On November 16, 1953, Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen, spiritual leader of Philadelphia’s Conservative Beth Sholom synagogue, wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most famous architect, proposing that the 86-year-old design a new home for his prosperous and growing suburban congregation.
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Rabbi Cohen seemed to know intuitively how to appeal to the imagination (and vanity) of the architect, suggesting to him that he wanted Wright to create "a 'new thing'—the American spirit wedded to the ancient spirit of Israel."
Although Wright had designed several churches during his 65-year career, he had never taken on a synagogue, and had in fact turned down several offers to design one. Cohen’s suggestion that he build an “American synagogue,” however, clearly appealed to him.
Amazingly, despite his imperious manner, Wright worked very closely with Cohen on the project, and even credited the rabbi as his co-designer when he presented the final plan.
'M.t Sinai of light'
Beth Sholom had been founded in 1918 in the Logan district of North Philadelphia: Its name, meaning “House of Peace,” was chosen to commemorate the end of World War I. Mortimer J. Cohen (1894-1972) became its first rabbi the following year, and remained in the post until his retirement 45 years later.
In 1953, the Jews of North Philadelphia were pushing further north, out of the city, some 50,000 of them by 1957. Beth Sholom was one of three synagogues that moved, each of them in stages, from a declining North Broad Street across the city line, into new buildings along a short stretch of Old York Road, in Elkins Park.
All three – the others were Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel and Conservative Adath Jeshurun – served a post-World War II generation of Jews that was coming into its own economically and culturally.
By choosing Wright to design the synagogue’s new home, Rabbi Cohen was flattering not only the architect, but also his congregants, all of whom, whatever their level of expertise in architecture, knew who Frank Lloyd Wright was.
Cohen also had the audacity to send Wright, in his initial letter, a long explanation of his own design philosophy and a number of sketches of the type of sanctuary he was envisioning, what he described as “a traveling Mt. Sinai of Light.” At least one of these drawings looks remarkably similar to the final, pyramidal, glass-roofed building that was built, and that was named a National Landmark in 2007.
'The supernatural beauty of faith'
Wright’s design also drew heavily on his unrealized 1926 plan for a pyramidal church structure he called the “Steel Cathedral” for an eccentric Episcopal minister in New York.
Within a month of Cohen’s letter, in December 1953, Wright met to discuss the synagogue project with a delegation from Beth Sholom at a New York hotel. Ground was broken for the project on November 14, 1954.
In his remarks on that occasion, the architect, in an obviously ecumenical frame of mind, noted that, “I share your Rabbi’s faith and enthusiasm in the future of America and the future of American Judaism. Call that faith Jewish, call it Methodist, call it anything you please. What’s the difference? These differences are going to grow smaller and less significant as the great significance and the supernal beauty of faith – faith in faith and faith in beauty in the last analysis, as the American phrase says, ‘pays off.’”
Five years and $1 million (all of it contributed by congregants) later, Beth Sholom was finished – a synagogue that cannot be mistaken for any other Jewish house or worship in the world.
Its translucent roof soars more than 100 feet, or 30 meters, into the sky. The main sanctuary takes advantage of that height, with congregants sitting inside the mountain, as if in a bowl set into its base. The fiberglass panels of the roof admit sunlight during the day, and emit the artificial light from the interior into the night sky, almost like searchlights. (The roof also was notorious for admitting water, leading the synagogue to undertake a major campaign to raise funds for repairs on the occasion of the building’s 50th anniversary.)
Whether Beth Sholom is beautiful is a matter for debate; what’s incontrovertible is that Rabbi Cohen received a structure that is known the world round.
It was also one of Wright's last architectural commissions. When it was finally inaugurated, on September 20, 1959, Wright had been dead for five months.