America's Most Beautiful, Inspiring, and Unique Synagogues (Part 1)
Home to about 5.7 million Jews, the United States can boast of the world’s second-largest Jewish population after Israel. The Jewish people have been present here since the mid-seventeenth century, with each subsequent wave of immigrants transforming American society with their contributions to science, cuisine, culture, and, yes, architecture—particularly their synagogues. SavingPlaces.org has taken a look at some of the most remarkable examples of these houses of worship, representing all American regions and some unexpected architectural styles.
Designed by Boston architect Charles Greco and finished in 1924, the Temple (top photo) incorporates neo-Romanesque and neo-Byzantine motifs, such as a golden dome. The synagogue also features stained glass windows by Arthur Szyk, the great Polish-Jewish artist and illustrator known for his renditions of great events in Polish and American history, depicting Gideon, Samson, and Judah Maccabee. It is also one of three sites of the Temple Museum of Religious Art. Temple Tifereth is currently working with Case Western Reserve University to build a performing arts center, which occasionally will be used for religious purposes.
The synagogue’s name comes from Bialystok, the Polish city from which the Jewish immigrants who founded the site originated. The beautiful, elaborately carved Torah Ark inside the temple came from Bialystok as well. Initially, the building—made of schist from a nearby quarry—was a Methodist Episcopal church, ultimately becoming a Jewish place of worship in 1905. The synagogue is the oldest building used for Jewish religious purposes in New York City today and is one of just four early-19th century fieldstone houses of worship from the late Federal period in lower Manhattan.
Where would you expect to find Shelley Winters, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, and two of the Three Stooges? Other than at an Academy Awards ceremony decades ago, at the Actors’ Temple. Initially founded as the Orthodox Congregation Ezrath Israel in 1917 to cater to shopkeepers, the synagogue eventually become Conservative and in the 1920s refocused its attention on the spiritual needs of Jewish actors from nearby Broadway. In addition to luminaries in the performing arts, baseball star Sandy Koufax also worshiped there. Currently, the Actors’ Temple is experiencing financial hardship, so it has been renting out its space to Off Broadway companies to use for performances.
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Built in 1859, the year Oregon gained statehood, Congregation Beth Israel initially represented an eclectic mix of styles, most prominently Moorish Revival and Gothic Revival. It was adorned by two towers topped with onion domes. By 1889, the congregation outgrew their original space and a second structure was built. In 1923, however, the congregation's second building was destroyed in a fire. The group's third temple was modeled after the neo-Byzantine Alte Synagogue in Essen, Germany, considered to be the most beautiful German synagogue until it was destroyed by the Nazis during Kristallnacht. Today, the Beth Israel synagogue is regarded as one of the finest examples of Byzantine Revival architecture on the West Coast.
Adams Street Shul was built in 1911 by the oldest Jewish community in Newton. With its oculus Star of David window and round-arch windows in the front, the synagogue was unmistakably designed in the Romanesque Revival style; it was founded by German-Jewish immigrants who modeled it in the style of Reform synagogues they had grown accustomed to in Germany. Inside the synagogue is a gold-trimmed mahogany Ark carved by Sam Katz, a Ukrainian-born master woodworker. In the 1990s, the shul underwent a major renovation.
After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, thousands of Cubans fled the oppressive Castro dictatorship for American shores, including Cuban Jews. Also known as Temple Beth Shmuel and El Circulo, this synagogue, opened in 1961, has been an important site for the Cuban-Jewish community in Miami. Its Modernist architecture is reminiscent of the masterpieces of Antoni Gaudi that adorn Barcelona. Its unique design includes twelve stained-glass windows that symbolize the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Anshei Glen Wild Synagogue—Glen Wild, New York
Built in 1913, the Anshei Glen Wild synagogue is a relic of the glory days of the Borscht Belt. Between the 1920s and 1970s, many Jews vacationed in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, while others lived and farmed there. Twenty synagogues were built in Sullivan County, and today only 15, including Anshei Glen Wild, remain. Services are no longer held at the synagogue, although there is a cemetery next to it that binds the local Jewish community together. Built of concrete and stucco, the Orthodox temple features twelve windows symbolizing the Twelve Tribes of Israel, wooden pews, and two carved Lions of Judah holding a scroll with the Ten Commandments adorned by a large gilt crown.
Mount Sinai Temple—Sioux City, Iowa
Although Sioux City’s Jewish population has been declining in recent years, the Jewish presence there dates back to the 1860s. Mount Sinai Temple was built in 1901 and expanded in 1922. It is a rare example of a Jewish place of worship built in the Prairie School style, an attempt at creating a uniquely American architectural style independent of European influences championed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Mount Sinai Temple’s horizontality, which evokes the Midwest’s prairie landscape, and overhanging eaves are characteristic of the Prairie School.