With its glass triangular top, Beth Sholom Congregation’s building — designed by the late fabled architect Frank Lloyd Wright — is a sight to behold.
As a child, Elliot Miller, now chairman of the ways and means committee at Beth Sholom, thought the building looked like a spaceship.
When member Carol Kershbaum, who was 15 when the building was completed, first saw it, she thought it looked like Mount Sinai. “We had never seen anything like that in this area,” she recalled.
Thomas Hine had yet another take. Writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer, the design and art critic described it as a “building that fuses 1950s highway-strip elements with a timeless spirituality.”
“[Then-Beth Sholom Congregation] Rabbi Mortimer Cohen, who worked closely with Wright, and even had the temerity to send him his own drawings as suggestions, was determined that this glass-and-concrete mountain be an expression of faith,” Hine wrote. “But it was also a celebration of an exodus from immigrant city neighborhoods to leafy suburbia and visible evidence of the success of its members.”
The building will commemorate its 60th anniversary this year at the same time the congregation marks its 100th anniversary. Beth Sholom will hold seven events to celebrate.
A presentation on a century of Philadelphia Jewish life occurred Oct. 14. On Nov. 4, Beth Sholom hosts a Jewish collegiate a cappella competition.
The celebration will continue with five more events through May. These include a Centennial Club party, a presentation by Hine, a concert of cantors, a scholar-in-residence weekend and a gala.
“For a congregation to be around 100 years is pretty good,” Miller said. “People drive by our building in Elkins Park all the time, and they don’t know what they’re driving by. When you walk in our building, it’s a pretty amazing place. It’s amazing what goes on in here, and it’s also amazing to look at.”
In 1918, the synagogue was founded in the Logan neighborhood of North Philadelphia. It was named “House of Peace” to honor the recent end of World War I.
As Philadelphia’s Jewish population began to migrate from the city to the suburbs, Beth Sholom decided to move with them. The synagogue created a center in Elkins Park in 1951, and then, in 1953, Cohen commissioned Wright to design a synagogue. The building was dedicated in September 1959.
“When I was growing up, the synagogue was the hub of my entire existence,” Kershbaum said.
Kershbaum has had a connection to Beth Sholom almost her entire life. Growing up in the synagogue in the ’40s and ’50s, some of her earliest memories were there. When she was a toddler, her father took her with him when he went to Beth Sholom to teach Sunday school.
She met her friends through United Synagogue Youth (USY) as well. She also helped start a pre-USY group for younger students.
High school students came to Beth Sholom for dances at the synagogue in the late ’50s and ’60s, she said, which were some of the biggest in the area.
“Our entire social life and our friendships all revolved around the synagogue,” Kershbaum said. “That’s where we would all gather. We would always look forward to the things that we did.”
Kershbaum’s confirmation ceremony took place just before the congregation started using its new Elkins Park building.
Confirmation ceremonies were different back then, she said. The ceremony was a larger event than today. Boys dressed in suits, while girls donned white dresses. There were about 40 students in her confirmation class, while today’s classes have only a handful.
As they got older, she and her group of friends started going out together. Different couples who knew each other through the synagogue dated, and some eventually got married.
In the 1980s, Kershbaum moved to Florida. When she moved back, she got involved in Beth Sholom again and, about 10 years ago, became a member.
Miller became a member in 1991. Six years later, he and his family moved to Elkins Park to be closer to the synagogue.
“There was just so much here to do,” Miller said. “There was a great religious school, youth groups for my son. I was active in the Men’s Club. I’m a past president in the Men’s Club. There was a young marrieds group we participated in.”
When Kershbaum comes into Beth Sholom Congregation, others recognize her from years ago and remember her family. She spends more time in Florida than in Philadelphia now, but Beth Sholom still feels more like an extension of her family than just a synagogue.
“To me, this is home,” Kershbaum said. “Beth Sholom is a very big part of home for me.”
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