Sister Shuls: Jerusalem Synagogue, Prague

Jerusalem Synagogue, Prague. [Credit: praguehere.com]

Lately, just like everyone else, we’ve been spending a whole lot of time on the internet. Virtual tourism is the only safe kind of tourism right now. And although it pales in comparison to a real-life vacation, internet touring does offer the ability to get halfway around the globe in a few clicks. So we’re now visiting places far and wide! Along the way, we’ve come across some other shuls that just knock our socks off. It turns out that Eldridge Street doesn’t have the market cornered on exuberant architecture. Some of these other shuls even feel like sisters to Eldridge Street, sharing lots of things in common but with their own distinct personalities, too. 

Take the Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic. It was built in 1905-06, a little less than two decades after Eldridge, and designed by Viennese architect Wilhelm Stiassny. It wasn’t the congregation’s first synagogue; it replaced a previous building which had been demolished in an urban renewal project. At first the 1905 building was called the Jubilee Synagogue, in honor of the silver jubilee of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I. But when the country won their independence from Austria in 1918, this magnificent building was renamed after the street on which it stood –  Jeruzalémská (Jerusalem, in English). Just like our synagogue on Eldridge Street! The official name of the Eldridge congregation has been Kahal Adath Jeshurun since 1887, but the shul has been known popularly as the Eldridge Street Synagogue since its establishment.

Here are the facades of the two buildings side by side, with Jerusalem on the left and Eldridge on the right:

I almost did a double take when I first saw this picture of the Prague beauty. For a split second, I thought someone had colored in our own façade with bright blues, greens and pinks! There are so many similarities between these two. Both buildings borrow from Moorish architectural vocabulary, with rooftop finials and ogee arches that create graceful keyhole windows. The Jerusalem Synagogue is even more singularly Moorish than ours; the red and cream striping in the horizontal brick courses and in the arches below the rose window is a common element in many mosques. 

Both buildings feature the same vibrant blue and gold star design, albeit in different locations. It’s also almost as though the paint scheme of our interior domes has been simply moved outside to the Jerusalem Synagogue’s facade. At Jerusalem, the motif is outside surrounding a central rose window rather than inside in our small repeating ceiling domes. 

The Star of David rose window on the façade of the Jerusalem Synagogue (left) is surrounded by gold stars on a blue background. At Eldridge Street (right), domes inside that feature stained glass inserts with Stars of David are surrounded by stars on a field of blue.

Speaking of our interior, let’s have a look inside both buildings. The plans are similar: a main floor with side aisles and above, a U-shaped women’s gallery. Both sanctuaries are richly decorated, with every surface elaborately covered. The Jerusalem Synagogue’s decoration owes its curves and curls not just to Moorish design, but to Art Nouveau as well, a style in vogue at the time it was built.

The interiors of the Jerusalem Synagogue (left) and Eldridge Street (right) are both richly
decorated, with painted surfaces throughout and stained glass.
Every surface is covered with decoration. Jerusalem on the left; Eldridge on the right.

The buildings have another thing in common: each went through an extensive restoration. Unlike many European synagogues, the Jerusalem survived World War II, when it was used by the Nazis to store possessions looted from the Jewish community, and then languished during Communist rule after the War. But when Soviet control ended in 1989, the Jewish community and its institutions came alive again. The community initiated its restoration, bringing the rich polychrome decoration back to life. Today, visitors to both Eldridge Street and the Jerusalem Synagogues are wowed by exuberant architecture – meticulously preserved and justly celebrated.

Do you know another synagogue that you would like to see side-by-side with Eldridge Street?  Let us know in the comments!

Nancy Johnson is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s archivist and exhibition curator.

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