Philip Bernstein remembers times when, as a child, he would leave synagogue
sunburnt; he quickly learned to sit away from southern facing windows.
He attended one of the oldest congregations in Florida, St. Augustine’s Sons of Israel Synagogue, which opened March 30, 1924. Since then, many changes have taken place in the 90-year-old Cordova Street building. The synagogue has seen social change: women used to sit in the balcony while men worshipped downstairs, although the congregation has long been integrated. Cosmetic changes, like losing the original pews to hurricane salvage efforts decades ago, added local historic significance: current seating is from a downtown theatre that closed.
The most prominent change to the building bears historic, structural and cosmetic significance. In the 1950s, fifteen stained glass windows valued between $7,500 and $30,000 each were salvaged from the Ahawas Achim Synagogue in Atlanta as it was torn down to make way for I-75.
Three daughters of the synagogue’s founder, Jacob Tarlinsky, rescued the windows. Bernstein’s mother was one of the women who oversaw their installation in St. Augustine.
Now when the bright Florida sun shines through the windows, there are no more sunburns. Instead, the light illuminates 15 brilliant works of art and leaves no doubt why they are the building’s most prominent feature and some of the synagogue’s most prized possessions.
As the Sons of Israel Synagogue nears its 100th anniversary, the congregation is restoring their building in ways that honor their historic construction. Starting with the windows was a clear choice, and the unfolding of this project has included many miraculous moments.
Member Les Stern recalls, “An older man from Gainesville stared at them through the entire service. ‘I know these windows,’ he told me. He put us in contact with the great-grandson of the man who made these windows – J.V. Llorens. Hardeman, the great-grandson, still had his great grandfather’s file with the design plans.” Llorens was only 14 years old when he began the works of art.
Under the careful hand of great-grandson Hardeman, and loving oversight of the congregation, the restoration of the windows was completed in 2013. They color the historic Sons of Israel Synagogue in beautiful, timeless hues.