Designing for God: Eric Mendelsohn’s US synagogues

41. Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, by Eric Mendelsohn

After the trauma of the Holocaust, the task of defining what it meant to be Jewish and American fell to an architect who felt it was his destiny

“His Jewishness dominates everything he did, for Eric [Mendelsohn] was, above all, a creator. He took very seriously the early command to all men, to be co-creators with God and to imitate only the Holy One. In the perfection he strove for, in his adamant and painful refusal to compromise his convictions, he was the stubborn, stiff-necked Jew.”

- Rabbi Armond E Cohen, 1954

In America between 1946 and 1953 the German Jewish architect Eric Mendelsohn (1887–1953) planned seven synagogues, of which four were built, all in the Midwest: Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights, Ohio; B’nai Amoona Synagogue (now the Centre of Creative Arts) in Saint Louis, Missouri; Mount Zion Temple in Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

For Mendelsohn, the new commitment to sacred architecture was a major challenge. Although his oeuvre lists some earlier designs for Jewish communities in Germany, the commissions by the prosperous Jewish congregations in the USA were – from the aspect of size alone – far bigger than the few assignments of sacred architecture he received during the 1910s and 1920s.

For the architect, as well as for his clients, important issues were at stake. The traumatic experiences of the past decade – the Second World War and the Holocaust – followed by the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 form the setting in which the nature of the American diaspora had to be reconsidered and redefined. Jewish communities became exceedingly concerned with an endeavour of dual nature: to sustain their own identity and at the same time to express their affiliation with and integration into a modern America.

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