Modern Orthodox / Orthodox Modernism II: Kesher Israel, Harrisburg, PA.
by Samuel D. Gruber
I recently wrote about the innovative modernism of the Orthodox Congregation Beth Daivd in Binghamton, NY, designed by architect Werner Seligmann and dedicated in 1964. Head almost due south to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and you'll find another fine example of a different sort of Modern Orthodox Modernism - this built in 1949, when American Jewish congregations were still grappling with defining a new style for post-Holocaust, post-World War II synagogue design.
A few months ago I had the opportunity to visit several synagogues in the Harrisburg area, ranging from the small turn-of-the-20th-century Gothic vernacular shul of a congregation of Lithuanian Jews that settled in Middletown, to Classical and Byzantine style synagogues on Front Street, facing the Susquehanna River, to a brand new modern synagogue designed by Philadelphia architects Brawer & Haupmann that opened last year.
Perhaps the synagogue that struck me the most, however, was the 1949 Orthodox Congregation Kesher Israel on 3rd Street, and its 1963 addition. Special thanks to Rabbi Akiva Males who allowed me access to all the spaces, and provided informed and lively commentary. The building is a well-preserved and striking example of the first wave of post-World War II synagogue modernism, built for the congregation to move to from its large two-towered Romanesque Revival style building at Capital and Briggs Streets, erected in 1918 and designed by Washington, DC based Jewish architect M. Silberstein. Along with the congregation and its Torah, the Ark and benches were taken to the new synagogue, too.
The 1940s synagogue is still in use, but plans are to eventually sell the building and move the much reduced congregation a few miles north to the city border near the JCC, where most of the Orthodox Community now lives. We tend to forget that Orthodox congregations were in the forefront of introducing modern architecture to Jewish communities, especially in cities. In Europe between the World Wars, different "modernisms" competed, for example in the Orthodox synagogues in Czech Brno and Slovak Bratislava and Kosice.
In interwar America, there were similar style wars. In the 1920s a more decorative Art Deco was popular and this led to a more stripped down style that echoed the fine lines of Art Moderne or the clarity and simplicity of the International Style. Former Congregation Beth Jacob in Miami Beach (where gangster Meyer Lansky donated a memorial window), is a good example of Orthodox Deco. And Louis Kahn's first synagogues were built for Orthodox congregations in Philadelphia in the 1930 utilizing an austere functionalism - barely a step beyond simply utilitarian.
Our memories have been clouded by the abundance of expressive modern synagogues built in the suburbs, especially in the 1950s and 1960s - and it is true that these were mostly constructed by Reform and Conservative congregations that resettled in the suburbs under the carrot of the GI bill and Federal Highway program and the stick of urban red lining and block busting.
But in many cases, as in Harrisburg, Orthodox congregations built sooner after the war and then stayed much longer in urban neighborhoods than branches of the other congregations. For a Reform synagogue to relocate, often only a few wealthy movers and shakers had to make the decision. For an Orthodox synagogue to relocate most of the congregation had to be ready, since they'd live in walking distance from the shul. But in smaller cities like Harrisburg, there hasn't been that much movement over all, and given the relatively short commute times, even the pre-war Reform and Conservative synagogues have mostly stayed put.
Harrisburg, PA. Congregation Kesher Israel. James William Minick, arch. (1949). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2015