Synagogue architecture can vary tremendously.

There’s a huge difference between Temple Emanuel in New York City, with its “Gothic” style, and the Kerhonkson (NY) Synagogue, with its simple, functional design and upstairs gallery so reminiscent of the small European synagogues of tradition. 

All synagogues evolve from the same template, of course: The Temples in Jerusalem, which were themselves based on the design of the Mishkan. The placement of the reading table (which represents both the bronze altar and the golden (incense) altar, the curtain and the Ark, etc. are all derived from there.

In the most traditional synagogues, I’d once heard that windows were more or less discouraged as encouraging attention to be distracted from the prayers and Torah-reading. On the other hand:

“The synagogue should have windows that face Jerusalem. Ideally, there should be (at least) twelve windows, but it is not necessary for all of them to face Jerusalem.” [1]

Yet:

“The inside of the sanctuary should not have pictures or paintings in it. This prevents the worshipers from being distracted during their prayers.” [2]

Windows probably aren’t absolutely required. When I started my Jewish education at age 9, the synagogue was a brand new congregation in Hicksville, Long Island (NY). There were no windows. Classes took place and services were held in a rented store-front; a “shtiebel.” There was only the front window — like any store. The only difference between it and a Lower East Side synagogue was that the storefront was as brand new as the congregation itself. It was 1950; people were just beginning to move to Long Island from New York City. We moved back to New York the following year. I heard that the synagogue flourished for some years, even building its own building. By around 2000, the congregation, after dwindling far down from its peak membership, had joined with another congregation and sold the building that I never saw; all within my own lifetime.

On the other extreme, I once visited a Reform synagogue in Westchester, “Woodlands Community Temple” in White Plains, NY, in which the sanctuary was surrounded by wall-sized windows, outside of which the building was surrounded by trees and greenery. Perhaps it encouraged a sense of the presence of nature that could complement prayer.

Traditionally, the “bimah,” or raised platform, was in the middle of the room (and remains so in Orthodox/Hasidic synagogues). On it stood the “shul’chan,” or reading table, from which prayers were led and Torah was read, with the leader/reader facing the Ark in front. The Reform movement innovated the move of the bimah and shul’chan to the front of the room, before the Ark, from which prayers were led and Torah read while facing the congregation. The Conservative movement has varied in this — some older Conservative Synagogues, like Ft. Tryon Jewish Center (NYC), do the davening/praying and Torah-reading from the mid-room binah, but give the rabbinic sermons from in front of the Ark facing the congregation (or did so when I attended there some 30 years ago). Other Conservative synagogues have the bimah/shulchan at the front, as Reform does. The Nanuet (NY) Hebrew center has a bimah in front on which the shul’chan has a lever; it can face the Ark when praying/davening is being done, then reversed by pushing down the lever so that Torah can be read facing the congregation from the same shul’chan.  The problem of separate seating for men/women vs. a more “egalitarian” sense of access to the davening/praying and Torah reading is uniquely addressed by the design of Lincoln Square Synagogue (NY), in which the bimah is in the center of a room with separate seating for men and women in a circle around it. 

Many synagogues have “stained-glass” windows. This is actually a more-or-less “modern” innovation:

In America, the use of stained glass in synagogues dates back to the late 19th century.:

“These windows were created by celebrated artists, but also by anonymous craftsmen who showcased scenes from the Bible, the plants and animals of the Holy Land and even the six-pointed Jewish star.” [3]

I have only on rare occasion seen stained-glass windows in synagogues that seemed par-ticularly “beautiful” to me. Many, perhaps most, looked like comic book illustrations; almost like a “Classics Illustrated” version of Biblical stories, persons and objects. I confess to having given this only perfunctory attention and I don’t deny that there can or could be truly beautiful stained-glass windows in synagogues in various places.

It has seemed to me that stained-glass windows in churches made a particular spiritual point: There’s a (Divine) Light illuminating all that exists. Such windows in synagogues could certainly make the same point, but the topic of Divine Light is less emphasized in, although certainly not absent from, Judaism compared with Christianity.

