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Students help bring life back to synagogue

Aug 25, 2018

After being closed for two years, the First Congregation Sons of Israel celebrated the reopening of the main sanctuary yesterday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

For three Flagler College students, this was the culmination of almost two years’ work.

Synagogue students

From left: Liz Burris; John Roberts; Mason Mushinski.


The synagogue was built in 1924 and boasts colourful stained glass windows and an active membership. In 2016, the membership found it difficult to recover from water damage sustained from Hurricane Matthew. It became more difficult when Hurricane Irma showed up almost a year later.

Art Professor Laura Mongiovi described how she was able to arrange for Flagler students to get involved with the restoration: “I met a woman on the board [of the synagogue] at a dinner party in Jacksonville who expressed interest in working with Flagler College and I just said, ‘we should’ and that was it.”

“I just thought I would be doing first Fridays,” said Liz Burris, a Flagler alumna who started working with synagogue board president, Les Stern, and his wife Karen Stern, in 2016. Burris had excitedly agreed to put on an exhibit during the monthly art walk, showcasing historic items from the congregation’s collection. Matthew changed her scope of work to include research on the restoration of the ceiling and walls.

Burris researched Eastern European and Russian synagogues, the ancestral lands of the original congregation members, and presented to the board various designs and color schemes. The crown jewel of her work, Les Stern pointed out, is the Magen David, more commonly known as the Star of David, on the ceiling.

After working closely with the Sterns, Burris graduated while waiting to see it through to completion. By this point, her team included two other Flagler students – rising seniors John Roberts and Mason Mushinski – brought on after Irma struck and left its mark on the building in 2017. Mongiovi recognized Roberts and Mushinski’s research abilities and knew they would complement the work already performed by Burris.

Roberts and Mushinski reminisced on an early visit to the St. Augustine Historical Society where they found documents showing that Henry M. Flagler, the college’s namesake, provided funding to numerous houses of worship in St. Augustine, including the First Congregation.

Burris moved away after graduation in May 2018 but was able to stay connected while Roberts and Mushinski wrapped up the project. In preparation for the reopening, they hung the last few display objects in the front room of the synagogue, created event invitations, and ensured the three-day reopening gala weekend would continue without a hitch. They plan on continuing to serve the congregation this year by producing a rotating exhibit of the objects; almost circling back to the reason Burris was brought on in the beginning before the storms hit. They have also planned for sustainability by bringing Flagler’s arts administration students on board to maintain the exhibit after they both graduate in Spring 2019.

“I am extremely impressed by the work of the students. This project is an excellent example of how our faculty encourage our students to engage with the St. Augustine community and extend learning beyond the classroom. Professor Mongiovi is truly committed to community scholarship and I am proud to be here today to show my support of this project,” said President Joe Joyner.

The struggles to get to this point are at least temporarily forgotten as those in attendance for the ceremony mainly seemed focused on the beauty that has emerged once again in the oldest continuous Jewish Sanctuary in the state. The students couldn’t be more proud to show off their work, including Burris, who flew from Colorado to be in attendance.

Synagogue ribbon-cutting 

Alumna Liz Burris manages to get her pair of scissors on the ribbon during yesterday's ribbon-cutting ceremony.


Synagogue with President Joyner

From left: President Joyner; Professor Laura Mongiovi; John Roberts; Liz Burris; Mason Mushinski. 

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