The Chai Adam Synagogue, located at 105 Hyde Street, is one of the three historic synagogues of “Little Jerusalem.” The congregation was founded in 1889, as a traditional Orthodox shul with a central bimah and womens’ gallery. Apart from a single photograph of the Ark area, no other photographs of the original interior exist. While the original decoration of the entire space is unknown, many members of the community remember the building’s interior appearance, and this will be recreated in a digital model as part of the Lost Shul Mural project.
Through author Myron Samuelson’s work, we know the names of the founders of the congregation: “among the subscribers to the Articles of Association of the Chai Adam Synagogue were men who were ardent members of the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. They were Morris Levin, Abraham Mowsowitz, Max Samuelson, Joseph Trotchky, Hyman D. Segel, M.L. Levin, Abram Kaplan, Isaac Levin, Sam Trotchky, and Lewis Greenstein.” Most of the founders were relatives and former employees of Morris Levin, with the possible exception of Abraham Mowsowitz.”
In 1910, a Jewish artist named Ben-Zion Black immigrated to Burlington from Kovno (modern-day Kaunus), Lithuania. Black was engaged by the Chai Adam Synagogue congregation to create an ambitious decorative program of mural painting throughout the entire synagogue. It is not known how the synagogue was decorated before 1910, but preliminary investigation suggests it may have been painted a simple blue, over which Ben Zion Black added his murals.
The synagogue sanctuary was somewhat unusual in its design, as it has a prominent apse at the East (street) end, into which the Aron ha-kodesh (Holy Ark in which the Torah scrolls were stored) was set. Black painted a complex trompe l’oeil painting on three panels in the top part of this apse, an approximate half-dome made of plaster on lathe. This is the mural that is being restored and which has been moved to Ohavi Zedek.
Additional inscriptions and images were painted on walls and the ceiling, painted with an open-sky effect with a multitude of birds, which created, wrote Samuelson, “an illusion many congregants later recalled left them with the lifelong impression of the sanctuary being open to the outdoors.” Other accounts relate that the blue sky, which extended from the Ark over the womens’ gallery, also held clouds, cherubs and musical instruments – the latter constituting unconventional imagery for the traditional congregation.
Today, only the apse mural – the most important part of the composition – survives. This represents the Ten Commandments placed within an elaborate setting of pediments, parapets, curtains, swags, and sky.
Chai Adam Synagogue closed in the 1939, merging with Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, and its original building then served a variety of functions, including a carpet store and warehouse, before its final transformation which obscured all remaining traces of religious identity. When the wood-frame building was turned into an apartment house in 1986, Ohavi Zedek Synagogue archivist Aaron Goldberg and fellow congregant George Solomon persuaded the new owner not to destroy the mural, but to place a false wall in front of it instead. With financial help from the daughters of the painter, Leicia Black and Eva Black Reiders, high-quality archival photographs of the mural were made in 1986. At the time, it was not known if the mural would ever be seen again.
When the building changed ownership in 2012, Goldberg and historian and fellow Ohavi Zedek archivist, Jeff Potash, saw an opportunity to “re-discover” the mural. With the cooperation of the new building owner, they cut away wallboard to reveal the triptych painting. When conservation tests demonstrated that the mural could still be saved, despite some deterioration, the Lost Shul Mural Project was born. Conservator Constance S. Silver began onsite stabilization and conservation of the mural at the former Chai Adam Synagogue in December 2013, and she has continued her work at Ohavi Zedek in 2015-2016.
Samuelson, Myron. The Story of the Jewish Community of Burlington, Vermont (1976).