Over the last few years, The Complete Pilgrim has featured stories about synagogues all over the United States, looking at the most historic by region. Today The Complete Pilgrim is narrowing it down to a highly subjective top ten list of America’s must-see synagogues, which would be difficult in just New York (which I just realized I have never done a list for!). Actually, I couldn’t get it down past twelve. Plus a bonus:
Beth Sholom Synagogue (Honorable Mention)
Elkins Park, Pennsylvania (built 1954)
The Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania is the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is one of the relatively few projects of his in Pennsylvania, and one of the last that he personally worked on. In a portfolio of unique designs this was one of the most distinctive. Its iconic feature is the pyramid-like roof, which incorporates elements reminiscent of Mesoamerican and Asian architectural styles.
Beth Sholom incorporates many symbolic elements, such as the beige floor which is designed to evoke images of the Exodus in the desert. The roof is designed translucently to allow in light during the day and to make the building seem to glow at night. The synagogue has been cited for its expressiveness, the most so for any of the houses of worship he designed.
11. Congregation Sherith Israel (tie)
San Francisco, California (1905)
Congregation Sherith Israel is one of two Jewish congregations in San Francisco that were born out of the California Gold Rush. In 1849, small groups of Jewish immigrants, mostly from Germany, began arriving in the San Francisco area. These groups found each other, and formed a pre-congregation of sorts, possibly the first one in California (it is unknown if this group was predated by the one in Stockton). Initially these groups met and worshipped together, but in 1851 they formally established two different congregations using two different rites.
One group, largely from northeastern Germany, established the Congregation Sherith Israel. They constructed their first synagogue in 1854. Within a decade, the city’s Jewish population swelled, and so did the congregation. By the end of the 19th century a much larger synagogue was required, and in 1905 the new sanctuary was completed. At the time of its construction it was arguably the most magnificent synagogue in the United States, at least outside of New York City.
11. Congregation Emanu-El (tie)
San Francisco, California (1926)
Congregation Emanu-El is the fraternal twin of nearby Congregation Sherith Israel. It was formed out of the same original group of Jews that came together to worship for the first time in 1849. Depending on who you ask, it may technically be the older of the two (did the congregation split down the middle, or did one break away from the other?) Emanu-El also built its first synagogue in the early 1850s just a few blocks away from its sibling.
The long standing friendly rivalry between the two congregations was highlighted in the early 20th century when Sherith Israel completed its magnificent new temple. With its own fast congregation, Emanu-El also needed a new building. Not to be outdone, the constructed an equally magnificent synagogue in 1926.
10. Central Synagogue
New York, New York (built 1872)
The Central Synagogue in Manhattan is one of New York City’s religious architectural masterpieces. Somewhat overshadowed by the more historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and the immense Temple Emanu-El, the Central Synagogue is the oldest active synagogue in the city. It is considered by many to be among the most beautiful synagogues in the United States.
The Central Synagogue was inspired by the fabled Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, and is considered to be one of the finest examples of Moorish Revival architecture in the United States. The façade of the synagogue, one of the most unique and beautiful in the city, boasts, among other features, twin towers crowned with massive golden orbs reminiscent of Faberge Eggs
9. Adas Israel Synagogue
Washington, DC (built 1876)
The Adas Israel Synagogue is the oldest synagogue standing in the nation’s capital and one of the oldest in the United States. The building has an interesting history. Completed in 1876, it was only in used for three decades before the congregation moved to a larger space. The building was moved on a single giant flatbed vehicle to its current location in 1969 due to area redevelopment. A second move is again being planned for the same reason.
Adas Israel had a brief moment of fame at the time of its opening when President Ulysses S. Grant attended the dedication ceremony as well as the first service. It is believed that he was the first American president, or any major world leader at the time, to do so. While no longer in use as a synagogue, the building is currently maintained as the Lilian and Albert Small Jewish Museum with exhibits on the Jewish community of Washington D.C.
8. Wilshire Boulevard Temple
Los Angeles, California (1928)
The Wilshire Boulevard Temple is the oldest synagogue in Los Angeles. Its congregation is also the oldest in Los Angeles, and can trace its roots to the first Jews how arrived in the area in 1851. The congregation was formally established in 1862, and they occupied several synagogues for over half a century. However, the Jewish community here boomed in the early 1900s with the rise of the movie industry, and a new synagogue was needed.
In 1928 the magnificent Wilshire Boulevard Temple was completed. A number of prominent members of the Hollywood community were its members and contributed to its construction, most notably the Warner Brothers, who sponsored the temple’s magnificent murals. Other contributors included Irving Thalberg and Louis Mayer of MGM Studios.
7. Congregation Mikveh Israel
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (chartered 1773)
Congregation Mikveh Israel has one of the most colorful histories of any Jewish congregation in the United States. The congregation traces its roots back to the 1740s, and many of its members were actively involved in the independence movement of the mid-18th century. At least a few were known to be members of the Sons of Liberty. Among those who contributed funds to construct the congregation’s first synagogue was none other than Benjamin Franklin.
During the American Revolution, one of its members, Haym Solomon, was instrumental in financing the fledgling American government and war effort. He also served as a spy and later helped to prepare drafts of the Constitution. Other members of the congregation also went on to serve in the American army with distinction, including Philip Moses Russell, a prominent surgeon. While the original synagogue is long gone, these men, and nearly two-dozen others who served in the Continental Army, are now buried in the synagogue’s graveyard, which is counted among Philadelphia’s key Revolutionary War sights.
