Eldridge Street Synagogue Façade

On November 14th, 1886, the congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun gathered to lay the cornerstone of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in America. The building was designed by Roman Catholic tenement builders, Peter and Francis Herter. The land and construction cost $91,907.61 and took one year to build.

Notice the elaborate Star of David patterns set in terra-cotta bands, carved on the wooden doors, and raised atop the roof-line finials. Proudly displaying the building’s Jewish identity to all passersby, the synagogue’s architecture expressed the hope that the immigrants’ religion and culture would flourish on American soil.

According to Jewish law, a synagogue’s sanctuary should be oriented in the direction of Jerusalem — in New York, that means with the ark facing to the east. This is the only Jewish law pertaining to synagogue architecture and as a result, Jewish synagogues around the world reflect an extraordinary architectural and cultural diversity. The Moorish style, which characterizes much of the design of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, became popular in the 19th century. This style distinguished synagogues from churches and hearkened to the Golden Period of Spain, when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together peacefully. In addition to its Moorish arches, finials and patterns, the Eldridge Street Synagogue also contains elements of other architectural styles. On the facade, notice the Gothic rose window and the Romanesque masonry.

Although we have no proof, it is interesting to speculate that the congregants and the architects might have designed the building with Jewish numerical symbolism in mind:

  • 12 stars lining the circumference of the Rose Window –> 12 tribes of Israel
  • 10 tablets on the rooftop –> 10 Commandments
  • 5 keyhole windows below the Rose Window –> 5 books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  • 3 bays/ staircases in the building –> 3 Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob
  • 4 doors into the building –> 4 Matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah

Discussion Questions

  • What can you learn about the building from exploring its facade?
  • What about this design might have appealed to its immigrant founders?
  • Where else have you seen similar design elements, like stained glass and finials? What comparisons between these other sites mentioned and Eldridge Street can be drawn?

Classroom Extensions

Have students take on the role of an architecture firm hired to design a place of worship. Students can work individually or in groups to create their design and should consider how the materials, colors, symbols and composition will appeal and relate to the congregants who will worship there.