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North Shore Congregation Israel, Chicago, 1977Library of Congress
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Thinking Big

How American synagogues grew into giant complexes with cavernous sanctuaries

Jenna Weissman Joselit
December 23, 2020
Library of Congress
North Shore Congregation Israel, Chicago, 1977Library of Congress

Stuck indoors for many months now, I find myself thinking a lot about space, especially large-scale communal spaces like the cavernous, auditorium-like sanctuary of the postwar suburban American synagogue. Back in the day, I looked askance at the way it placed a premium on scale rather than intimacy, highlighting theatricality at the expense of community. The modern American synagogue of the 1950s and ’60s, it seemed to me, had taken a wrong turn.

Now that I’m cooped up and my sense of capaciousness has shrunk to the size of a laptop screen, I miss the place. I yearn to be swallowed up by its acres of plush upholstered seats, set aglow by its battery of enormous picture windows, and ushered into the building by a generously proportioned lobby that calls to mind the sleek headquarters of a mid-century American corporation.

This 180-degree turn, which, I confess, took me by surprise, prompted a look at that moment in time when, in the aftermath of WWII, spaciousness became a national Jewish virtue, even a communal imperative. In contrast to its prewar predecessor whose spatial aspirations were hemmed in and constrained by the limitations of the modern city and the urban grid, the American synagogue of the 1950s and ’60s took advantage of its newfound suburban setting to spread its wings.

A sprawling, horizontal, low-slung affair, it now boasted what Baltimore’s Chizuk Amuno enthusiastically called “facilities”: “synagogue facilities, synagogue center facilities, school facilities, administration facilities.” Laying claim to a large footprint, the postwar American synagogue proudly likened itself to a “campus” or a “complex.”

The size of the sanctuary made an even stronger impression. A declaration of strength in numbers, it comfortably seated anywhere from 1,000 to 1,800 people. And, gilding the lily, the space had the capacity to become even larger. Thanks to the so-called flexible plan, or what, in the lingo of the day, was called a “system of interpenetrating functions,” as well as the increasing availability of chairs that were simultaneously dignified, stackable, and durable, the sanctuary could handily accommodate even more worshippers when the occasion warranted it—three times a year.

All sorts of modern amenities kept pace with the novel size of the enterprise: foam rubber cushioned seating in lieu of hard wooden pews; elaborate sound systems, air conditioning, and even remote control that, at Washington Hebrew Congregation in northwest D.C. was used to open and close the Ark housing the Torah. Meanwhile, Temple Beth El in South Bend, Indiana, had a “motor-driven altar,” which could be moved from the sanctuary to the social hall when the need arose. The cumulative effect of these and other technological innovations, or “mechanical refinements,” related Percival Goodman, the celebrated architect responsible for building a striking number of postwar American synagogues, in 1957, “is to create a service which moves with the smoothness of a television program.”

We might be inclined to take Goodman’s comment as a critique rather than a compliment, but I suspect that a substantial number of those postwar American Jews given eagerly to characterizing their amply proportioned suburban synagogue as “unprecedented,” “unique,” “assertive,” and singularly “modern,” might have relished it.

Even so, the postwar synagogue was not without its critics. Derided by some as more of a “secular monument” or a “country club” than a traditional house of worship, still others, among them the distinguished architect, Eric Mendelsohn, took particular exception to the oversize sanctuary, calling it “inadvisable.” The rabbi “cannot be at his best in front of empty seats,” nor can his congregants, who, in the absence of a full house, might find it difficult to “turn [their] mind[s] toward a higher plane,” he pointed out, warning that “mere size and pompousness” should not be countenanced.

Having sat through more than my fair share of Shabbat morning services in many a postwar sanctuary where, amid a sea of empty seats, ennui ruled the roost, I’ve experienced firsthand Mendelsohn’s caution. My mind wandering every which way but heavenward, let alone in the direction of the bimah, over yonder, I’ve often wondered what an earlier generation of American Jews could possibly have been thinking when it sprung for the oversize sanctuary.

