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  • Suburban SanctuariesPostwar Synagogue Architecture in Cincinnati
  • Alayna Gould (bio)

In the early twentieth century, the Kraemer Souvenir Company created a series of postcards depicting Cincinnati's architectural landmarks. Travelers passing through the city's train stations could choose from a variety of images capturing the city skyline, its bridges, city hall, and monumental synagogues.1 Cincinnati's Jewish community was thriving in the interwar period, and it built synagogues that projected the rising social status of its congregants. The Jewish community was concentrated in Avondale, a northern neighborhood that attracted middle-class and wealthy Jews who sought better quality housing away from the city center.2 The influx of Jews into Avondale sparked a wave of synagogue construction along the Reading Road corridor. In the absence of a unified Jewish architectural tradition, synagogue architects drew from popular architectural styles and adapted them to create new iterations of synagogue architecture. K. K. Bene Yeshurun's satellite religious school in Avondale, the Isaac M. Wise Center, used a modified take on Romanesque revival architecture as a nod to the congregation's famous Moorish Revival, Plum Street Temple.3 These exotic revival synagogues used an amalgamation of Spanish, Arab, Mediterranean, and Gothic features that visually referenced the Jewish golden age in Spain and expressed western notions of Judaism's near eastern origins These opulent synagogues showed that Jews could maintain a distinctive identity and still successfully integrate into American society. In contrast, Adath Israel and K. K. Bene Israel chose a neoclassical design that drew visual comparisons between synagogues and American civic architecture. Neoclassical revival architecture signaled that Judaism embodied American civic values; that Jewish values and American values were unified.4

Early twentieth-century congregations used architecture to convey that Jews and Judaism were at home in America. But rising nativism and antisemitism in the 1930s and 1940s challenged Judaism's integration into the American mainstream.5 And financial hardships brought on by the Great Depression nearly halted new synagogue construction. By the postwar era, congregations were grappling with dwindling memberships, suburbanizing congregants, and a new American Jewish identity emerged in the aftermath of the Holocaust as the United States became the center of the Jewish world. Postwar economic, political, and social transformations challenged synagogue architects to redefine synagogue architecture once again. [End Page 42]

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Postcard featuring Rockdale Road Temple by the Kraemer Souvenir/Art Company, circa 1910. Rockdale's neoclassical style signaled Judaism's embodiment of American civic values. From the Collection of Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library.

After World War II, most American Jews were native born and distanced from the economic struggles of their immigrant parents and grandparents. These second- and third-generation Jews joined the growing middle class, and more Jewish families were able to purchase homes in the suburbs thanks to FHA loans and benefits for returning veterans.6 In 1948, the Supreme court ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer cracked down on racial housing covenants that barred Jews from purchasing homes in middle-class white suburbs. Socially, World War II facilitated the acceptance of Judaism as an American religion. Jewish chaplains worked in partnership with Christian chaplains serving all members of the military, which helped Judaism to become recognized as an American religion.7 And later, Cold War politics upheld religion as a bulwark against communism, which solidified Judaism's role in American religious identity. Judaism's integration into mainstream American religious and social identity meant that American Jews could shift their focus away from gaining acceptance toward defining what it meant to be both Jewish and American.8 Postwar American Jews worked to find the balance between tradition and modernity, secularism and spirituality, and to build strong congregational communities. The emerging American Jewish identity inspired synagogue architects to redefine synagogue design. Rather than look to past [End Page 43] architectural traditions, postwar synagogue architects sought to develop a new symbolic architecture that used the principles of modern architecture while still embracing Jewish tradition.

They looked to modern architecture as the framework for the new synagogue architecture. Modern architecture was rooted in functionalism, the principal that a building's design should be informed by its function. The modernist architect...