A place of Jewish worship, a synagogue is often considered the center point of Jewish life. Nestled within a community, a synagogue serves not only as a place for religious services but also a place to gather. Used for educational services, community outreach, and as a social network for the community, synagogues represent heavenly relationships.
Background on the Jewish Faith
The Hebrew term for the Jewish place of worship is beit k’nesset, which is the translation of the Greek definition, "house of assembly." It is rarely used in English conversations; however, you might hear it on a trip to Israel.
Three names are used interchangeably when speaking about synagogues. Sometimes it’s called a shul, which is a Yiddish word derived from the German word for school. Shul is the term used by Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities. Those who follow the conservative branch of Judaism will call it a synagogue. The synagogue is the closest approximation of the Greek translation. Reform Jewish followers call their place of worship a temple, because they believe it’s the equivalent to The Temple in Jerusalem.
With all of these different names for the same place, it might seem difficult to identify a synagogue when you see one. The dimensions of a Jewish house of worship will vary based on region. Often, they reflect the cultural needs and tastes of those who build and use it.
No matter the community or the region, there are certain key elements of architecture and furniture that you’ll find in all synagogues. A synagogue will have chairs or benches arranged to face Jerusalem. At the front of the building is a cabinet called the aron kodesh. This “holy ark” contains the synagogue’s copy of the Torah.
No matter what it's called, the four places of Jewish worship outlined below are beautiful examples of this resilient branch of faith.
Plum Street Temple, Cincinnati, Ohio
In 1865, with a congregation that was just 20 years old, the 200 families of K.K. B’nai Yeshurun congregation wanted a building that would be the center of Jewish life. What would later become the Reform movement of Judaism was first imagined by Rabbi Isaac M. Wise at the Plum Street Temple.
Designed by James Keys Wilson, the building is similar to the 19th-century German synagogues that marry Byzantine and Moorish styles. The combination of styles makes this synagogue unique in that most like it were destroyed during World War II.
The Plum Street Temple combines the influences of a variety of cultures, which hearkens back to the idea that being a Jewish American is the convergence of identity. The original flooring, pews, and aron kodesh are still in use. The Plum Street Temple remains a cornerstone of Reform Judaism in America, with Sabbath services held weekly.
Spanish Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic
Built in 1868, the Spanish Synagogue in Prague was the most recent addition to the city’s Jewish Town. Many consider this synagogue to be officially the second Reformed synagogue for Jewish faithful. Similar to the Plum Street Temple, Prague’s temple also features a Moorish interior design. It was probably influenced by the Alhambra and sits on the site of the 12-century Altschul temple.
Visitors to the Spanish Synagogue can enjoy colorful stained glass and ornate tile work, which attracts thousands of tourists annually. The synagogue is also home to a variety of permanent exhibitions that explore the role of Jewish history in Europe.
Great Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary
Known as the largest synagogue in Europe, and one of the largest in the world, the Great Synagogue was built between 1854 and 1859 by Ludwig Forster. This gorgeous synagogue features ornate detailing and can seat up to 3,000 people. Because of its historical significance, the Great Synagogue routinely attracts thousands of visitors each year. It’s still in use by the local community and offers Jewish faithful in Budapest a welcoming place to worship.
As with most synagogues in Europe, the Great Synagogue was not immune to the horrors of WWII. During the war, the synagogue was on the border of the Jewish ghetto. There are more than 2,000 graves of Jewish people in the courtyard who died of hunger and starvation during the war. After sustaining bombing damage, the synagogue was renovated in 1991.
Congregation Mickve Israel, Savannah, Georgia
Boasting an impressive history, Congregation Mickve Israel is one of the oldest synagogues in the United States. What started as a small congregation of mostly Sephardic Jewish immigrants in 1735 has grown to be the third largest in the U.S.
Visitors and the faithful will find the two oldest Torah scrolls in North America and a collection of letters from 13 U.S. presidents. Hourly tours allow visitors to explore the rich cultural heritage of the congregation. The Temple Mickve Israel, designed by Henry Harrison, is the only Gothic revival synagogue in the country and was consecrated in 1878.