The New Synagogue Architecture: Remaking the Modern-Day Synagogue

By Wexler, Ellen | Moment, January-February 2017 | Go to article overview

The New Synagogue Architecture: Remaking the Modern-Day Synagogue


Wexler, Ellen, Moment


For Dovi Scheiner, a synagogue is a place for prayer and pilates, for coffee breaks and comedy and film screenings.

But perhaps most importantly, it is a living room.

"The synagogue," he says, "should be the most beautiful living room in any given community." Scheiner is a rabbi at SoHo Synagogue in New York, which caters to a younger audience--"post-college, premarriage"--and in its original location on Crosby Street, it embraced a trendy urban, industrial look: exposed brick, dangling lightbulbs.

But the congregation's lease ended, and now Scheiner wants to try something new: the SynaPod. He envisions a small, multipurpose space where people work from their laptops, have meetings, have coffee, eat dinner, attend comedy events, do yoga--the kinds of spaces that young Jews already live their lives in. "There's a tremendous disconnect," he says, "between the way Jews live at home and the way synagogues look."

Many congregations--while perhaps not at the avant-garde of synagogue style--are coming to similar conclusions. As generations pass, particularly in older communities, congregants find themselves in buildings designed for their great-grandparents--but not for them. Not for anyone like them. It is time, they decide, for a change.

At its heart, this is a problem for rabbis--but it's also a problem for architects. When congregations opt to renovate, questions of design become questions of theology: How do you preserve tradition while embracing the complexities of 21st-century religious life? What should a modern-day synagogue look like? In matters of religion, what is trendy, what is timeless and what is passe?

One answer is that synagogues reflect the time in which they were built. Early American synagogues tended to look like houses, blending into the surrounding architecture. Joshua Zinder, a founding partner at Landau Zinder, which specializes in synagogue design, says this was intentional: Congregations felt safer if they didn't stand out. With time, they felt secure enough to develop their own aesthetics, eventually building ornate, conspicuous structures full of windows and natural light, open to the world around them.

Paul Goldberger, an architecture critic, rejects that narrative. When the money was there, he says, congregations built showy, elaborate structures. He points to buildings such as New York City's Central Synagogue, an ornate structure built in the 19th century. But even the most extravagant synagogues, he adds, aren't built to conform to a particular style. We can picture a Gothic cathedral or a New England church and steeple. But with synagogues, we don't have an equivalent image in our heads. "Many great architects have taken on the challenge of doing a synagogue," Goldberger says, "and they've all been very different--which is wonderful."

Take Erich Mendelsohn, a well-known German architect, whose domed Park Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio "alluded to tradition without copying it." And then there's Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Pa., whose glass walls and ceilings slope upward, forming a pyramidal tower. In San Francisco, Albert Pissis's 20,000 square-foot structure, Congregation Sherith Israel, combines Classical Revival, Romanesque and Islamic styles.

But religious life is evolving and the modern synagogue, like the community center, is about choices. It's about members, on their own terms, deciding how they want to participate in a selection of small-group activities. The result: Smaller groups cram into classrooms and office spaces for the minutiae of religious life, while massive sanctuaries rarely reach capacity. …

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