Written by Lilli Donohue, Photos by Katie Burke
Before the student center was a buzzing place for bees, it was known as Congregation B’nai B’rith Jacob Synagogue (Congregation BBJ), which was built in 1909.
According to the Historic Savannah Foundation, the Moorish Revival design, created by local architect Hyman Witcover, was based on the 1870 Central Synagogue in New York City. The congregation of about 300 people grew out of the early days of Savannah’s founding. A group of Jewish settlers arrived in Savannah in the 1730s. Just 42 people in all 13 settlements were Jewish, and they chose to be part of General James Oglethorpe’s charter according to city records.
The building itself could be classified as neo-Moorish with horseshoe arches, arabesque tracery and stained glass. Today, the third floor is balcony-style and overlooks the E-Sports Center. In the past, it had a more specific purpose. Men sat in the central section while women and children sat in two raised areas on the sides separated by a half wall. It is still a common architectural element found in synagogues.
Prior to the construction of this structure, the only temple in Savannah was the Mickve Israel Temple of the Spanish-Portuguese Sephardic tradition. This differed from the group’s own Ashkenazi worship tradition. The Spanish-Portuguese tradition had been practiced by early Jewish settlers in the Colony of Georgia beginning in 1734. The Ashkenazi group began meeting in Amory Hall and then built a small wooden roof structure at the corner of Montgomery and State Street, where the synagogue is located. today.
In 1907 they had to expand the small wooden building, but there were no funds. However, the congregation was so excited about the move that they managed to raise $20,000 through seat sales and donations. In 1909 more money was raised to build the building, and just four years later they built the Hebrew school.
Congregation BBJ’s name probably derives from the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith (IOBB), a Masonic-inspired fraternal organization for the Jewish people. There are also many auxiliary groups formed within the congregation – such as the Hebrew Women’s Aid Society – which has built a chapel in Savannah’s famous Bonaventure Cemetery.
So how did it become the SCAD Student Center? The synagogue was decommissioned in 1962 when the congregation expanded and moved to the Ardley Park area. It was sold to Saint Andrew’s Independent Episcopal Church, now Saint Andrew’s Reformed Episcopal Church, which used it as their home until 2002. The historic building now serves as a meeting place for the E team – Sports, employer presentations, club meetings and general student gatherings.