Beth Sholom Synagogue
There are a number of synagogues in the U.S. and elsewhere bearing the name Beth Sholom. The one in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, is located in Cheltenham Township and has a special non-religious importance.
Beth Sholom is a Conservative Jewish Congregation, that was founded in 1918 in the Logan section of Philadelphia and named “house of peace” (the meaning of the Hebrew name) in honor of the end of World War I. Beth Sholom moved out of the city to Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, shortly after World War II. The Beth Sholom Center opened in the new location in 1951, while services continued in the original building.
Two years later, Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen persuaded Frank Lloyd Wright to accept the commission for the only synagogue he ever designed in his long career. Wright accepted the commission in December, 1953, and the architect and the rabbi established a fruitful working partnership that led to one of a small group of religious buildings Wright completed.
All pictures are from the Beth Sholom Archives.
The synagogue was dedicated on September 20th, 1959, just over five months after Wright’s death.
Within a few years of its completion, Beth Sholom Synagogue was singled out by the American Institute of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the seventeen Wright buildings most worthy of preservation. Beth Sholom was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 2007.
The interior of Beth Sholom synagogue features a six-sided sanctuary and a multicolored Plexiglas chandelier.
The synagogue marked its 50th anniversary by establishing a visitors center now open three days a week. Appointments are required for tours, although walk-ins sometimes get impromptu tours if a guide happens to be in the building.
From the outside, the pyramid-like roof rises more than 100 feet above the sanctuary. The “shingles” are panels of corrugated wire glass and fiberglass that filter natural light into the building during the day. At night, the illuminated structure is an ethereal, almost otherworldly sight for motorists driving by.
The six-sided sanctuary represents the cupped hands of God. A multicolored Plexiglas chandelier — Wright called it a “light basket” — is suspended above the nearly 1,100 seats, most of them original. Wright also designed the eternal light over the ark.
“The Synagogue lives and breathes; it moves with quiet grace and charm; its lights and shadows continually change with the coming of the sun and the passing of a cloud,” wrote Mortimer J. Cohen, the rabbi who commissioned the building.
Beth Sholom Congregation is in Elkins Park, Pa. 19027, at 8231 Old York Road. The visitor center is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For tours, call (215) 887-1342 ext. 157.