Prepared by AGJA member and Past President, Mark D. Levin AIA of Levin/Brown Associates
Presented at the URJ Biennial Learning Session program sponsored by the AGJA on December 14, 2011
We begin our warp speed journey with God's third major building project (after creation of the world and Noah's Ark) for our understanding and our inspirations for the composition and aesthetic of spaces for worship.
From the outset, God required an emotional connection with the instructions for “gifts from every person whose heart is so moved”. And while this may be the first "capital campaign", this emotional connection for the building of the synagogue carries through to today.
God's instruction for the construction of the Mishcan or “tent of meeting” is extremely detailed with regard to the materials, size and configuration including instructions for the artistic adornment of the building components. In addition God is very specific about the design for the Ark of the Pact with yet another clear description of the artistic adornment. Moses is then told how to fashion the lamp stand, table for the bread of display, the altar and other "utensils".
So as we move from portable to permanent, the architectural design elements and motifs of the Temple itself as well as for the synagogues of the Diaspora adopt and adapt the vernacular architectural styles and conventions of its community or from the other great communities of the ancient world.
Pictorially, here is a quick very abbreviated run through of the evolution of synagogue design, particularly as it culminates with the design of the American synagogue.
There is little if anything known about David’s Temple so we move on to Solomon’s Temple , generally known as the 2nd Temple. “Renovated” by Herod the Great (of dubious reputation), the model above displays our understanding of the design of the Temple prior to its destruction in 70 ACE. Moving on quickly to the typical Diaspora synagogue of the 2nd century at Capernaum, the origin of the design motifs is still Roman Architecture.
Jump forward half a dozen centuries or so into the medieval period where the synagogue began to follow the tenets of church architecture (often mandated by law). This was also the Jewish Golden age of Spain and from 8th century until the end of this tranquil and prosperous period in 1066, synagogue architecture was influenced by Moorish design styles and motifs. This affinity for Moorish – Sephardic - influence continued or was reborn in Europe during the general period of the Renaissance.
A few hundred years later we find the reemergence of synagogues in Jerusalem roughly during the same time period as the design and construction of the great synagogues of Europe.
After fleeing the Inquisition 1n 1492, many Sephardic Jews went to the Caribbean via Holland and on to America in 1654 +/-. Jews continued to cross the ocean to America and we find the Jewish communities beginning to establish themselves and thrive in the early 1700’s. Synagogue architecture continues to follow the forms and motives of church architecture as illustrated by the Touro Synagogue in New England (circa 1763) , the Lloyd Street synagogue (Greek revival)in Baltimore and Mickve Israel (Gothic Revival) in Savannah Georgia. American synagogue architecture continued to change in the synagogues of the late 1800s and early 1900s and were patterned after many of the great European synagogues.
Fast forward to the post WWII synagogue boom of the 1950s and early 60s with the suburbanizing of America and when being new and modern was paramount. It is during this period that synagogue architecture began to depart from the aesthetic influences of church architecture; however functionally the emphasis was still on the clergy at the very front of the room.
These buildings had clean lines and modern materials and were generally devoid of any significant ornamentation. The spaces were also large in volume with high altars and still more reminiscent of the great cathedrals to show that we have “arrived” in America. The clergy was set apart from the congregation and the worship experience emanated from a single source location in the very front and center of the room.
It is also during this period that many of the great architects of the day, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Eric Mendelsohn and others were commissioned for signature architectural synagogue buildings. A classic example of this is Gropius's Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore which features a high bema (6 feet) and a floor sloping upward – add another 3 feet. You can see from the scale of the exit doors of the original sanctuary how insignificant the human scale. These new modern buildings had no place for any of the “old” accoutrements from the congregation’s previous locations and much of the beautiful Judaic Art was left behind.
As a result of this disconnect and fueled by the energy of the tumultuous late 60’s and early1970’s, the 1980s saw a desire for both aesthetic and practical changes (large attendance was primarily three days a year and the spaces were often "empty"). A new generation of clergy also desired to be closer to their congregation in order to make eye contact as is illustrated by the Chapel at Temple Oheb Shalom circa 1987. Other synagogues chose to apply some of the same criteria in their existing sanctuaries such as lowering the bemah and adding handicapped accessibility - at least to the schulcan – or reading table as illustrated by the modifications to BHC.
The pressure for more intimate, comfortable and flexible environments that were handicap accessible continued through the 1990’s up thru today. The reconfiguration of the Temple Oheb Shalom sanctuary fulfills these criteria by reducing the volume of the room via lowering the appearance of the ceiling, reconfiguring the seating, lowering the bema with full handicap accessibility and pushing the reading table out "in the midst of the people". Warm materials and Judaic adornment and detail were no longer banished from sanctuary design. In addition the spaces for simchas which also double as worship environments have responded to the same paradigm shift.
Other synagogues chose or needed to relocate and having learned the lessons the first round of modern synagogue design took their history with them as is illustrated by Temple Beth El in Allentown Pennsylvania. All of the Judaic Art is from their previous building. Other synagogues that could not or chose not to relocate reinvented their synagogue in different ways.
One of the most significant influences on our synagogue design comes from Eretz Yisroel – the land and K’lal Yisroel – the people or more appropriately the community of Israel as is evidenced in the New Congregation Beth El Synagogue in Voorhees New Jersey in form, function and materials.
I have spent most of my time talking about synagogue architecture from the architect’s point of view however there is also an ever more important aspect of synagogue design: namely collaboration between Architect and Judaic Artist which permeates the synagogues of today and tomorrow.