"Beth Sholom', Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
Haim F. Ghiuzeli
The Congregation Beth Sholom Conservative community was established in 1919 in the Logan neighborhood of Philadelphia. Following a move to the suburbs by many of its members, the community relocated its institutions to Elkins Park, PA, in 1950. It was in this new location in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia that the Community Center and the Philip L. Sheer Religious School were opened in the early 1950’s. Other buildings were added later, including what was to become one of the most renowned synagogues in the United States.
The initiative for building a synagogue was launched in 1953. In September of the same year the congregation commissioned the celebrated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) to design a prayer house for the community. Wright’s plans were approved by the Board of Directors of the Congregation soon after they had been presented in March 1954. The building was inaugurated on September 20, 1959, a few months after the passing away of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The inspiration for the design of the Beth Sholom synagogue is the result of long conversations between Frank Lloyd Wright and Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen (1894-1972), the founder of the Beth Sholom congregation and its first rabbi for many years – he served the congregation from 1919 to 1964 and then as Rabbi Emeritus until 1972. Wright, who as the son of a Unitarian minister had himself a deep knowledge of the Bible, strived to create a building that would convey a powerful religious symbolism. Even though essentially a modern structure, the building of Beth Sholom synagogue embodies numerous Jewish symbols that have been designed and interpreted in an innovative and unexpected fashion by the creative genius of Frank Lloyd Wright, then well into his eighties.
Traditionally synagogue edifices blended Jewish symbols with architectural and decorative elements inspired by the local traditions of the host countries. Unlike previous synagogues that many times looked like mosques, churches, temples, and even pagodas, Beth Sholom synagogue was conceived to be the first truly American synagogue. While fundamentally a modern structure reflecting the American pioneering spirit, the building nevertheless features architectural ideas and decorative elements that derive from sources as diverse as wooden Polish synagogues of the 17th – 19th centuries, traditional Maya architecture of Mexico, and from the art of Native American nations.
According to Wright’s own testimony, the hexagonal basis of the building is reminiscent of two joined hands because “when one enters a place of worship, he should feel as if he were resting in the very hands of God”. This imagery is strengthened by the two lateral extensions on the front of the building corresponding to the thumbs. The general aspect of the building is suggestive of Mount Sinai, the place of the Divine revelation. It also reminds of the ancient tent tabernacle used by the Children of Israel while wandering in desert and as a reference to traditional Native American tents.
Seen from the exterior the synagogue building resembles a low mountain with a flat top. This impression is conveyed by the dominant geometric form of the building: a tripod – one of the most stable geometrical bodies. It allows for the extensive use of glass (later replaced with plastic) for the roof and the walls and permits the creation of a high dome without the need of support pillars at the interior. The synagogue building communicates a powerful message of a solid and yet an airy structure. The light reflecting from its coverings is meant to emphasize the resemblance to Mount Sinai that according to the biblical text was gleaming during the revelation.
There are numerous Jewish symbols employed all over the building, both at the exterior and in its interior. The three ridges of the building have been decorated with Menorah chandeliers that can be seen from all directions. The main entrance features a covering whose form resembles the gesture of the cohanim blessing the Israelites when entering the Tabernacle. In addition the fountain located in the front of the building symbolizes the ancient Laver made of copper used in Antiquity by worshippers to wash their hands before prayers and sacrifices.
The interior of the building is divided into two floors. The ground floor includes service areas and a central lobby leading to two symmetrical large lounges located to the north and the south sides of the building. One lounge has a capacity of more than one hundred sitting places; the second lounge, which is equipped with a kitchenette, serves as a place for refreshments for Bar Mitzvah and other festivities. The ground floor also includes two separate Bridal Suites serving the brides and grooms and their attendants for the wedding ceremony. At the east side of the lobby and separated from the other rooms by glass doors, is the Sisterhood Sanctuary. This smaller prayer hall accommodates about two hundred twenty people. The Holy Ark, located at the east end and made of American black walnut wood, contains seven Torah scrolls. The bimah is surrounded by two Menorah chandeliers of aluminum. A ner tamid (oil lamp) hangs over the Holy Ark. Memorabilia from the old building of the synagogue, including the ner tamid, are on display in a specially arranged Memorial Alcove at the southwest corner of the room.
The main prayer hall is situated at the first floor and is accessed from two stairways located at both lateral sides of the front entrance. The stairs are covered with sand colored carpets suggesting the peregrinations of the Children of Israel in the Sinai desert. The same color dominates the main prayer hall, which lays below a 35 meter (110 feet) high dome. There are 1062 sitting places inside the synagogue; they are arranged around the bimah in a number of sections and in a way that enables everyone to feel close and take an active part in the service.
The Holy Ark, like the one in the Sisterhood Sanctuary at the ground floor is located at the east end and is made of dark walnut wood with doors of glass enabling the light from inside to be seen from outside. It contains ten Torah scrolls, as the number of the commandments inscribed on the Tablets of the Law. The Holy Ark is crowned by a composition made of aluminum and glass and known as the “Wings”. It incorporates the ner tamid and is covered by the Hebrew inscription Kadosh (Holy) in gold letters. The composition is an illustration to chapter 6 of the Book of Isaiah. There are six arches on each side of the Holy Ark corresponding to the number of books of the Mishna; each arch has a pole with five bulbs representing the five books of the Torah. The interior is lighted up by natural light entering through the transparent walls overhead. At night, the entire building shines from interior artificial illumination. A polychrome chandelier hanging from the ceiling features twelve lights, as the number of the Tribes of Israel, arranged on three sides representing the traditional division of the Jewish people into Cohanim (priests), Levites (assistants to the priests) and Israelites.
The Beth Sholom synagogue is widely recognized as Wright’s most expressive house of worship. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has listed the Beth Sholom synagogue of Elkins Park, PA, as one of the seventeen American buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to be preserved as an example of his architectural contribution to American culture.
Congregation Beth Sholom is a vibrant Conservative congregation comprising about 1,300 families. Prayers are being held in the Beth Sholom synagogue daily and are attended by numerous members of the community. The community center and the other institutions, organizations, and associations maintain many cultural, educational, religious and social activities.
Beth Sholom Congregation
8231 Old York Road
Elkins Park, PA 19027
ISRAELOWITZ, Oscar. Synagogues of the United States. A Photographic and Architectural Survey. Pp. 119. New York: Israelowitz Publishing, 1992
TALBOT DAVIS, Patricia. Together they built a Mountain. Pp. 179, 45 b-a-w photos. 1974