Artist Zoe Cohen’s Shul / Church Project began in response to a demolished building. The magnificent West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center had long dominated a stretch of 63rd Street just south of the El tracks. When the synagogue center was razed in January 2014, Cohen, like many West Philadelphia residents and preservation advocates, was unsettled by images of the wreckage. Although it served a Christian congregation for decades, the massive brick building, adorned with colorful tiled Stars of David, Menorahs, and Hebrew script, stood as one of the last and most prominent testimonies to the Jewish community that had thrived in West Philadelphia in the first half of the 20th century. Cohen memorializes the community center in her series of watercolor paintings depicting former synagogues now being reused by African American churches. An exhibition of her Shul / Church Project opens at Abington Arts Center on February 5th.
Jewish themes and iconography often figure into Cohen’s artwork. She once incorporated some of the West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center’s decorative Hebrew lettering into a bookplate she designed for her own synagogue. She was moved by the poignant contradictions in the demolition photos of the Jewish community center. “It was a sanctuary,” she said, “and sanctuary means safe, enclosed. Now it’s blasted open.” In a large-scale collage, Cohen created a ghostly approximation of the hollowed-out sanctuary, with cut white paper and swirly watercolor paint rendering the collapsing brick walls and splintered roof beams all the more fragile and ephemeral.
Cohen then came across a wrenching photo published in Hidden City Daily of another former synagogue demolished around the same time. The Second Baptist Church in Northern Liberties was built in 1803 and housed two different synagogues, Anshe Emethe and D’rshe Tov, beginning in 1871 and well into the 20th century. The building’s life ended in the more prosaic service of the AA Fencing Company. The ruins of the building’s demolition site inspired Cohen to make a companion collage, again using paper cut-outs and watercolor to make once weighty stone seem precarious and insubstantial.
As she cut out paper strips for roof timbers and painted swirls of rubble, Cohen realized she didn’t want her work to simply chronicle devastation and loss. The demolished synagogues sparked her curiosity. Many Jewish families had migrated from Center City and South Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century to leafy, residential enclaves like Cobbs Creek, Strawberry Mansion, and Cohen’s own neighborhood of Black Oak (now Malcolm X) Park. Those families, like many other white residents, fled to the suburbs after WWII as African Americans moved in. But what happened to their houses of worship, Cohen wondered? What vestiges of Jewish religious life remained?
Not far from her own house, she came across the Open Heart Church on the 6000 block of Larchwood Avenue. Although a large white plastic cross hangs over the door of the stately two-story brick building, the Star of David–the central motif in each of the building’s ten façade windows–gives away the building’s former use. When Cohen spoke to the pastor, Bishop Derrick Hanna, he told her what he knew of the building’s past. His father, the founding pastor, purchased the synagogue, Beth MaMedrosh HaGadol, from the Jewish congregation in the early 1980s. The Pentecostal congregation embraced their building not only because its interior spaces were built to be a gathering place and already suited to ritual and worship, but that the synagogue’s history was still very present. When Cohen expressed surprise that the church retained so much Jewish iconography, Bishop Hannah said to her, “Why would we want to remove a symbol that is the foundation of our religion? We really feel like this is our mission to preserve the DNA of the building. It is meaningful to us that that this was a house of God.”
The Open Heart Church is hardly unique. Assisted by a comprehensive list of Philadelphia’s synagogues past, present, extant, and demolished (available online through the Jewish Genealogical Society of Philadelphia) Cohen discovered that a large number of former synagogues survive today as African American churches of various denominations. As her research deepened, the Shul / Church Project began to materialize and the series became an exploration, in image and sound, of the past and present of these buildings and of the links between the Jewish congregations that built them and the African Americans who worship inside them today.
The centerpiece of the installation at Abington Arts Center will be sixteen watercolor portraits of Philadelphia synagogues built between 1900 and 1930 that are now African American churches. In contrast to the two collages of demolished sanctuaries, the architectural portraits are intimately scaled and buoyantly colored. Cohen, using images from Google Maps street views and Flicker galleries, painted the buildings freehand without preliminary pencil outlines or straightedge measures. There’s a child-like candor in these fluid watercolor presentations. Cohen purposely eliminated any specific Christian or Jewish imagery (except in structures like Shaare Zedek, now the Millenium Baptist Church, in which the double tablets of the Ten Commandments are an integral part of the architecture), preventing viewers from reading the signs and symbols that identify one religious tradition or another and instead drawing attention to the buildings’ lively, evocative shapes.
The Jewish congregations that once worshipped in the sanctuaries Cohen paints did not disappear entirely. Many of them moved to newly built synagogues in suburbs like Wynnewood and Elkins Park. The Abington show gives Cohen an opportunity to forge some living links among people and the congregations for whom these buildings once were or still are a spiritual home. “My ultimate goal is to bring people together,” she says. She created three sound collages to complement the paintings and collages, recording services at suburban synagogues and the churches those congregations once inhabited. Beth Sholom, now Beloved St. John Evangelistic Church, Adath Jeshurun, now the New Greater Straightway Baptist Church, and Kol Tzedek Synagogue, now the Open Heart Church, are featured in her series.
Cohen chose her own synagogue, Kol Tzedek, to pair with the Open Heart Church because the original congregation, Beth HaMedrosh HaGadol, no longer exists. In the 1980s, as that congregation dwindled, Penn students attended services there so the Larchwood Avenue synagogue would have a minyan. Some of those former students now belong to Kol Tzedek, founded in 2005. Kol Tzedek is one of several faith communities that share space in West Philadelphia’s Calvary Church and helped save that historic building from the wrecking ball.
As Cohen edited the recordings she made with her phone, she was struck by the similarities, the chattering as people entered the sanctuary, the gradual settling into stillness, and then the service beginning with voices united in song.
With these layered conversations and incantations, and with her portraits of buildings in fluid, watercolor shades, Cohen aims to evoke a spiritual connection, past and present, Jewish and Christian, white and black. The Shul / Church Project began as a response to a building that was lost, but, as Cohen delved deeper and traced the history of the Jewish exodus to the suburbs, she uncovered another loss, more subtle and more painful. By leaving the city as African Americans moved in, she believes Jewish communities and the city as a whole lost a tremendous opportunity, “to connect, to identify with, and to live beside people” with whom they shared a common history of prejudice and exclusion.
“What did we lose by becoming white?” she asks. “What would have happened if we had stayed here? Not to suggest that these buildings should have stayed Jewish,” she adds. Instead, she ponders an alternate history in which Jewish and African American communities lived in the city’s residential neighborhoods side-by-side. Would the conversations have been different? Would they have found common ground?
By stripping the buildings of religious imagery and layering voices in prayer and song, Cohen creates a vision of this alternate past with the exhibition. However, her motivation behind the Shul / Church Project is not necessarily to look backwards and focus on possibilities lost. “Art is always a beginning,” she says. Cohen hopes the exhibit will be a springboard for further conversation and a deeper cultural connection.
Zoe Cohen’s solo exhibition of Shul / Church Project opens on Friday, February 5th with a reception between 6-8PM. The exhibit will be on view until March 24th. The Abington Arts Center is located at 515 Meetinghouse Road in Jenkintown, PA. For details and hours of operation see: www.abingtonartcenter.org.
For more information on artist Zoe Cohen and the Shul / Church Project see her website: zoecohen.com