Synagogue Architecture Question of the Month

This is your opportunity to ask and answer any question about architecture and sacred space. Do you have a question you’d like to ask? Please let me know at

Let’s hear your answer to our new feature, the Question of the Month. Watch the video below and let me know your thoughts in the comments section.

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Judith Erger

About Judith Erger

Judith Erger is the lead Governance, Leadership Development and Architecture Specialist for the Congregational Consulting Group of the Union for Reform Judaism.

9 Responses to “Synagogue Architecture Question of the Month”

  1. avatar

    I distinctly remember being in preschool at Temple Sholom in Chicago in the mid 90s, and entering the main Sanctuary for the first time before a Purim celebration. It seemed absolutely enormous, and I vaguely remember Rabbi Frederick Schwartz pointing out various features to my class. Then, a bearded education director whose name escapes me lifted some of us up to see the Torah Scrolls in the Ark. That was a very memorable experience, and I actually haven’t been back to that sanctuary since I left preschool over 15 years ago. I can still see the wood paneling and the warm, yellowish incandescent light. That experience was the first time I remember thinking about God being present in a particular space. My four-year-old self was overwhelmed by the experience. While I have spent time in many other Synagogue Sanctuaries since then, most have not felt that intensely sacred–perhaps Chicago Sinai comes close.

  2. Joy Weinberg

    I was in a Reform synagogue for a very sad occasion–the funeral of a relative who had committed suicide but where the truth was not being acknolwedged and there was a lot of tension in the immediate and extended family over this and other issues. It was a very emotional time for everyone, myself included. The sanctuary itself was small and had lots of simple wood with large windows that brought nature, woods, beautiful strong green trees, into the space. I remember having the strong feeling of the sacredness of the inside/outside space as well as the comfort to follow of the then rabbi (who I happened to have known in another context) amidst all the other feelings, and both of these sustained me then.

  3. avatar

    While sitting in services this Yom Kippur the sun light shined through the stained glass behind the Aron Kodesh illuminating my 2.5 year old daughter’s strawberry blond curls perfectly as we were reciting the Brachu. For some reason it was the first time in 4 plus years that I actually noticed that natural light comes through the stained glass and had a understanding that the sanctuary was created and designed to be a sacred space and I was wholeheartedly feeling it.

  4. avatar

    Going back to earliest memories, I was often taken to places by my parents and family that I never knew exactly where I was or for what purpose. But even then, and even without the experience and knowledge to truely understand, in the sanctuary, I knew I was someplace important and special. I knew it was more than a building, and as a place, I could tell it made special demands on me.

  5. Judith Erger

    Well, Folks. I asked the question and am now pressed to answer it because the definition of “sacred space” is, at its best, fluid. My first experience, much akin to Jordan’s, was as a child. My family’s congregation, Temple Sinai, in Rochester, NY, was constructing their first building. (If memory serves, until then we had worshiped in the basement of the town hall.) The site was wooded suburbia and the design was an A-frame of poured, concrete slabs (very radical for the early 1960s!) with a glass ceiling and full-height glass wall behind the bimah. As the foundation for the building was being laid, all that stood tall were two towering concrete “tablets” amidst the woods. The height of the sanctuary walls, the unadorned rough texture of the concrete and the wash of natural light were awe-inspiring. No matter how much my mother z’l fussed with my dress or her friends kvelled and pinched my cheeks, there was always a zone of silence and reverence towering above our heads spiraling into the sky.
    (See Temple Sinai’s sanctuary on our website at
    Fade and dissolve to present day. I am the parent experiencing Shabbat at Camp Harlam’s chapel on the hill with my son when he was a boy. I am the parent sitting in a pasture overlooking miles of Blue Ridge Mountains at my son’s college, sharing apples and honey with him and singing a robust “Shehecheyanu.” The synagogue walls have been replaced with the unparalleled beauty of nature and, quite literally, a stone to sit upon. We are joyful and our hearts overflow with an exuberance that cannot be contained in any building. “How awe-inspiring is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.” (Genesis 28:17)

  6. avatar

    The first time I felt that I was in a sacred place was not in a synagogue but rather at Berkeley Hillel. The sacred space was a circle of people celebrating Shabbat. I can still hear the music of that special service and feel the ruach of the moment.

  7. avatar

    My first memorable experience of a sacred space was probably when I was about 4 during Rosh Hashanah services. We were visting with my great Aunt Ida and my Uncle Louie. It was an orthodox service in a small synagogue. In my mind I can still see the men standing together with their talitot over their shoulders and praying and singing together. I remember being a bit frightened by all these tall men with their eyes closed, swaying slightly (I was pretty small at 4 years old so they all looked like giants!) and while I may have been afraid then I know now I also had a feeling of awe, wonderment and connection to Judaism to have been present in that moment.

  8. avatar

    The first time I was really overwhelmed by space was actually during my first trip to 30th Street station in Philadelphia. I was probably only 6 or 7 years old, and the enormity of the space was just incredible. I remember looking up at the statue of the angel by the main entrance (which is actually a WWII memorial but hey, what did I know?) and thinking how beautiful and historic it was. Though I don’t really remember it as a specifically Jewish moment, it was definitely one of my first really spiritual experiences.

  9. avatar

    One of my favorite Biblical verses: Surely Adonai is in this place, and I did not know it.
    The four big synagogues in my home town — two Reform, two Conservative — were all designed to make sure we did know it. Surely God looked something like Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, a remote figure on a high bimah in a massive sanctuary with a domed ceiling four stories high. We were meant to be awed, to be humbled, and just in case the architecture alone did not do it, above the Ark as likely as not were the words of reminder: Know before Whom you stand.
    I commented at some length on this subject in response to Rabbi Victor Appell’s recent post, and I was tempted to begin this post by saying I was risking sounding like a broken record. Then I realized that the broken record metaphor might not even be understood by contemporary readers, since the shellac 78’s to which it applied was obsoleted when shellac gave way to vinyl 33’s, which were themselves obsoleted by 8-track tapes, and then cassettes, and then CD’s and then MP3’s.
    Similarly, those cathedral sanctuaries have been obsoleted by the Wandering Jew phenomenon and the prohibitive cost of replicating them in suburbia, but also by a zeitgeist where we want to be embraced rather than overwhelmed, where we want to be participants rather than audience, where we want to sing unto Adonai a new song rather than have it sung for us by a choir hidden way in a distant loft.
    I’m with Rhonda Rich and Rob Berkovitz in finding the sacred in the ruach (spirit) of the community rather than in the grandeur of the space. Although Judith Erger did not tell us this about herself, she is not only the architecture specialist in the Union’s Congregational Consulting group, but she is also an architect — so she knows that form has to follow function, and that the function of our gathering places has to be adjusted to meet the needs of today’s generation, which gives greater priority to the bet knesset than to the bet t’filah — the house of assembly over the house of prayer.
    God will still be in these places, but it will be because we bring God with us, not that we go to a sacred place as the only place where God can be found.

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