700. Of those Richmonders, only 100 were Jewish — mostly Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal. Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome (Congregation Holy House of Peace) was only the sixth Jewish congregation in the US. In 1791, Beth Shalome was one of four congregations nationwide to receive a letter from then-President George Washington.
The congregation built its first synagogue in 1822, a small brick building at 115 Mayo Street — roughly where I-95 runs along 14th Street today. By 1841, Richmond’s Jewish community had grown enough that Ashkenazi members of Beth Shalome decided to form their own congregation, and congregation Beth Ahabah (House of Love) was born.
Throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction, a significant portion of Richmond’s Jewish population left the South entirely. By 1898, numbers had dwindled enough that the two congregations decided to merge again, now as Beth Ahabah.
The congregation’s current home at 1121 W. Franklin St. was built in 1904. The building was notable — then and now — for its Byzantine style and the proscenium arch rising from the head of the sanctuary. The elaborate paintings on that arch were added in 1913, funded by the congregation’s Ladies Auxiliary. The sanctuary was also noted for its use of an electric light bulb for its Ner Tamid (Eternal Light), considered a significant innovation for 1904.
Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) begins at sundown on Friday, Sept. 15. Whether you’ll be in the pews at Beth Ahabah or not, make sure to eat some apples and honey for a sweet new year.