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Preparing to close, Quincy synagogue looks for new homes for its collection of artifacts

Ed Gurwitch at Temple Beth El in Quincy, which is selling its art collection.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Ed Gurwitch at Temple Beth El in Quincy, which is selling its art collection.

QUINCY — More than a half-century of happy memories float like silent ghosts through Temple Beth El, the last Jewish synagogue in Quincy. Soon it, too, will close.

Synagogue members in recent months agreed to sell the building at 1001 Hancock St., on the banks of Furnace Brook, and are considering whether to merge with another congregation or go it on their own.

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An equally important question now, though, is what to do with the temple’s collection of fine and Judaic art, including a number of pieces that were commissioned by its late rabbi, David J. Jacobs, and created by Lexington artist David Holleman.  

While some of the artifacts have found new homes, dozens of works of various sizes and media are still displayed in the Conservative synagogue, where classrooms and benches — once filled to capacity — are all but empty.

The list includes a late-18th-century silver candelabrum in the bimah, or sanctuary where the Torah is read, scrolls topped with intricate silver crowns in the Holy Ark, and colorful mosaics and woven tapestries depicting Jewish topics and Old Testament stories.

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The temple’s stunning stained-glass windows tell the stories of Creation, the Burning Bush, the Holocaust, and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, among others. Those will probably stay with the building, a vivid reminder of the synagogue’s heyday.

“For those of us who are left, it is quite different,’’ said Ed Gurwitch, the temple’s treasurer, who remembers well when Beth El was brimming with life. “Just about all the people I used to sit and pray with are no longer here.”

Gurwitch has taken on the hard task of finding good Jewish homes for the items that will go. An appraiser has assigned values to each of them, and so far eight have been claimed, with dozens more to go, he said.

But the effort is a challenge because there is often a wide gap between the true financial value of the artifact and its sentimental value, he said. And some people want to take items for free, which isn’t allowable under tax law, especially if they took a tax deduction, he said.

Gurwitch said he hopes to use the proceeds from the sale for a Temple Beth El endowment, something that could potentially offer grants to help young people travel to Israel.

“Hopefully, if it is interest-bearing, it will be around a lot longer than we are,’’ he said.

The temple’s history goes back to 1950, when the congregation first met at the Jewish Community Center on Merrymount Road. Rabbi Jacobs, fresh from Nova Scotia, built the synagogue, dedicated on Dec. 12, 1958. The main sanctuary was dedicated to his memory in 2009, a year after his death at age 81.  

Now living in Brookline, Jacobs’s widow, Zipporah, said she is heartbroken that Beth El is closing. “It was very beautiful. My only comfort is that my husband didn’t live to see it die,” she said in an interview recently.

Gurwitch and his wife, Cynthia, who were married in the synagogue in 1960, said they are trying to be pragmatic. At its height, Beth El’s congregation numbered about 500 members as Jews moved to Quincy from Roxbury and Dorchester. These days, the membership has shrunk to just 28,  14 of whom attend services regularly in a small room off the synagogue office.

“I think you just have to be realistic,’’ Cynthia Gurwitch said. “There are many good memories, but you have to move on.”

“I have to agree,” her husband said, after a moment. But he acknowledged it isn’t easy.

Taking a visitor around the temple recently, he stopped frequently to admire the framed blue, white, and rust mosaics; the memorials to long-gone congregants; and the intricate mezuzahs that adorn every door, signifying a welcome to prayer.

“Aren’t they something?” he mused. “You want these things to go somewhere where they will be used.”

Carol Clingan, a seasoned rescuer of religious items and vice president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston, kicked into gear when she heard the temple was closing.

After visiting the synagogue, she arranged to buy a full-size silver Torah crown for Temple Beth Elohim, a Reform congregation in Wellesley, as well as a portable wooden Ark and prayer table from the Quincy temple’s lower sanctuary for the Jewish congregation at NewBridge on the Charles, a Hebrew SeniorLife housing community, in Dedham.  

“It’s all very sad, but wonderful the pieces are available,” Clingan said.

“When I saw how gorgeous these things were, I knew I wanted them to continue to have a sacred use.”

Another member has agreed to buy the Torah scroll donated by his grandfather to keep the artifact in the family, Gurwitch said.

Rabbi Judi Ehrlich, who leads services at NewBridge, said she knew Jacobs at the end of his life and appreciated his efforts to combine the beauty of art and religion. She brought a Torah class to Quincy to view the works he commissioned to Holleman, the Lexington artist.

“Each piece expresses lofty and beautiful ideas in beautiful color and media,’’ Ehrlich said. “It was that link of inspirational ideas and art that I loved.”

In an interview, Holleman, now 85, said he is not Jewish but he bonded with Jacobs over long discussions about Judaism, and considered him a friend and mentor. He said it’s hard to see the temple close and works specifically designed for it sold off, but an artist has no control of that.

“As long as they aren’t thrown into a dumpster,” he said, lightly.

Then he was serious: “They have done their work,” he said. “It’s like the blossom on an orchid that might stay beautiful for two or three months until the right insect comes along to fertilize it. Then, it knows its job is done, and it drops off.”

Temple directors want
Holleman’s stained-glass windows to stay with the building, which is located in a historic district, and for it to remain a house of worship, no matter the denomination.

The asking price is $2 million, and so far there are two letters of interest, Gurwitch said.

To see more photos of Temple Beth El’s artifacts, go to www.boston.com/quincy.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@
live.com
.
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