The historic building that served as Burlington’s first synagogue is for sale. Pomerleau Real Estate listed the Gothic Revival building at 168 Archibald Street last week for $650,000, describing it as “charming.”
The listing went on: “This property has so much potential and is in an outstanding location! The opportunities are endless!”
The structure’s brick façade is lined with pointed arch windows and small circular openings known as oculi. A larger oculus, inscribed with a Star of David, is set above the large, white arched doorway. The building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978, and is also on the Vermont State Register of Historic Places.
The congregation of Ahavath Gerim owns the 3,374-square-foot building. Board member Shimmy Cohen said the group has been diminishing, lacks a spiritual leader and has stopped meeting for services. Its board decided to put the building on the market because it needs money to maintain its cemetery in South Burlington.
The building holds historic and architectural significance
In the 1880s, Lithuanian Jews, facing persecution by Russians, left their homeland and settled in a corner of the Old North End of Burlington known as “Little Jerusalem.” Seeking a place to worship, in 1885 they purchased a former stonecutter’s shed at Hyde and Archibald streets.
The congregation, Ohavi Zedek, gathered there until 1952, the year that group moved to the synagogue on North Prospect Street. But some members decided to stay on Archibald Street and formed their own congregation, Ahavath Gerim.
Rabbi Jan Salzman has practiced her faith in both places. A former assistant rabbi and cantor at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, she started her own Jewish Renewal congregation, Ruach haMaqom, that made Ahavath Gerim its home until the coronavirus pandemic disrupted services.
“It’s a sanctuary. It’s beautiful inside,” Salzman said. “People have been gathering there since 1885 for prayer and worship. The building holds a lot of that history.”
She and her husband, Loredo Sola, are members of the Little Red Synagogue Group, a handful of Jewish community members hoping to purchase and rehab the deteriorating building for use as both a synagogue and community hub. It needs repairs that could cost as much as $1 million.
Sola said that Ahavath Gerim was willing to sell it to them for $300,000 — less than half of its assessed value — to keep it in the Jewish community. But there was a 30-day time limit on that offer, and the buyers couldn’t meet the deadline.
As a result, Ahavath Gerim listed the property with Pomerleau.
Sola and Salzman are still hopeful they’ll strike a deal with Ahavath Gerim. Their group is currently putting together a purchase proposal, said Sola. If they succeed, they plan to raise funds to restore the building.
Salzman noted that the property houses two structures important in the Jewish faith: an outbuilding called a chevra kadisha, which is used to cleanse bodies before burial, and a ritual bath called a mikvah, located in the basement.
“If we should lose this building to somebody who is not a Jewish organization, the Jewish community … will lose the place where we have been preparing bodies for burial for a really long time,” Salzman said.
Cohen said he hopes that the Little Red Synagogue Group or another entity will purchase the building and keep it as a synagogue.
“I don’t want to see it become an apartment house,” he said.
Editor's note: This story was updated on August 18, 2021.