After all, it’s not as if, by the early 1950s, American Jewry had constituted itself a shul-going population: The number of regular worshippers had declined steadily throughout the 20th century. All you had to do on a Shabbat morning, any Shabbat morning except when a bar mitzvah was in full force, was to take a look around you to be put in mind of diminishing returns.

For a brief spell, the ranks of the shul-going might have been momentarily augmented by the National Sabbath Observance Effort, a campaign launched in the early 1950s by the Women’s League of the Conservative movement to transform the Sabbath from a burden into a “day of delight” by attending services as a family. Concomitantly, the decision of the Conservative rabbinate in 1950 to permit driving to services on a Saturday morning may also have fueled, and perhaps even accelerated, the hopeful prospect of hordes of prayerful Jews descending en masse.

Even so, you have to wonder whether expectations ran so high that the powers that be actually anticipated that a thousand people might routinely show up, week in and week out, sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. It doesn’t seem likely, especially when it became clear rather early on that lifting the ban on driving had backfired, prompting more American Jews to head for the shopping center or the golf course than the synagogue.

How, then, are we, several generations later, to make sense of American Jewry’s commitment to capaciousness, a commitment that seemed to fly in the face of modern Jewish life? How might we go about softening the tension between size and occupancy, between ambition and reality? In accounting for postwar American Jewry’s embrace of expansiveness, chroniclers of the suburban experience enlist a wide range of factors, pointing, for starters, to the availability of inexpensive land and access to equally inexpensive construction loans. They also point to rising fertility rates, heightened consumerism, the allure of technology, and growing affluence as factors that might help us better understand the choices our suburban forebears made, often at great financial cost.

When it came to the budget, thinking strategically in terms of cash flow, not just of spending or raising money, affected their decision-making process as well. In a recent exchange, Rachel Kranson, author of the richly textured account of the suburban Jewish experience, Ambivalent Embrace, suggested that building capacious sanctuaries was a “long-term financial investment,” a way to capitalize on the sale of High Holiday seats, the income from which helped to sustain the synagogue all year long. When seen from this perspective, the oversize sanctuary just might be construed as a prescient fiscal instrument, the source of a steady revenue stream.

Much has also been made of the heightened role of professional architectural consultants like those furnished by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the United Synagogue of America, virtually all of whom beat the drum of modernism. A latter-day architectural idiom that pivoted on spaciousness, on generating a keen and abundant sense of space, as well as on the use of new building materials and novel methods of construction, modernism seemed perfectly attuned to life in the suburbs.

And that was just the half of it. Modernism, according to a number of its practitioners, held a special resonance for America’s Jews. Insisting that “this new modern style commends itself particularly to us as Jews,” the UAHC’s Architects Advisory Panel strongly encouraged the members of the all-powerful building committees to go modern. If left to their own untutored devices, they might have preferred a colonial-styled synagogue or a Moorish-inflected one. The “contemporary way of building,” these professionals persuasively explained, furnished “visual proof that we Jews are full participants in this momentous period of American history.”

Excellent points, all. And yet, I’m more inclined to think of postwar American Jewry’s relationship to spatial volume as a sensibility, or, better yet, as a rallying cry. Bigness functioned as a form of cultural assertion—perhaps even as an expression of cultural defiance: We’re still here and we’re not going anywhere. Few, if any, fundraising brochures or sermons urging congregants to donate to the building fund allude directly to the recent destruction of European Jewry—conspicuous by their absence, these references were typically oblique and mediated rather than explicit and direct—and yet building big in the wake of the war must have struck American Jews of the 1950s as an unparalleled opportunity to stay the hand of history. Though it put the members of this generation to the test, giving rise to challenges that were at once financial and liturgical, their commitment to a bold footprint and an extravagantly sized sanctuary was, at its very core, an exercise in optimism: Building big meant thinking big.

Thinking big was precisely what was needed back then and it just might be what’s needed right now.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.