A brief history
Jews began settling in the South of what would become the United States in the late 1600s. Mickve Israel in Savannah, Georgia, and Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, were among the five earliest congregations in North America. These communities, and especially Charleston, were outposts of a transnational Jewish network that flourished from the 17th through the early 19th century, with major centers in Amsterdam, London, the West Indies, and along the northeast coast of South America.1 Colonial congregations were at first mostly Sephardic, founded by Jews whose ancestors had lived in Spain and Portugal before the Inquisition, then settled for several generations in Protestant countries in Western Europe—England, Germany, and the Netherlands—before crossing the Atlantic to the so-called New World.
The first synagogues in Dutch Brazil, Suriname, and Curaçao all looked to the Portuguese Synagogue, or Esnoga, in Amsterdam for organizational, financial, and technical support, and for aesthetic inspiration. British Jews regarded London’s Bevis Marks as their “mother” congregation, sharing many of the Sephardic traditions and characteristics of the Esnoga. Among the earliest North American synagogues, the only survivor is the one built in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1763; based on descriptions and illustrations of the others, however, we know that American synagogues were not slavish copies of those in Europe.
Indeed, there has never been a specific form or style for synagogue architecture. Jewish communities often built—through choice or circumstance—in accordance with the styles of the majority cultures in which they lived. In religiously and culturally pluralist America, with its vast geographic expanse, Jewish communities have probably built more types, sizes, forms, and styles of synagogues in two centuries than in the entire history of Jewish synagogue construction. Architectural taste developed and transformed rapidly in the expanding United States. Synagogue architecture changed rapidly, too. We can trace the trajectory of American synagogue design in the multiple buildings of a single congregation, such as Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina; Beth Ahabah in Richmond, Virginia; Beth Israel in Houston, Texas; or Beth Israel in St. Louis, Missouri.
The Jewish population of the South expanded rapidly in the 1840s and 1850s, with the arrival of Ashkenazim from Central and Eastern Europe, who settled by ones and twos in towns across the region, typically establishing some type of store. As soon as their numbers reached a critical mass, they founded Jewish cemeteries and benevolent societies, while, at the same time, the first congregations of the Atlantic seaboard cities were building their second synagogues. Almost all these antebellum structures incorporated classical architectural forms, either overtly neo-classical, like the Greek Revival synagogues of Charleston and Baltimore, or more in keeping with the American Federal style, which integrated classical elements via the work of English architects and architectural handbooks that proliferated in the 19th century. German-speaking Jewish immigrants brought a preference for the Romanesque or round-arched style newly popular in Alsace, Germany, and Bohemia. This style made inroads among northern Jews in the 1850s and spread across the South after the Civil War.
In their early years, and sometimes for much longer, congregations typically held services in rented accommodations. In Richmond, Virginia, between 1789 and 1818, Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome moved from one temporary space to another. In Baltimore, Congregation Nidche Yisroel (later Baltimore Hebrew), founded in 1830, held services in a small room above a local grocery for 15 years. According to architectural historian Steven H. Moffson, “the congregation of B’nai Israel in Thomasville [Georgia], worshiped above the library for nearly 30 years, and in Savannah, Congregation Agudath Achim worshiped above a block of commercial buildings and held High Holy Day services in the larger Eagles’ Hall.”2 Macon’s first congregation was established in 1859 and met in a rented room over Horn’s Confectionary Shop on Cherry Street.3 Elsewhere in Georgia—in Atlanta, Albany, and Columbus, for example—new Jewish congregations met in homes or rented rooms for decades before building synagogues.”4
Jewish congregants also might rent or buy former churches that became available and affordable when Christian congregations moved to newer buildings. Such was the case in Mobile, Alabama, in 1846, and in Washington, D.C., in 1863, where Washington Hebrew dedicated its first synagogue during the Civil War, having purchased a former Methodist church and transformed the sanctuary for Jewish worship. This process continued apace, with Jewish congregations shedding buildings every generation or so, passing them on to newer or poorer Jewish or Christian congregations.
In 1860, most southern Jewish congregations still met in preexisting quarters, but some, such as Kahl Montgomery in Alabama, erected purpose-built synagogues, and others, like Shaare Tefillah in New Orleans,5 were getting ready to build when the outbreak of war interrupted their plans. These early synagogues drew upon Greek and Romanesque models for their inspiration. Other historicist fashions were adopted after the Civil War, and Gothic and Moorish architectural and decorative elements became commonplace in the second half of the 19th century. From around 1900 until World War I, the Reform Movement embraced classicism as the preferred mode for new temples, but Jewish houses of worship continued to be constructed in a variety of styles.
The massive immigration of Eastern European Jews to America between 1880 and 1920 slowly trickled south, changing the makeup of existing communities. Most in this wave arrived in America as Orthodox Jews and were dissatisfied and even alienated from the style of worship in long-standing synagogues they encountered in the South. In Orthodox communities of Yiddish-speaking Jews in big cities such as Baltimore, Maryland, and Louisville, Kentucky, new congregations were founded. In smaller towns like Brenham, Texas, Orthodox Jews from Lithuania joined earlier Jewish settlers in the 1880s, but it was the Lithuanians who built the first synagogue.
Despite religious differences, these new congregations followed trajectories of their older counterparts, renting buildings or occupying former churches until they became sufficiently prosperous to construct purpose-built synagogues. Many adopted styles similar to earlier Jewish congregations, or even of churches, but some were out of sync with contemporary trends. For example, in Houston, the Orthodox Congregation Adath Yeshurun built a new Moorish-style synagogue in 1908 at the same time the Reform Congregation Beth Israel was rejecting the Moorish style in favor of classicism.
1 For a tour of this “Atlantic World,” see Barry L. Stiefel, Jewish Sanctuary in the Atlantic World: A Social and Architectural History (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014).
2 Steven. H. Moffson, “Identity and Assimilation in Synagogue Architecture in Georgia, 1870–1920,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Constructing Image, Identity, and Place 9 (2003), 154.
3 “Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities – Macon, Georgia,” Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, https://www.isjl.org/georgia-macon-encyclopedia.html.
4 Steven. H. Moffson, “Identity and Assimilation in Synagogue Architecture in Georgia, 1870–1920,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Constructing Image, Identity, and Place 9 (2003), 154.
5 Samuel D. Gruber, “In New Orleans, One of America’s Oldest Extant Synagogue Buildings is Now Condominium Apartments,” Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments, January 24, 2015, https://samgrubersjewishartmonuments.blogspot.com/2015/01/usa-in-new-orleans-one-of-countrys.html.