Kansas City’s neighborhoods have seen major shifts in recent years, as urban areas attract new residents and the suburbs become more diverse. Those changes are especially obvious in houses of worship throughout the city.
That phenomenon recently hit home in an unexpected way for Dan Margolies, editor of KCUR’s Heartland Health Monitor. As part of an interfaith program at Children’s Mercy Hospital, Margolies was among several people who paid a visit to the Victorious Life Church, a mostly African-American Pentecostal church at 34th and Paseo.
Margolies knew the place well, but it had been 45 years since he’d set foot inside.
When he was just eight years old, his family moved halfway across the country from New York to Kansas City after his father, Rabbi Morris Margolies, become senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom.
It was a big step up for the young rabbi and produced more than a little culture shock.
“When he came here he sometimes thought, ‘What have I done? This is a Jewish desert!’” Margolies remembers.
Jewish Kansas City in the '60s may not have been New York, but it wasn’t exactly a desert, either.
Midtown had been home to a thriving Jewish community for decades, one that in 1927 completed the Moorish-inspired temple that would have been impressive even on the coasts.
Beth Shalom’s current rabbi, David Glickman, says the temple was emblematic of the larger Jewish community finding its place in the United States.
“They were starting to make a new home for themselves, and they wanted to have a house of worship that gave honor to God and honor to the community and was also part of the civic life in America,” says Glickman.
The Moorish Revival trend of synagogues started in central Europe in the mid-1800s and led to Jewish temples all over the world looking like the one in Kansas City, with domes, arches and ornate designs inspired by the Middle East.
Dan Margolies says he was awed by it.
“It was this vast, Gothic building to me with all kinds of mysterious passageways, and I used to sneak out of the services – when my father wasn’t looking, of course – and explore,” he says.
Even though the services were still well-attended, things were already changing.
“By the time my father arrived in 1961, most of the community had moved south,” Margolies says. “And that was the reason that, not long after my father arrived or even before he arrived, the synagogue was already discussing moving, relocating, to be nearer to the Jewish community.”
The congregation built a new temple in south Kansas City and moved in the early 1970s, but that wasn’t the end for the dramatic building at 34th and Paseo.
Victorious Life Church, which got its start in 1938, moved into the building.
Bishop Mark Tolbert says the temple’s old Hebrew and Jewish symbols are a mystery to most of his congregants, but that doesn’t diminish their appreciation for the building.
“It’s just sheer beauty!” Tolbert says. “You can’t go in a church and have this kind of view, unless you come here.”
Even though the sanctuary holds two busy services each Sunday, it’s been maintained much like a museum. The church opened a charter school there in the 1990s, and its members have carefully preserved the big stained glass windows, ornamentation and architecture that now approach 90 years old.
As the Children’s Mercy tour group made its way through the halls and offices and into the sanctuary, for Margolies and the others it was like walking through a time warp.
Nancy Wolff attended services at the old synagogue as a young girl and says being there brought back a flood of memories, including the voice of Cantor Jacob Rothblatt, who officiated with Rabbi Margolies.
She imagined Rothblatt’s baritone filling the room with “Kol Nidre,” a prayer recited on Yom Kippur.
“Anyone who ever heard him singing it, that’s whose voice you hear your whole life,” Wolff says.
It’s been decades since Hebrew prayers and songs have been heard at the Paseo temple, but Rabbi Glickman says many Beth Shalom congregants still beam with pride remembering the building and are happy it continues to brim with life.
“I think this is such a wonderful use of that building,” Glickman says. “To have it filled with worship, to have it filled with song, to have it filled with prayer, to have it filled with inspiration, to have it filled with people who live in the neighborhood, to have inspiring words being taught in it – I can’t think of a better use for that sacred space.”
The Marr Sound Archives and State Historical Society of Missouri provided archival audio for the audio version of this story.
Alex Smith is a reporter for KCUR, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR.