Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun Fire: Damaged Synagogue Is an Architectural Milestone Too

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Source: DAVID W. DUNLAP, NYT,7-13-11
 
DESCRIPTIONDavid W. Dunlap/”From Abyssinian to Zion” (left), David W. Dunlap/The New York Times Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, 125 East 85th Street, as it appeared in 2002 (left) and on Tuesday.

The fire that roared through Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Monday night not only upended an important religious body but also badly damaged a milestone in the development of synagogue architecture. The restrained neo-Classical design speaks of a turning point in the early 1900s when Jews no longer felt bound to incorporate Moorish elements in their places of worship as a way of distinguishing them from Christian churches.

DESCRIPTIONPhotographs by David W. Dunlap/”From Abyssinian to Zion” Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in 1993.
DESCRIPTION Congregation Shaaray Tefila on the West Side, now a church, inspired the design of Kehilath Jeshurun.

As late as 1893, Arnold W. Brunner — probably the most influential synagogue architect of his time — was still sprinkling Moorish features like cusped arches through his design for Congregation Shaaray Tefila, also known as the West End Synagogue, at 160 West 82nd Street. Within three years, however, Brunner abandoned Eastern influences entirely in designing Congregation Shearith Israel at Central Park West and 70th Street. Given the discovery of Greco-Roman synagogue ruins in Galilee, Brunner argued that neo-Classical design conferred the “sanction of antiquity” on the modern synagogue.

George F. Pelham was the architect of Kehilath Jeshurun’s synagogue at 117 East 85th Street, which followed Shaaray Tefila by nine years and was clearly inspired by it. The two buildings are siblings, if not twins; with four monumental arched windows in their principal facades, framed by wide symmetrical towers. Pelham’s synagogue, however, has no Moorish ornament. If it weren’t for the name “Kehilath Jeshurun” inscribed in Hebrew letters over the door, together with the date of 5662, it would be difficult to identify this structure as a synagogue.

DESCRIPTION Kehilath Jeshurun’s earlier synagogue on East 82nd Street was torn down.

Kehilath Jeshurun was founded in 1872. Before moving to 85th Street, it had a small synagogue at 127 East 82nd Street, which was constructed in 1890. That building stood until a decade ago, when it was torn down and replaced by Congregation Or Zarua. In between the two Jewish congregations, the building had served as the First Waldensian Church. Such turnover is quite common among houses of worship in New York City. Brunner’s Shaaray Tefila synagogue today serves St. Volodymyr’s parish of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. And Temple Shaaray Tefila is a former Trans-Lux theater at 250 East 79th Street.

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