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History made with museum opening

The temple he once knew was gone.

On Feb. 25, 1951, Maury Gurwitch, 81, walked out of the TempleB’nai Sholom at the corner of Church and Chickasaw streets inBrookhaven a married man, taking the former Shirley Schlesingerwith him.

On Friday, he walked back into the grand opening of the LincolnCounty Historical and Genealogical Museum and B’nai Sholom JewishHeritage Museum. The former place of worship was stripped of itspews, filled wall-to-wall with historical items and thousands ofphotographs.

The temple he once knew was gone. And he loved it.

“It’s beautiful. We’re so happy we could be a part of givingthis building to the community,” he said. “It means a lot to us tosee it preserved and continued for people to enjoy.”

The museum opened to applause and wonderment Friday morning asthe first crowd of visitors cut the ribbon and took the tour,inspecting the approximately 2,500 artifacts and photographsassembled to show the history of the Homeseekers Paradise 18 monthsafter the former Temple B’nai Sholom was deconsecrated andtransferred to the Lincoln County Historical and GenealogicalSociety.

Local historians and society workers looked upon their newmuseum with jubilance, and the remaining members of the old Jewishfamilies smiled and breathed easy, knowing that in that group ofresearchers, collectors and fact-finders, they had found a worthycaretaker for their 115-year-old temple.

“Nobody knew it would end up this fantastic,” said Hal Samuels.”As people get older, they start to worry about what’s going tohappen. This is a great way to preserve our heritage, and it’s thebest thing for the temple.”

In the late 1800s, Jewish families and their Christian friendsfrom across Brookhaven and Lincoln County deposited the firstdonations that would lead to the construction of a Jewish house ofworship. On May 28, 1896, Rabbi Isidore Levinthal of Nashville camedown and laid the cornerstone of the Temple B’nai Sholom.

Harold Samuels, the most well known Jew in Brookhaven and aformer mayor of the city, was relieved to see the museum open.

“I’m glad to see it this way,” he said. “I’m glad they could putit to good use.”

Artifacts abound in the museum.

Countless photographs show early, early Brookhaven, includingscenes of downtown with dusty roads and a Whitworth College campusstanding tall with buildings long torn down. The tools of thecity’s moneymaking ancestors are also displayed, with a polishedantique cash register and a display case full of glass medicinebottles still wrapped in prescription stickers.

The history of the city’s Jews is also preserved. The formertemple’s pulpit stands clean and unmolested, while sacred artifactsare displayed nearby. A memorial board with dozens of Jewish namesremains on the front wall, with small lights meant to burn in theirremembrance.

One of those lights belongs to Harry Caul, the late father ofJayess caterer Yetta England, who emigrated to America fromLithuania in 1904. She remembers coming to the Temple B’nai Sholomwith her father for services as a child.

Friday was the first time she’d been back.

“A feeling came over me when I entered this place,” she said.”I’m proud the community has done this to preserve ourheritage.”

There is much more to come, said society President Rita Rich.She said countless artifacts to be rotated in and out of the museumremain in the society’s possession, and a plan to include specialexhibits will be put into motion in the future.

“We have more artifacts, more pictures to hang, much more to do.We want to keep it fresh so people will keep coming back,” shesaid. “The museum will be evolving.”

The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Fridayand 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.