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Wright Synagogue Adds Some of the Right Stuff

November 5, 2009 By:
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Beth Sholom Congregation

While it's pretty hard to miss Beth Sholom Congregation's striking edifice as you drive past it on Old York Road in Elkins Park, it hasn't always been that easy to tour the inside of the only synagogue ever designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Up until now, taking a tour meant calling ahead and making an appointment. But that's about to change.

Exactly 50 years after first dedicating the building -- which rises about the street and the tree line like a ship's mast pointing skyward -- the Conservative synagogue is set to open a visitor center that will have regular hours three days a week.

The hope is, according to synagogue officials, that the new center will allow a wider swath of the public to tour the building that's infused with architectural and Judaic symbolism, and appreciate -- possibly even debate -- its significance to both American architecture and postwar Jewish life.

"It's probably the only synagogue that people would know just by the name of the architect," said historian Susan G. Solomon, author of the recent Louis I. Kahn's Jewish Architecture: Mikveh Israel and the Mid-century American Synagogue.

She added that the irony in analyzing synagogue architecture is that, for most of Jewish history, religious space has been considered relatively unimportant. Judaism has lacked the tradition of grand church building that became central to Christianity; for Jews, as long as there were 10 individuals, almost any space could function as a place of prayer.

The design of Beth Sholom "was about politics and sociology" in 1950s America, she said. "It's not about religion per se."

Two years ago, the shul's architectural significance was further recognized when the National Park Service declared it a National Historic Landmark.

Preservationist Emily Cooperman led the synagogue's rigorous application process; now she runs the Beth Sholom Preservation Foundation, a separate nonprofit entity that's overseeing the visitor center.

For Cooperman, Beth Sholom's structure speaks volumes, "not only about American Judaism and American architecture, but about life in this country after World War II and the place of Jews and Judaism."

The 1950s was a time when Jews in various Philadelphia neighborhoods, as well as in cities across the country, were trading urban enclaves for burgeoning suburban environments.

Part of the Fabric

Though far from disappearing completely, the overt anti-Semitism of the pre-war years had lessened substantially.

In 1955, Will Herberg published his highly influential treatise Protestant Catholic Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology, which argued that Judaism had become a vital part of the fabric of American life.

Solomon wrote that the overall optimism of postwar America imbued a new sense of daring in some religious denominations -- Protestant churches were the first to embrace a modernist, international-style architecture to help define the new reality.

Soon, the merits of modernism were being discussed in Jewish publications likeCommentary. Then, in 1953, the Reform movement published An American Synagogue for Today and Tomorrow: A Guide Book to Synagogue Design and Construction.

Yet it was a Conservative rabbi, Beth Sholom's Mortimer J. Cohen, who hoped to make the grandest statement of all.

In leaving the Logan section of Philadelphia and building a new home in Elkins Park, Cohen pushed to get the pre-eminent architect of the century to create a sort of traveling Mount Sinai -- a place that symbolized and defined both Jewish tradition and the new American reality of inclusion, he said.

Wright accepted the commission in December 1953, at age 86. It was completed in September 1959, six months after his death.

"Frank Lloyd Wright and Rabbi Cohen clearly had this extended, remarkable conversation about what's Judaism, what's religious symbolism, what goes into a religious building," said Cooperman. "There was an awful lot about Jewish meaning that Frank Lloyd Wright just didn't know, because he was this Unitarian. So there was this complimentary relationship between the two, where Rabbi Cohen supplied the words and Wright supplied the visuals."

The installation at the visitor center -- including a 20-minute documentary narrated by Leonard Nimoy -- will largely focus on the give-and-take between the religious leader and the architect. The new exhibit will feature multimedia stations where folks can delve into different facets of the shul's story. (The center will be located in one of the building's lounges, and the room will serve other purposes as well.)

Herbert Sachs, a former president of Beth Sholom who now chairs the preservation foundation, said a number of leaders at the synagogue felt that the building wasn't as widely known or appreciated by the public as many of Wright's other iconic designs. That led the push for greater awareness, which began several years ago, first for landmark designation and now for the visitor center.

"We believe that Beth Sholom is one of the most significant buildings that Frank Lloyd Wright ever created, and that feeling seems to be shared by an increasing number of people," said Sachs.

Oh, Those Leaky Roofs!

But as any Wright scholar will tell you, practicality was not always the architect's top concern; many of his buildings are known for their leaky roofs.

The synagogue's senior rabbi, David Glanzberg-Krainin, acknowledged that the congregation has had to deal with logistical challenges, such as the fact that it can be expensive to heat and cool the building. Another complaint: the aisles are steep, and often difficult to maneuver.

Nevertheless, the rabbi said that it's "an awe-inspiring space. One of the great privileges I have is to observe Neilah in that room. The glass is translucent, and you perceive the setting of the sun as Yom Kippur ends."

A dedication ceremony for the new center is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 15, at 2 p.m. Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, is slated to speak. For more information, call 215-887-1342.

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