Songs of Past and Present: A Portsmouth landmark of Jewish history brings new life to old spaces

Tidewater Guitar Quartet performs July 15
Tidewater Guitar Quartet performs July 15

Tidewater Guitar Quartet performs July 15

By Elizabeth Blachman

This past September, I attended High Holy Day services for the last time at the last Jewish synagogue in Portsmouth. Rabbi David Goldstein presided over Yom Kippur services, and then Gomley Chesed Synagogue closed its doors, ending more than a hundred years of Jewish congregations in Portsmouth. With the merging of Portsmouth’s reform congregation, Temple Sinai, with Norfolk’s Ohef Sholom in 2012, Gomley Chesed had been the last remaining Jewish congregation on the other side of the water. The Jewish Museum and Cultural Center, launched in 2008, seeks to commemorate the Jewish traditions that were a rich part of Portsmouth’s history. With their seventh annual summer music series, the cultural center brings some of Hampton Roads’ musical luminaries to an important landmark of Portsmouth’s Jewish community.

The music series, offered on Wednesdays at 7:30, will feature performances from acts like the Virginia Chorale, the Anders-Aguerre Trio, and the Tidewater Guitar Quartet.

The Jewish Museum and Cultural Center is housed in a former Orthodox synagogue on Effingham Street that was called Chevra T’helim when it was founded in 1917 by an offshoot of Portsmouth’s oldest Jewish congregation. Many of the two-million Jews who emigrated from Europe at the turn of the twentieth century docked at ports on the East Coast, and some of them came to Portsmouth, including my relatives. My grandmother and my Aunt Zelma Rivin would tell me stories of the times when Portsmouth’s High Street was lined with Jewish merchants—kosher butchers, delicatessens, furniture stores, my grandfather’s pharmacy. Aunt Zelma came across Chevra T’helim more than a decade ago when she was putting together a bus tour of Portsmouth’s Jewish history. At the time, the windows of the sanctuary were broken, and the wooden pews were open to the rain. Broken whiskey bottles and insects lay scattered around remnants of velvet Torah covers.

Today, the restored wooden pews of the space that has now become Portsmouth’s Jewish Museum and Cultural Center gleam in the light that filters through the windows. The museum provides an archive to document Tidewater’s Jewish past for future generations. It also bring Jews and non-Jews together for lectures and performances. This summer, for the seventh year in a row, the twin lions over the Torah will look down on music.

The Jewish Museum and Cultural Center’s summer music series begins on June 17th with violinist Pavel Ilyashov. On July 1st, the Virginia Chorale, conducted by Charles Woodward, will present an evening of song. The Tidewater Guitar Quartet—featuring Sam Dorsey, John Boyles, Todd Holcomb and Cliff Morris—will perform on July 15th. The Anders-Aguirre Trio with oboist Sherie Aguirre, violinist Jorge Aguirre and pianist Lee Jordan Anders will appear on August 12, with an evening of romantic music by Dvorak, Thomas Dunhill and Dubussy. The series will close on August 26th with the Adagio Trio, featuring harpist Linda Grieser, flutist Kathryn Daniels and cellist Michael Daniels.

All performances in the Wonderful Wednesdays Music Series are at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Museum and Cultural Center at 607 Effingham Street in Portsmouth. For more information, please call 391-8266 or visit



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