6. Congregation Mickve Israel
Savannah, Georgia (built 1878)
Congregation Mickve Israel is one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the United States and the first to be established in the South. It was founded in 1735 by Jewish immigrants from England, many of whom were refugees from the Inquisition in Southwest Europe. The congregation struggled during the 18th century, as many members fled Savannah in the 1740s in the face of a Spanish attack on the city. The community became reestablished just before the American Revolution. Mickve Israel was the first Jewish congregation to receive a presidential letter, in which George Washington called for a blessing on the Jewish people.
The Jewish community of Savannah inhabited a number of synagogues, both temporary and purpose built, before the congregation grew too large in the second half of the 19th century. A new synagogue, one of the largest in the United States at the time of its construction, was completed in 1878. The Congregation Mickve Israel Synagogue is located in, and is an integral part of the Savannah Historic District.
5. Temple Beth Israel
San Diego, California (1889)
Web: http://www.sandiegocounty.gov (San Diego Heritage Park)
Congregation Beth Israel is the oldest Jewish congregation in San Diego; and it’s first synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, is the oldest synagogue still standing west of the Mississippi River. The first Jews arrived in San Diego in 1850, a year after a number of congregations were already established in Northern California. However, the congregation was not formally established until 1887.
In 1889 they constructed the Temple Beth Israel. This was the congregation’s home for nearly four decades. Due to growing numbers, they constructed a new, larger synagogue and moved in 1926. However, the beautiful original synagogue was maintained, along with other historic buildings in what is now known as Heritage Park. Although not an active synagogue, it is still open most days and used for both public and private events.
4. Temple Emanuel
New York, New York (built 1929)
Temple Emanuel is the largest synagogue in New York City and, until recent years, the largest in the world. Its congregation is one of the great Jewish institutions that grew out of the massive influx of Jewish immigrants from Central Europe in the late 19th century. Temple Emanuel is considered the founding synagogue of Reform Judaism in the United States and is counted among the great houses of worship that line Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan.
From its inception, Emanu-El espoused Reform Judaism, and has been a cornerstone of the American Reform Jewish community ever since. Today this ‘cathedral’ of Judaism attracts both Jewish and non-Jewish pilgrims of all denominations from all over the world. Temple Emanuel has recently undergone a massive renovation that has restored it to it its early 20th century magnificence. The immense synagogue is home to the world’s largest vaulted sanctuary in a Jewish house of worship. The interior is decorated with, among other things, some of New York City’s most magnificent mosaic artwork. There is a small museum on site with magnificent exhibits of centuries of Judaica on display.
3. Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue
Charleston, SC (built 1840)
The Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue is home to one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the United States, and is the second oldest synagogue still in use. It was founded in large part by Jewish immigrants fleeing the Inquisition, with the first arriving as early as the late 17th century. Charleston was the first city in the South to receive Jews thanks in part to the colonial charter for South Carolina, personally prepared by John Locke, which expressly permitted Jews to live and worship freely in the colony.
By the time of the American Revolution, the Jewish community of Charleston was so large that it was home to both Sephardic and Ashkenazi congregations. The Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue, the Sephardic congregation, has several claims to fame. It boasted the first Jewish elected official, and it sponsored an all-Jewish infantry unit that fought in the American Revolution. The current synagogue was constructed in 1840, with the adjoining building dating back a century earlier. Both are part of the Charleston historic district.
2. Touro Synagogue
Newport, Rhode Island (built 1763)
The Touro Synagogue in Newport has the honor of being the oldest synagogue still standing in the United States. Although Jewish immigrants of the 17th centuries arrived in Charleston and New York first, the first congregation in what would later be the United States was formally established in Newport in 1658. These immigrants came from Brazil following the loss of that region by the tolerant Dutch to the less tolerant Portuguese. They arrived via New Amsterdam, where the local Dutch government delayed in recognizing their status to settle.
Because of this brief delay, the Jewish community of Newport was formally established just before that of New York. Although there were earlier synagogues, the congregation constructed the current building, the Touro Synagogue, a century after their arrival. For many years it was the center of Jewish life in New England. For much of the 19th century, the synagogue was closed due to lack of membership. Although its ownership passed to Shearith Israel in New York, it was famously cared for by neighboring Quakers for decades. It became active again in the 1890s due to new waves of immigrants from Europe, and has been active ever since. The building is currently being incorporated into an historic district.
1. Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue
New York, New York (built 1897)
The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York, also known as Congregation Shearith Israel, is home to what is arguably the most historic Jewish congregation in the New World. Closely tied to the founding of the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, there is some question as to which one is technically older, but there is no doubt that Shearith Israel has been continually active and is the more preeminent of the two. Congregation Shearith Israel was instrumental in founding some of America’s most important Jewish organizations, most notably the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1886 (right near Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary further north in Manhattan).
The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue looks as though it were lifted straight out of the Roman Forum and dropped off on Central Park West. The synagogue interior shines with beautiful crystal chandeliers and Tiffany windows. Among the synagogue’s treasures are its archives which chronicle three and a half centuries of Jewish life in New York City. The adjoining chapel, known as the Little Synagogue, is actually a replica of the congregation’s former house of worship on Mill Street. The congregation’s cemetery, located in lower Manhattan, is the oldest surviving man-made structure of any sort in New York City.