by Samuel D. Gruber
Laszlo Regos, who has made so many beautiful photographs of synagogues, joined me on this little expedition and I hope that he'll have the opportunity to return to some of these sites to photograph them more fully.
One goal was to see architect Albert Kahn's "other" synagogue - his third and last (that I know of) Detroit synagogue, built in a Byzantine style for Congregation Shaaray Zedek in 1931-32.
"....he designed his first Temple Beth El (now transformed into a theater at Wayne State University), a small, domed classical building modeled in a general way on the Pantheon. Indeed, in civic circles it was Classical design that was considered modern in its day. In 1904, as a sign of its progressiveness, Temple Beth El abandoned its long-held practice of selling and assigning seats, in favor of the more egalitarian practice of free seating. The rabbi declared, “In God’s house, all must be equal.”
The Fisher Building and the GM Building created a new civic center for Detroit, on Woodward Avenue, three miles from the old downtown. In 1922, close to this civic ensemble, Kahn designed his second Temple Beth El — now Lighthouse Cathedral — with its impressively wide facade of a giant columnar order. The building was an homage to his old friend, Henry Bacon (the two had traveled together in Europe as young men). Bacon’s design for the Lincoln Memorial had been accepted for Washington in 1912, but in 1922 it was just being completed. The new synagogue was a near-last gasp for the Classical-style synagogue that had been almost de rigueur for Reform congregations in the first decades of the 20th century.
Both Beth El synagogues are symbolic of Kahn’s art and his Judaism. Kahn was not ashamed of being a Jew (especially not in the 1920s, when his foremost patron, Henry Ford, disseminated the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”), and he was proud to see Judaism as a mainstay of civic virtue and cultural enlightenment."I'm interested in the 1932 Shaaray Zedek synagogue for at least six reasons:
1) it is a major work by Albert Kahn, one of America's leading (Jewish) architects, and architect of synagogues,
Kahn and the congregation chose the Byzantine style, which had grown in popularity among Jews in America and Europe since the First World War, and was used by both Reform and Conservative Jews for synagogue design. The Byzantine style was distinctive and for some it recalled the architecture of the Middle East, and so could be claimed (erroneously) to be authentically Jewish. The style was usually expressed in two ways - not always combined. First, designers of Byzantine-style synagogues often experimented with new, geometrically varied massing, especially versions of centrally planned polygonal spaces. Secondly, architects and artists invented a new decorative vocabulary inspired by Byzantine art. Most of this was geometric or vegetal, though there were figures, too.
The decoration of the synagogue, especially the menorahs reliefs on the facade, were inspired by Byzantine art, including decorations found on recently excavated synagogues in the Holy Land.
3) it is one of only a handful of impressive synagogues constructed in the depths of the Great Depression
Though planned before the 1929 Crash and the onset of the Great Depression, the congregation decided to proceed despite the terrific economic situation. Membership declined, sustained members cut back contributions, and the entire community struggled to make ends meet at home and at the synagogue. The great and expensive Temple Emanuel in New York was just nearing completion at the time of the crash. The money was spent, however, though it was hard to meet expenses during the next decade. Only in Hartford, Connecticut, did Congregation Beth Israel manage to plan and build an impressive Byzantine-style synagogue in the mid-1930s. Because of the strength of the insurance industry Hartford was one of the least hit major cities in the Depression era.
4) it is a fine example of a the sustained reuse of a synagogue building for Christian worship, where the church use has now been considerably longer than the original synagogue use
Like so many urban synagogues across America, Kahn's Shaaray Zedek was sold to a church when the congregation moved to the suburbs in the 1960's. Since March 1963, Greater Bethlehem Temple has made its home in the building and sustained it longer than Shaaray Zedek. Next year will mark the church's half century in the building.
5) Shaaray Zedek has a long history of erecting, occupying and then leaving monumental synagogue buildings, the process I have dubbed " the continuing exodus."
I have written about the continuing exodus in other cities, most recently in an essay (read it here) for the exhibition Silent Witnesses: Migration Stories Through Synagogues Transformed, Rebuilt or Abandoned (Farmington Hills, MI, 2012). The process was pronounced in Detroit, too, especially for the oldest congregation Temple Beth El and Congregation Shaaray Zedek. Shaaray Zedek has been housed in a series of notable buildings including, since 1963, the enormous and sculptural impressive suburban complex designed by Percival Goodman with Albert Kahn Associates.
6) when construction was first proposed it met with considerable public opposition, a good part of which was anti-Semitic.
There is a long history of opposition to the erection of synagogues in all types of American neighborhoods - behavior that is now closely paralleled by popular opposition and legal challenges to the erection of mosques. In the 18th century the building site for Congregation Mikveh Israel was moved when members of the Dutch Reform Church protested that the Jewish house of worship would be too close to their church. Today, most challenges to synagogues are against Orthodox congregations which establish synagogues in houses zoned for residential use. In 1925 in Detroit, when it was announced that Shaaray Zedek would buy land at Chicago Blvd and Lawton from the Catholic Diocese of Detroit (!) neighborhood property owners filed a lawsuit - the first of several. These cases which were defended by William Friedman, went all the way to the Supreme Court and helped to form the basis of religious freedom laws today. Some of the opposition was probably legitimate, as home owners feared that the synagogue would bring traffic to the neighborhood, and perhaps affect property values. Underlying the opposition, however, was also Antisemitism, which greatly escalated in the 1920's.