Ironies Behind A Stunning Synagogue

New Book Explains Frank Lloyd Wright's Jewish Masterpiece

Light in the East: Beth Sholom at night, viewed from the northwest.
balthazar korab ltd
Light in the East: Beth Sholom at night, viewed from the northwest.

By Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Published January 19, 2012, issue of January 27, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Beth Sholom Synagogue: Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture
By Joseph M. Siry
University of Chicago Press, 736 pages, $65

When Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen contacted Frank Lloyd Wright in November 1953 about designing a new sanctuary for his conservative congregation, Beth Sholom, in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park, the legendary architect had never designed a synagogue since beginning his architectural career 60 years earlier, in 1893. This striking fact appears nearly midway through architectural historian Joseph M. Siry’s important new book, “Beth Sholom Synagogue: Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture.”

But it raises two fundamental questions about the origins of what is arguably America’s most famous postwar Jewish house of worship. Why, given Wright’s inexperience in synagogue design, did the architect take on the commission? And why did Wright take so long to build a synagogue in the first place?

Frank Lloyd Wright
getty images
Frank Lloyd Wright

In explaining his motives — and why Cohen sought him out to begin with — Siry probes deeply into multiple architectural, cultural and religious contexts. The result is that “Beth Sholom Synagogue” is a massive tome. Published in an oversized format and weighing nearly 6 pounds, it contains more than 700 pages of text (including notes) and hundreds of architectural drawings and photographs. It is a beautifully produced work of art in its own right, and it is certain to be the definitive work on its subject. Casual readers may not have the sitzfleisch, or endurance, to give Siry’s extremely detailed analysis the close reading it merits, but those who do will find their efforts rewarded.

Following a brief introduction, Siry spends the first half of his book laying out the larger biographical and architectural contexts for Wright’s design. He explains how the architect’s Unitarian religious background led him to develop a respectful attitude toward Judaism. He discusses how Wright’s experience working at the Chicago firm of Adler & Sullivan exposed him to innovative synagogue designs at the turn of the century, most notably the comparatively modern Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv, which opened in 1891.

And he shows how the architect’s designs for a series of Christian churches and chapels between the late 1920s and early ’40s helped Wright develop his own unique solution to the central architectural question of how to make a modern construction that would signify a denominational ideal.

After laying out this detailed context, Siry shows how it informed Wright’s plan for Beth Sholom. Counterintuitively, the most notable aspect of Wright’s design was that he devised it not by himself, but in collaboration with Cohen.

Cohen was unusual among postwar American rabbis in taking a direct role in the design of his sanctuary. Like other postwar rabbis who were moving older urban congregations to new suburban settings, he rejected the derivative historicist designs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and aimed for a synagogue that was distinctively modern. Yet because Cohen also wanted it to be identifiably Jewish, he sought out Wright, whose “organic” brand of architecture was opposed to the sterile machine aesthetic of the International Style, and allowed for the great expression of symbolic content.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.