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.

4 Responses to “Synagogue Architecture Question of the Month”

  1. avatar

    Dear Ethan,

    I wish there was an architectural answer. Would you find the same experience if your shul was shaped like the Chapel on the Hill? The truth – revealed to me by a congregant who leads services when I am a way – is that in synagogue services, most of us are attempting to recreate experiences that we have had easily outside.

    So, how to get that outdoor feeling? Communal worship is a two-way street. You get out (hopefully) some of what you put it. The ruach came from being at camp – with all of your peers, together.

    So, find some peers, bring them together. Create a worship (or just Shabbat experience yourself). As to architecture – use a dorm room, university space, a bar, or shame on the local synagogue that doesn’t offer you a room if you ask.

    Failing that – make a leap of faith. Go into a worship community and assume that they are like you – together, looking for the same companionship and shared experience that you crave. Sing with gusto – even if you don’t know the tunes. Sway back and forth – those of like mind will find you.

    I thank you for the question and wish you the best of luck with your search. Feel free to stop by at our place, if you are around for a Shabbat.

  2. avatar
    Harriet M. Epstein Reply January 8, 2012 at 5:33 am

    Through Judaic stamp collecting I’ve become fascinated by synagogues. One of my favorite issues is the varying relationship between the bimah and the ark at different times and places.

  3. avatar

    Hi Ethan,
    What a great question! I did the thesis of my architectural education on sacred space. I designed a temple of religious tolerance, utilizing architectural elements I had distilled from own experiences in various building types.

    I believe that architecture plays a big part in one’s experience of worship. And that one of the reasons why worship isn’t more popular, especially with young people, is because most religious buildings are rather under-inspired.

    How do we make our sanctuaries more spiritual? Well, I think buildings in general, and sacred buildings in particular, should provoke an emotional response. There are clearly buildings out there that trigger those responses, some bad, and some wonderful. For a synagogue, this response should be evoking the kind of feelings you have experienced in your camp.

    I would keep searching for what provokes this kind of response in you, and narrow it down to the kinds of elements, or ingredients contributing to your responses. There are some wonderful books out there on sacred space, which might help you distill what you’re looking for.

    I hope this response was somewhat helpful. Thank you for your thoughtful question.


  4. avatar

    Hey Ethan,

    I honestly think that the “ruach” of camp-style worship is a very special experience that is meant to be separate from the “regular” synagogue experience. I don’t think it’s appropriate to seek to re-create the camp experience in the Sanctuary, but I do think that it’s important to keep that experience available to people who crave it and derive genuine meaning from it. Rabbi Abraham gave you some sound advice–why don’t you start a “havurah” of like-minded people, perhaps in affiliation with a Temple, perhaps not–and go camping so you can pray outdoors. Or, meet indoors when weather doesn’t permit.

    Even though I’m part of a generation that almost universally prefers the camp worship style, I feel the need to safeguard the way that our synagogue services were before the camp movement started influencing them. That classical minhag is just as important and beautiful a part of Jewish tradition and history as the informal folk style, and it would be a tragedy if it went extinct just because people love the “ruach” of camp worship.

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