Remaking the Modern-Day Synagogue

February, 06 2017

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, pre-marriage”—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 passé?

a synagogue

Modern day synagogues feature modern day architecture.

As times change, synagogues change too, ranging from classical to more modern architecture.

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.

“People know; they sit in the first three or four rows,” says Debra Hachen, a rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, New Jersey. “We are there sometimes with only 15–20 people.”

Temple Beth-El, built 90 years ago, was designed for a congregation of 900. Today it serves only 150 families and most services are much smaller. The sanctuary is difficult to heat or cool and Hachen often leads services in the social hall downstairs. During high holidays congregants sit among whirring fans. Because the 11,000 square-foot sanctuary takes up most of the space in the building, other space is limited. Children have classes on the balconies; a secretary works in an un-air-conditioned room barely larger than a closet.

For decades, synagogue leaders considered choosing a smaller property and selling the old building. It would be the sensible thing to do. But they always relented: What about the vaulted blue ceilings, the sunsets through the stained glass, the nine decades of history?

They settled on a compromise: Soon, they will be renovating the space and the sanctuary will be separated into sections. Rows of seats will be lifted up on risers, creating room for more intimate alcoves below: classrooms, offices, a lounge. A new elevator will help the temple’s aging population, some of whom have trouble walking up and down stairs.

“The single biggest thing that we get asked to do is, ‘How can we make our building handicap-accessible?’” says Zinder. At Temple Tikvah in New Hyde Park, New York, Zinder’s firm designed a table that moves up and down to accommodate Torah readers of different heights. But while this solution works well at the Reform synagogue, the table uses electricity. It likely wouldn’t be an option in many Orthodox congregations, which don’t use electricity on Shabbat.

For many synagogue leaders, design is a balancing act between spirituality and functionality. Yes, they want to evoke grandeur—but there’s so much they want their congregants to feel: That they’re at home. Among friends. Accepted. Not too cramped.

Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City is one of the country’s largest LGBT synagogues. When synagogue leaders recently purchased a new building, they wanted something bright, open and bold—something that reflected the congregation’s unique history. “We wanted it to make a statement with beauty,” says Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum. Rainbow flags adorn the lobby, visible through a series of large storefront windows. The synagogue received special permission to build a series of gender-neutral bathrooms, which feature photographs, newspaper clippings and an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” on bright red wallpaper:

I hear and behold God in every object…
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.

That idea—that divinity can be found anywhere—appeals to the culture of the moment. Some synagogues, looking to try something new, are opting for familiarity over grandeur; they aim not to transcend the everyday, but to embody it.

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