Proposal

The general topic of my paper is space for Judaism in the City of Williamsburg. There are three main parts of my research. The first portion, and the bulk of my research, will be covering the way in which the Beth El Temple of Williamsburg utilizes its physical space to accommodate a wide variety of denominations within Judaism. The temple is a relatively small location, and is meant to serve the Jewish population of not only Williamsburg, but of the Peninsula. Secondly, I will examine how the temple functions and creates a space for itself within the Williamsburg community. Williamsburg is a predominantly Christian area, as is greater Virginia. I am interested in how it interacts and survives amongst the predominantly Christian presence that exist in Williamsburg. Lastly, I want to examine how the temple interacts with the College population and how that potentially plays a part in the temple’s construction of space. There was a previous Williamsburg Documentary Project that focused on the Jewish experience in the Williamsburg area. The researcher conducted interviews with various members of the temple’s congregation and asked them about what living in Williamsburg as a Jew was like. There were few interviews in which the interviewee spoke about their Jewish experience in Williamsburg in comparison to previous places in which they have lived. This study was somewhat generic and broad. These interviews will be helpful to refer to when trying to understand the dynamic between Judaism and the predominantly Christian Williamsburg community.

From my research, I hope to further add information to the archives regarding Judaism in Williamsburg through the lens and concept of space. I would like to focus in on the physical space in which Beth El Temple exists and how that is influential of the Jewish practices worshipped there.

The research questions that I want to answer are:

  1. How did the physical building transform from a candy store to a place of worship?
  2. How does the temple spatially accommodate the various Jewish denominations?
  3. How do these denominations utilize the space differently?
  4. How much of the surrounding area’s Jewish population does the temple accommodate?
  5. How does the temple (spatially and non-spatially) exist within the predominantly Christian community?
  6. How does the Temple create its own space within the predominantly Christian surroundings?
  7. How does the College affect the function of the temple?

Sources of data that I will use/collect in order to answer my research questions will come from a variety of resources. Initially, I will utilize books and academic journals to get a sense of the Jewish community in Williamsburg and the surrounding peninsula. Once I have established a foundation of knowledge to work off of, a bulk of my data would be from the oral histories of leaders and congregation members of the Beth El Temple. These oral histories would provide insight into how people who use the space frequently function within it and understand how it accommodates the vast variety of Judaism sects. I will utilize information provided by members of the City of Williamsburg Planning Office regarding the physical movement of the candy store from Colonial Williamsburg to its current location on Jamestown Road. I plan on using newspapers from Williamsburg and surrounding cities for accounts of the movement of the candy store and for other stories involving the temple. Newsletters and calendars from the temple would aid in finding out how the space is used on a regular basis.

I will utilize both qualitative and quantitative methodologies to collect and analyze the data that I collect. Qualitatively, I will conduct semi-informal interviews with a variety of people from within the Temple’s congregation and outside in the general Williamsburg community. Within the temple, I hope to have an opportunity to interview with the current Rabbi and older members who have been attending services for a long period of time. The hope with interviewing older members would be to potentially gain insight in how the use of space within the temple has changed over a long period of time, and how it has evolved due to the changing Jewish population. Those with whom I wish to interview in the general Williamsburg community are those who may have any information or connection to the moving of the candy store to Jamestown Road, or who have a general understanding of the religious spaces within Williamsburg and how they function generally within the area. I would also be interested in having an opportunity to observe how the space is used first hand by visiting the temple and spending time there. This will give me a chance to conceive the space for myself, and be able reference it throughout the conducting of interviews and research. Quantitatively, I will use census information to get a general idea of the Jewish population in the Williamsburg and surrounding areas. This will allow me to get a sense of the population that the temple is trying to accommodate, especially since it is the only Jewish temple in the Peninsula area. I would also be interested to find some type of statistic that demonstrated the make up of the Jewish denominations practiced at the temple, and how often they were practiced.

Religion is a difficult topic to conduct research on, due to its extremely personal nature. I can potentially see difficulty in finding members of the congregation, especially older members, who would be open to interview with me and speak about their Jewish and temple experiences. I would mitigate this type of challenge by explaining the purpose of the information, but would ultimately respect the wishes of the individual and continue looking for someone who would be open to participating in an interview. I hope to work with between 2 and 6 potential subjects. I am predicting that the age range will be 30+, since I hope to speak with the Rabbi and older members of the temple. I do, however, how to work with a mixture of genders during my research to get a broader insight. I will be obtaining informed consent in the form of an Informed Consent Form that is to be delivered to and signed by the subjects prior to conducting interview. I do not see any potential risks that my study would pose to my research subjects. All of the interviews would be conducted with participants who were willing to share their life history and insight. I will inform my subject that the purpose of this study is to add to an archive of this history of Williamsburg, and that by participating, they would be referenced by their name. If there is sensitive material or someone wishes to remain anonymous, I would honor his or her request, or potentially find a new subject who would be willing to be identified. I will share my results of my research with a follow up e-mail or meeting with my subjects. I will also make them aware that the results could be found in the Swem Special Collections Williamsburg Documentary archive.

I also foresee a potential problem in obtaining information about the physical moving of the candy store to its current location as the temple. Since this happened in the 1950’s, it was possibly a time where Judaism was not necessarily fully accepted in a predominantly Christian area. Coverage of this phenomenon may be hard to come by, and take time to uncover. As of now, I have not come across hard evidence and literature on the matter.

I believe this study and my potential findings would benefit the Williamsburg community as a whole. The Beth El Temple has an interesting history, and plays a large role in the religious realm by accommodating so many members and varieties of Judaism. More so, the idea alone that a candy store could be transformed into a place of worship provides for an interesting conception of space and function.

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

1. Elliot Wolin

2008 Interview by Alpert Solomon. Williamsburg Documentary Project Digital Archive. April 8.

 

2. Ethel Sternberg

2008 Interview by Rachel Sapin. Williamsburg Documentary Project Digital Archive, April 9.

 

3. Scott Gary Brown

2007 Interview by Alice Curtin. Williamsburg Documentary Project Digital Archive, May 2.

 

4. Scott Gary Brown

2007 Interview by Rachel Sapin. Williamsburg Documentary Project Digital Archive, April 17.

 

5. Sylvia Scholnick

2008 Interview by Rachel Sapin. Williamsburg Documentary Project Digital Archive, May 8.

 

6. The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. “Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities: Williamsburg, Virginia.” Web. <http://isjl.org/history/archive/va/williamsburg.htm>.

 

7. Sacred rituals, sacred spaces.

2007 Films Media Group & Polis Center. 17 min. Films Media Group.

 

8. Rowe, Linda H. Brief Information About Jews in Early America and Williamsburg.

9. Student Organizations Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary. Box 18: Religious Organizations: Inter-Y.

10. Smith, M.

2008 Religion, culture, and sacred space. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

11. Chidester, D. and Linenthal, E. T.

1995 American sacred space. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

 

12. Nelson, L. P.

2006 American sanctuary: Understanding sacred spaces. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 


About

The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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