Why Temples Look the Way They Do

Daniel Hillel Freelander

From Reform Judaism, Fall 1994
Reprinted with permission.

Reform synagogue architecture in America has from the beginning followed artistic trends and architectural norms. Jewish immigrants from Central Europe, who erected their community’s first and second synagogues between the 1840s and 1930s, sought to win the respect and admiration of their non-Jewish neighbors by integrating the best architectural forms of the day, emulating the classic designs of courthouses, city halls, and churches. Synagogue members took great civic pride in the classic architecture and understated elegance of their temple, which was usually located in the central part of town, near the business districts where members lived and worked.

These “Stage One” sanctuaries, usually rectangular in shape with high vaulted ceilings, were awe inspiring spaces. Heavy woods, stone, and stained glass contributed to excellent acoustics. The organ and choir were hidden in a loft behind the ark or in a rear balcony to keep the worshiper from being distracted by the choir members. A small central bimah and reading desk were adequate for the rabbi.

The sanctuary, which had an air of “other worldliness,” demanded decorum and respect. Reform Jews came to hear great art music and inspired preaching, to be transformed by the transcendent combination of art, music, word, and architecture that was the worship style of “Stage One” Reform Judaism. The liturgical responses and prayers were recited primarily by the clergy and choir, but whenever the congregants read a passage or sang a hymn, the acoustics created a powerful sense of community.

Minimal concern was devoted to social space or synagogue administration in “Stage One” congregations. Tiny offices for the rabbi and secretary were tucked away behind the bimah. A small vestry space and kitchen downstairs handled social events and meetings. A few small classrooms accommodated the students of the one-day-a-week Sunday School.

“Stage Two” Architecture

The end of World War II brought significant change to American Jewry and synagogue architecture. Jews began leaving the central city for the suburbs, where they once again sought to make significant social and architectural statement with their sacred spaces. As with the neighboring churches, economy ruled the day. The result was a low, squarish synagogue sanctuary with cinder block walls. The space was “warmed up” with lots of wall-to-wall carpeting, conspiring with the porous cinder block to make the human voice virtually inaudible without the aid of a sound amplification system. This new sacred space featured a large bimah area to accommodate the increasing number of individuals who would participate in worship; volunteer choirs, large confirmation classes, bar mitzvah celebrants and their families, the fifth grade Hebrew class, etc.

Recognizing the need to welcome a large number of High Holiday worshipers present on only three or four days of the year, these congregations introduced a widely adopted design feature of “Stage Two” synagogues — the retractable folding wall separating the permanent sanctuary from a much larger social hall. Sight lines from the rear of the social hall required a much larger and physically higher bimah than in the past, often 46 feet above the first row of pews. Worshipers abandoned sitting in the first few rows because they couldn’t see the rabbi or bar mitzvah boy standing behind the reading desk without straining their necks. In all but a few sanctuaries, the sense of appropriate scale was lost for those who worshiped weekly in the fixed seat sanctuary. The beauty of the space could only be fully appreciated from behind the folding wall.

“Stage One” Suburbia

When members of “Stage One” congregation moved to the suburbs after World War II, they hired top architects to design impressive building that would announce the relocation of their synagogue. Not bound by the financial restraints facing start-up “Stage Two” congregations, they once again built huge sanctuaries, recreating the grandeur of the spaces they left behind in the center city. Their new spaces continued to reflect the worship ethos of “Stage one,” shielding their choirs and organs in hidden lofts and creating sanctuaries for High Holiday crowds.

The offspring of many Eastern European Jews joined the new “Stage Two” suburban Reform congregation in the years following World War II, and their ritual and cultural preferences deeply influenced Reform worship styles. Bar mitzvah was reinstated. Congregants read more Hebrew. More congregations engaged cantors. A second reading desk was added to the bimah to accommodate the cantor, and the organ and choir were moved down from the loft behind the ark so the accompanist and choir members could see the cantor. Low dividers or potted trees often shielded the choir members and organ from public view.

The permanent sanctuaries of “Stage Two” congregations were far smaller than their predecessors, but their social, educational, and administrative spaces dwarfed those of “Stage One” temples. Booming religious school enrollment required many large classrooms. Principals and cantors needed their own offices, as did temple administrators, educators, bookkeepers, and clerical personnel. The sisterhood and bar mitzvah families required a kitchen big enough to handle catered luncheons and dinners held in the large social hall. Suddenly the sanctuary was no longer the most visible and utilized space in the synagogue.

“Stage Three” Architecture

In the late 1960 synagogue worship style and architecture once again underwent significant changes in response to the shifting political and social climate of the time. The protest movement emerging on university campuses spread to churches and synagogues. Congregants insisted on greater democratization in worship and more congregational participation. Reform synagogues founded in the 1970s were based on principles of full participation. Women demanded and won leadership positions. Congregants and rabbis wrote experimental liturgies and creative services to reinvigorate the worship experience. Refusing to sit quietly while the choir sang or the rabbi read, Reform Jews began to read and sing out loud with far greater comfort than ever before. Rabbis began rearranging the chairs to achieve more intimacy and participation.

“Stage Three” congregations of the 1970s and 1980s were quite modest compared to their predecessors. Designed with relatively low ceilings, their small sanctuaries, with flexible seating, often doubled as multipurpose spaces. Social halls disappeared, as congregations preferred to rent outside facilities for the High Holidays. Religious school classrooms were built to accommodate no more that 12–15 students.

In some ways this new synagogue design, which has continued to the present day, reflects the same economic pragmatism faced by start up “Stage Two” congregations three decades earlier, in which multipurpose meeting spaces doubled as sanctuaries. But many of the “Stage Three” changes were driven by new factors, such as the energy crisis of the 1970s. Congregations could not afford to heat or air condition massive social halls used only 4 or 5 times a year, or classrooms used one or twice a week. Sanctuaries with high ceilings were seen as an energy nightmare. The building materials changed as well; wood stud construction with dry wall board and thick insulation replaced the cinder blocks and stonework of earlier days, and double pane glass windows and skylights replaced stained glass.

Most importantly, “Stage Three: synagogues reflect new worship styles. Sanctuaries are built with Shabbat worship in mind, setting out seats based on expected attendance. To encourage congregational participation and make the worship leaders more accessible, the bimah is built low and open, and seats are often arranged in a “U’ or semicircle so worshipers can see one another. Sound systems are rarely necessary, as discussion and Torah dialogues have often replaced formal sermons. Organs and choir spaces rarely exist; members prefer a cappella singing or the use of electronic keyboards or guitar as accompaniment.

In all three stages Reform Jews have erected building that mirror who we are, who we want to be, and how we want to be viewed by others. It remains to be seen if effective “Stage Three: worship can take place in “Stage One” or “Stage Two buildings. Even more challenging in our older synagogues is the presence of two or even three different constituencies of Jews, each with their own diverse worship preferences.

In the beginning Reform Jewish worship was more monolithic, and the sacred spaces our founding families designed clearly reflected the worship desires of the vast majority of members. Accommodating diversity of worship is one of the great challenges facing our movement, one that will shape our style of worship and architecture for generations to come.