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Augusta Jewish Museum celebrates major milestone

Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 10:57 AM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Supporters and officials today are marking a major milestone for the Augusta Jewish Museum with a ceremony, mayoral proclamation and preview tours of the historic building at 525 Telfair St. that soon will become the museum’s education center.

Jack Weinstein, president of the Augusta Jewish Museum’s board of directors, announced completion of renovations to the Court of Ordinary building, one of two historic structures that will comprise the museum complex.

Originally constructed in 1860 as a fireproof space to house Augusta city records and legal documents, the extensively rehabilitated one-story building will be the museum’s education center and main exhibit area.

Although exhibits are not yet installed, the regional education center will open to the public for special programs and tours at 2 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month, beginning Aug. 8.

Tours may also be scheduled by appointment by calling 706-426-1542, he added.

Much time and effort has gone into planning the informative exhibits, said Weinstein.

The displays will cover four educational pillars or themes: Jewish contributions to the Central Savannah River Area, Jewish traditions and practices, Holocaust remembrance, Israel’s land and people, in addition to the history of the buildings themselves.

Exhibits loaned from other Jewish cultural institutions may be presented from time to time, as well. HWE Inc., a professional museum design firm based in Charleston, S.C., is working with museum’s display committee to finalize exhibit plans.

Weinstein also noted significant progress on rehabilitation of the adjacent former synagogue itself.

The Greek-revival style structure near the corner of Fifth and Telfair streets is Georgia’s oldest standing synagogue building. The cornerstone was laid in 1869 by Congregation B’nai Israel, the Children of Israel of Augusta, where the congregation worshiped until relocating in the 1950s.

Some years later, the building became city of Augusta property and was used as offices for the city’s planning department. Work crews recently removed the 20th century additions, revealing the framework of the synagogue’s original worship space.

Museum supporters raised more than $600,000 for phase one renovations and exhibits through grants, pledges, online fundraisers, and donations ranging from $2 to more than $100,000, as well as significant in-kind donations of goods and services, according to Weinstein.

Cost to complete the entire project is estimated at $3.2 million to $3.5 million. Plans call for the synagogue to become a public event space, generating rental income to help support museum operations, he explained. Fundraising is ongoing. Opportunities for donors to name various rooms and building features, including the entire complex, are available, he said.

Weinstein acknowledged the inspirational leadership of the late Jack Steinberg, whose initial vision for an Augusta Jewish heritage museum spurred others to join the effort. Although Steinberg passed away in 2019, a dedicated group of volunteers from the Jewish community and the community-at-large has worked tirelessly to raise funds, collect materials, develop plans, and spread the word about the museum’s progress, Weinstein said.

Weinstein thanked Historic Augusta Executive Director Erick Montgomery for the pivotal role his organization played in rescuing the buildings. Montgomery explained that, when the city announced plans to tear down both buildings as part of the Augusta Municipal Building renovation, Historic Augusta rallied concerned members of the community to help save the landmarks.

The city agreed to lease the properties to the historic preservation organization for five years; if the museum opened its doors by the end of the lease period, the properties’ deeds would transfer to Historic Augusta.

Final details of the deed transfer are being completed by the city’s law department and the transfer is expected by July 26. Montgomery explained that Historic Augusta will then pass ownership to the Augusta Jewish Museum organization, thus preserving the buildings for future generations.

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