August 19, 2011
Ever catch yourself on Rosh Hashanah flipping through the remaining pages of the prayer book, mentally calculating how much longer you’ll be there? How about counting the number of tiles in the ceiling? To pray, an individual has to push his thoughts beyond mere material things, which is why thoughtful architects and designers often try to shape synagogues in a way that’s meant to be pleasing but not distracting. These synagogues, however, are worth a longer look. The spaces are too beautiful, too unique or just too clever to ignore. So go ahead and sneak a peek — before you start praying.
Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue
More than most houses of worship, the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue blurs the boundary between interior and exterior space, almost to the point of nonexistence. The building’s modern, arcing roof lets sunlight filter in through hardwood slats and sweeps out far beyond the glass walls that define the sanctuary. Before the new building opened in early 2006, congregants had to convene in a temporary air-conditioned tent every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Now, on High Holy Days, the doors at the base of those glass walls slide completely away, allowing the Reconstructionist congregation to double in size without moving an inch.
Temple Adat Elohim
Rising from the top of Temple Adat Elohim’s ark is a single giant Hebrew letter, a shin. The first letter of one of God’s names (Shaddai) and of Judaism’s central declaration of faith (the Shema), the shin serves as the focal point of this Reform sanctuary. Clearly modeled on the handwritten letters found in torah scrolls, this shin also feels plantlike, like an Art Nouveau motif. The large table and twin wooden podiums at this Thousand Oaks synagogue all have thick, brown, botanical-looking legs — perhaps an additional homage to that late-19th century European artistic movement. The wooden trusses spanning the ceiling , meanwhile, recall the steeply pitched beams at the congregation’s original home.
Temple Ahavat Shalom
Visiting Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge can be a bit like going back to 1978 — to a time of rugged modernism, when cylindrical light fixtures could be deployed in even the most elegant rooms. The Reform temple’s walls are built of cinderblocks that have the rough finish of stone. This unrefined texture extends also to the metal-and-wood doors of the ark and to the eternal light that hangs above it, two interlocking pyramids that are more Auguste Rodin than M.C. Escher. Local Jewish textile artist Peachy Levy made the temple’s Torah covers and obviated the need for traditional silver breastplates. (They still hang in the ark, on the back wall.)
Shomrei Torah Synagogue
With its teal roof, Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills is hard to miss. That signature color is absent from the Conservative synagogue’s white, airy sanctuary, though. The room is relentlessly symmetrical: Two rows of orchids lean toward the ark’s partially frosted glass doors, which sit directly behind a central table, which itself has a strong central axis. One side of the room is a near-mirror image of the other, down to the two identical illuminated memorial cabinets installed in the walls flanking the bimah. The room’s lone unpaired feature: the 12 stained glass panels hanging in front of the sanctuary’s north-facing window, which came from the congregation’s previous building.
Temple Etz Chaim
Winged angels, commandment-inscribed tablets, a menorah, lions and all the notable produce of the Holy Land: This (and more) is portrayed on the sculptural tableau in Temple Etz Chaim’s sanctuary. Rabbi Shimon Paskow, rabbi emeritus at this Conservative synagogue in Thousand Oaks, designed the piece, a super-high relief that faces the congregation during services. (The sculptured panel may look like stone, but it’s closer in weight to styrofoam.) On Friday nights, when the weather is nice, services take place in a courtyard, facing an otherwise ordinary-looking cylindrical tower. But walk inside and look toward the ceiling: You’ll find an oversize Star of David made of white beams inscribed in that circular room.
Photos by Courtney Raney and Jonah Lowenfeld