In synagogues, these windows serve a mainly decorative function.

Yet, it would be very in keeping with Jewish practice to have them serve an educational purpose, too.

That purpose could certainly include representations of Biblical events. But — which ones? Why make a window that depicts Avraham binding Yitzhak rather than one that depicts Yakov’s dream of a ladder with angels on it? Or — how does a depiction of the Israelites crossing the Red (Reed) Sea complement the reading of parshah Noach, the Flood and the Ark?

The binding of Yitzhak, for example, is so crucial a narrative in Judaism that it’s included in many Orthodox siddurim/prayerbooks, intended to be re-read daily. Likewise the Israelites crossing the Reed Sea and receiving Torah. In these and a few other cases, the the windows could illustrate prayers that are being said, thereby complementing the service. 

These illustrations themselves might include relevant quotations from Torah. But there’s a treasure-trove of quotations from Talmud/Midrash that could profoundly enhance the educational and ethical effects of the windows. 

Hebrew calligraphy itself could be incorporated into the windows, even without other illustrations. The letters could be represented for their abstract beauty alone.

There is a body of Kabbalistic design and illustration that is known barely, if at all.Cordovero sfirot Could some of it be incorporated into synagogue design or ornamentation? As a model, we could look to the inclusion of the “kabbalat Shabbat” service as an example of giving kabbalah a place in “mainstream” Jewish observance. Rabbi Mosheh Cordovero’s design of the sephirot — one within the other — which both teaches and offers an abstract visual pattern, could be an appropriate choice. However, if its used only ornamentally and without understanding, the value is severely limited.

Over 30 years ago, I was teaching in a Reform Hebrew School in Brooklyn, NY. I believe the students were around 12 years old. I had them do the following: First, I got their birthdays and years. I looked up which parshah was being read the week they were born. I had already taught them how to read a chumash (it’s a little different from reading the books they were used to). I told each of them which parshah was “theirs,” and had them look up its location in the index of the Hertz chumash (which was being used even in Reform synagogues at that time). Each then read their “own” parshah, chose a verse or two from it and illustrated it on large, poster-size paper. The Rabbi of the congregation was happy enough with the results to mount each illustration and display them all in the sanctuary during services. Even though the artistic quality varied, it didn’t matter. Being the work of the school’s own kids, being about learning Torah and relating the kids to wider meanings of Judaism, the pictures were welcomed. 

Some years ago, I wrote a blog-post about “acacia wood.” This was the wood used in the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle; especially in the construction of the Ark (cabinet) that contained the two tablets of stone that Mosheh brought down from Sinai. I’ve often thought that it would be very appropriate to use the same wood (or the one commonly believed to be the same as the one mentioned in Torah) in the sanctuary of a synagogue. Perhaps it could adorn the walls? Perhaps the Ark itself could be constructed from it?

A synagogue is a place to recognize God’s Presence at all times, in all things, in all events. A place to recognize the impossibility of any separation from God. A place to put every aspect of our lives in God’s hands. 

Jewish liturgy, scripture, education, history and traditions are (or should be) means to lead to and support this recognition; this union; this surrender. The architecture, design and art of a synagogue should support it no less. 

It’s easy to say that an architect who designs a synagogue should have some personal sense of what goes on there. That, however, would be immensely hard to measure. In the absence of an objective standard, someone from within the congregation who is recognized as having a good personal feeling for Jewish prayer, education, etc., might be given a chance to provide some valuable input. That, too, of course, would be an arguable solution, at best.

Finally, though, I believe that synagogues should be as simple as possible. Congregations spent fortunes building fancy buildings which, 50 or 100 years later, are deserted or re-purposed as churches or commercial sites. We should keep in mind that a synagogue building will not be a permanent home over time. 

So: Keep it simple and as inexpensive as possible. If you feel the overwhelming urge to spend money — pay your clergy, teachers and other staff more!

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[1http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1144404/jewish/Building-a-Synagogue.htm
(link cites further sources)
[2] ibid.
[3]
 http://blog.giltravel.com/synagogues-stained-glass-decoration