The Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC

photo by: NCinDC/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

April 25, 2016

More of America's Most Beautiful, Inspiring, and Unique Synagogues (Part 2)

Last week, we looked at several of America's most fascinating synagogues. Because there are many Jewish houses of worship that so greatly enrich our country's architectural, cultural, and religious landscape, we've decided to bring you another set.

These amazing places include an onion dome-topped synagogue in the Lone Star State, a sanctuary whose visitors have included American presidents and Israeli prime ministers, and a former temple topped with a cross and now owned by the Catholic Church. If we've succeeded in arousing your interest, keep on reading!

Adas Israel Congregation—Washington, D.C.

Few synagogues can boast more history than Adas Israel (top photo). In 1876, Ulysses S. Grant attended the original temple’s dedication—located on Sixth and G Streets—making him the first sitting United States president to attend a Jewish religious service. Grant wasn’t the only historic figure to visit, though. In 1963, Adas Israel became the first Jewish congregation that Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed. Meanwhile, Adas Israel’s visitors have included American presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Barack Obama, as well as Israeli prime ministers Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. As the size of Adas Israel's congregation grew, it moved to its second location in 1908 at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Later, he congregation moved again to its third and current location on Quebec Street in Cleveland Park. Adas Israel's newest building features the Garden of the Righteous, a moving tribute to Gentiles who aided Jews during the Holocaust. Each year, a tile with the name of a different Righteous Gentile is unveiled on a plaque on a rock next to the synagogue.

Free Synagogue of Flushing

photo by: Chung Chu/Flickr/CC BY-NC ND 2.0

The Free Synagogue of Flushing.

Free Synagogue of Flushing—Queens, New York

The Neo-Classical Free Synagogue of Flushing has been a beacon of progressive Judaism for almost a century. It features stained glass windows from Czechoslovakia, a domed ceiling, and a gold-leaf filigree motif carved in wooden features throughout the synagogue. Built in 1917, it is the oldest Reform congregation in Queens. Founded by the Hebrew Women’s Aid Society, the Free Synagogue of Flushing’s founding philosophy reflects several progressive tenets: freedom of religion, freedom in terms of seating (in Orthodox synagogues, women sit separately from the men), the equality of men and women, and social activism.

Temple Adas Israel—Brownsville, Tennessee

Built in 1881 by two Jewish immigrants from Germany, Temple Adas Israel is among the oldest synagogues in Tennessee. Originally built from wood, the synagogue was later reconstructed using brick, although a few original elements—such as the stained glass windows—remain. There is a window with an eye similar to the Eye of Providence symbolizing God above the Torah ark. The original wood synagogue featured a steeple, a rarity for a Jewish place of worship. Initially an Orthodox synagogue, Adas Israel gradually moved towards Reform Judaism. The congregation never had a permanent rabbi, although religious services are still held there one Friday a month.

Temple Beth-El in Corsicana, Texas

photo by: Michele/Flickr/CC BY-NC ND 2.0

Temple Beth-El's onion dome-topped windows make it look like an Orthodox church from a distance.

Temple Beth-El—Corsicana, Texas

While it might look like an Orthodox Christian church from afar with its onion dome-topped octagonal towers, Beth-El is a Reform synagogue. Built in 1898-1900 and designed by an unidentified architect, this wood frame building constructed in the Moorish Revival style also features a large rosette window and flanking arched windows. Although the building bears a striking resemblance to a synagogue outside Warsaw, Poland, it was built by 19th-century Jewish immigrants from Germany who had brought the Moorish Revival style with them across the Atlantic. Temple Beth-El is no longer used for religious purposes; it currently functions as a community center.

Congregation Rodeph Shalom—Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Congregation Rodeph Shalom was built in 1927 in the Moorish Revival and Byzantine styles, It was modeled after the Great Synagogue of Florence, Italy. Its Torah Ark is made of Italian marble resting on marble columns and concealed by massive doors made of Italian bronze. Inside the Ark are six Torah scrolls, one of which was rescued during the Holocaust in the Czech city of Brno. The building features a massive dome and is lit by stained glass windows. Both the interior and exterior walls are adorned with painted geometric designs.

Temple Beth-El in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

photo by: Joy Van Buhler/Flickr/CC BY-NC ND 2.0

Temple Beth El's design connects it to nature.

Temple Beth El—Bloomfield, Michigan

The current building of Temple Beth El was completed in 1973 to house Michigan’s oldest Jewish congregation. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, famous for completing, among other things, the original World Trade Center building, its style is unmistakably Modern. Its vertical, sloping structure is similar to a tent, symbolizing the Tent of Meeting referenced in the Hebrew Bible as well as the tents that were the first Jewish places of worship. Several of its features harmonize it with nature: Transparent light beams allow the temple to be naturally lit, while large spruce and pine trees protect the congregation from external distractions.

Temple Emanu-El—Helena, Montana

Many Jews came to Montana during the Gold Rush of the 19th century. In 1891, they built Temple Emanu-El in a marriage of the Neo-Romanesque and Moorish Revival styles, with onion domes (that are now gone) topping two towers, keyhole windows, and stained glass. By the 1930s, Montana’s Jewish population declined, and the building was no longer used for Jewish services. In subsequent years, the building was used as office space by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services and storage for the Montana Historical Society. Since 1980, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena has maintained administrative offices there. While Emanu-El is now adorned with a cross, there is still evidence of its Jewish past, such as original stained glass windows and a cornerstone marking the Hebrew year when it was founded (5651).

Sherith Israel Congregation in San Francisco

photo by: Elizabeth Krumbach Joseph/Flickr/CC-BY 2.0

The rosette in Sherith Israel resembles those of Europe's great Gothic cathedrals, such as Notre Dame.

Congregation Sherith Israel—San Francisco, California

Mexican-French-American architect Albert Pissis, the first San Franciscan to have graduated from the famous École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, designed the Sherith Israel synagogue. Consecrated in 1905, the synagogue represents a blend of the Byzantine and Romanesque styles, with its rosette evoking the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. This massive building is topped with a dome that rises 120 feet above ground level. The stained glass windows were designed by Emile M. Pissis, the architect's brother, while Italian-born artist Attilio Moretti, known for his renditions of saints in Catholic churches across California, created the frescoes and paintings. The congregation initially catered to Polish and German immigrants drawn to California during the Gold Rush era. The building suffered only minor damage during the 1906 earthquake and survived the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake completely unscathed.

Chicago Loop Synagogue—Chicago, Illinois

This synagogue is in the Loop, Chicago's business district. Its central location makes it Chicago's most important Jewish place of worship, and Jewish leaders from around the world have visited. Initially built in 1929 as an Orthodox synagogue, it was destroyed by a fire, after which it was rebuilt with architectural design that was anything but orthodox. The Loebl, Schlossman, & Bennett firm decided to redesign it in a hyper-Modernist fashion that would make it blend well with neighboring skyscrapers. It's composed of planes of metal and glass topped by a zigzag metal cornice. There a unique sculpture by Israeli artist Henri Azaz showing outstretched hands. The east wall consists of Modernist stained glass inspired by Genesis 1:3: "“And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.”


Filip Mazurczak was an editorial intern at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He previously worked as a freelance journalist, translator, and editor. He is from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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