What is Jewish Architecture?

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Rodef Shalom Temple, 1907

Stone and glass Beaux arts entrance with menorah on Temple Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh, PA
Beaux arts entrance with menorah on Temple Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Phil Augustavo/E+ Collection/Getty Images

How can a religion have an architecture? When we try to answer the question What is Style?, we'll consider geography. A Spanish Colonial house looks different than a Dutch Colonial house, although they are both Colonials. But, do we consider the inhabitants' religion?

Historically, the Western world has named architectural styles after religions. Scholars have written and described Buddhist, Islamic, and Early Christian architecture, but mainly in describing places of prayer and worship—ecclesiastical architecture. So why not Jewish architecture? We turn to the synagogue.

The Architecture of Immigrants:

As 19th century America expanded in population, Western Pennsylvania was a known destination for immigrant families from Europe. People like the German John Augustus Roebling (1806-1869), builder of the Brooklyn bridge, and Andrew Carnegia (1835-1919) from Scotland settled in Pittsburgh, bringing with them engineering and business skills that would industrialize the nation.

Other immigrants, not as famous as Roebling and Carnegie, also came in great numbers, settling around the Pittsburgh area and establishing a cultural "melting pot." They bought land together to bury their dead. They practiced their religion together, in the name of Rodef Shalom, meaning Pursuer of Peace. German was the language spoken by the original mid-1800s Rodef Shalom congregation in Allegheny City, a congregation expanding so rapidly that a 1901 temple designed by Charles Bickel (1852-1921) could not accommodate the families after only three years.

About Rodef Shalom Temple, 1907:

Location: 4905 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Opened: 1907
Architect: Henry Hornbostel
Style: Beaux-Arts
Capacity: 900 people (first floor) and 300 in the gallery
Developer: Rodef Shalom Congregation
Historic Landmark: National Register of Historic Places #79002162

" Hornbostel's style merged the traditional with the modern. The double dome, 90 feet in diameter, was constructed without structural steel, instead using the Catalan vault, a Spanish vernacular style brought to the U.S. by Rafael Guastavino. For the exterior, Hornbostel chose local yellow brick, augmented with colored terra cotta flourishes. The design incorporated four representational stained glass windows by William Willet. These valued remnants of the 1901 Temple, along with a large stained glass skylight in the dome and a lunette over the Fifth Avenue entrance, were fitting additions to a building housing a Congregation that valued tradition yet embraced a modern approach to Judaism and life."—Rodef Shalom Congregation

Elements of Jewish Architecture:

Synagogues are buildings of assembly built by congregations—families with similar religious beliefs within Judaism. The 1995 Neue Synagogue in Berlin, Germany looks nothing like the 2000 Belz Synagogue (view image) in Jerusalem, which was designed to resemble the Nazi-destroyed synagogue in Belz, Western Ukraine. Altneuschul in Prague has a different architectural style than Rumbach in Budapest.

So, what do all of these buildings have in common? Tradition and history expressed in symbols (the menorah; the tent). To some Jewish congregations, these elements are all that matter. Congregation Rodef Shalom "merged the traditional with the modern" because they "embraced a modern approach to Judaism and life."

If history, tradition, and symbols are the common elements of Jewish architecture, style becomes difficult to describe—or maybe irrelevant.

Whose Architecture Is It?

Historic architecture, like Hornbostel's Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh or Frank Lloyd Wright's Beth Sholom Synagogue near Philadelphia, combines the skills of the architect with the visions of the client. What someone might call "Jewish architecture" has its own history, vast and complicated. Architectural style is a mirror of history—both the architect's and the client's.

More About Henry Hornbostel:

Born and educated in New York, Henry Hornbostel (1867–1961) studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, France—as was customary for aspiring architects. Like the German immigrants of Pittsburgh, Hornbostel, too, was able to bring European culture and ideas to Pittsburgh. Although Hornbostel architecture can be found throughout the US, he ended up practicing and spending much of his time in Pittsburgh after he won a 1904 competition to build what is now Carnegie Mellon University. Hornbostel also is credited with establishing the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture in 1905.

Learn More:

Sourcea: History of Rodef Shalom, Rodef Shalom Congregation at rodefshalom.org/about-rodef-shalom/history; Henry Hornbostel (1867-1961) Collection, Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives [accessed December 15, 2014]