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Church Restores Old Cape Girardeau Synagogue

Michael Ryan
The B'nai Israel Synagogue on Main Street in Cape Girardeau, Mo. was built in 1937.

A once vital part of the Cape Girardeau community is seeing life in a new way. The old synagogue building on Main Street opened in 1937, but after years of abandonment the building that was once a vibrant center of Jewish worship was left in a state of disrepair. But if Lighthouse Breakthrough International Ministries pastor Adrian Taylor has anything to say about it, this once thriving synagogue will rise again.

The building has seen its fair share of owners. But it’s latest — Lighthouse Breakthrough International Ministries — hopes that the former synagogue can be fully restored.

“I’d like for it to be a community place that the city could see as, you know, as some place they could utilize for their needs, you know,” Taylor said. “We’re not open for anything that’s crazy, but anything that’s within reason that’s going to respect what we do here and what the structure is.”

The history of the B'nai Israel Synagogue is wrapped in both blessings and tragedies. A fire destroyed Cape Girardeau's Jewish community's previous place of worship in the 1930s. The synagogue was built shortly thereafter.

According to Southeast Missouri State University historic preservation professor Dr. Steven Hoffman, the history behind the building is quite interesting. Prior to the fire the Jewish community met at Capaha Park‘s clubhouse, but soon after its destruction the city came together and helped the Jewish community find a new place to worship.

“The Hechts, who were long-time business and property owners downtown were major donors, but there was certainly a lot of community support to build that facility, and so once upon a time we had a thriving Jewish community right here on the banks of the Mississippi in the Midwest,” Hoffman said.

When Taylor first saw the old synagogue it was in a state of disrepair. The building had no working heat or running water and was layered in both dust and dirt.

“I have to be honest. I was really shocked because the building was just basically sitting. It was just kind of being used as a storage place,” Taylor said.

According to Taylor, when a building sits in these conditions for a number of years it begins to deteriorate from the inside. The congregation has since been working diligently to restore the building to what it once was.

In order to prevent any further damage to the structure, one of the first steps Taylor took was getting the water and heat turned back on. The lack of heat had destroyed a lot of the interior’s plaster. The most damage had been found in the former rabbi’s quarters, and Taylor believes it will be one of the last rooms to be remodeled.

Hoffman said the synagogue has been on the National Registry of Historic Places since 2004, but that doesn’t mean it carries any restrictions on what can or cannot be done.

“So if they were to alter it in such a way that it no longer qualified then it would be delisted,” Hoffman said. “So it’s not that you can do whatever you want and you’ll always be on it, but there’s no regulation on what you can do.”

Since opening on Easter weekend 2012, the plumbing has been updated dramatically and there are now two restored restrooms. Much of the damaged plaster has been patched and most walls have been painted. Taylor and his team replaced or restored much of the older, damaged wood. But for Taylor there is still quite a bit of work left before he can say the restoration is complete.

“To me that means that all of the interior is completely done, every room is completely functional. Right now we have three rooms left that need to be completed,” Taylor said.

Lighthouse Breakthrough International Ministries holds regular services twice a week. According to Taylor the congregation has grown so much within the last few years that the members are outgrowing the current space.

Michael Ryan was an intern reporter for KRCU in 2014.
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