By Guest Contributor, Prof. Eric M. Meyers
When the prominent architect Percival Goodman signed on to plan the construction of a new synagogue in the mid-1950’s in Durham, NC, he was already established as one of America’s most seasoned “Jewish” architects specializing in modern synagogues. Beth El had been around for nearly two-thirds of a century by this time and its earliest members had been German-born merchants supplemented by Russian immigrants brought from Russia in the 1880s by the Duke family to roll cigars. The majority was orthodox and the congregation had kept its strong traditional identification till after WWII. The hiring of Percival Goodman, known for his flexible plan layout, was a true modernist architect appropriate for an adaptable Judaism and selecting him was a symbolic step forward into the contemporary world, as was a recent affiliation with the Conservative Movement.
The building committee settled on Trinity Park near Duke University’s East campus as its location, leaving downtown behind as so many congregations did at this time as they fled to the suburbs. Fortunately, Trinity Park was close enough to the city that it could remain part of both. Today, as Durham undergoes an unprecedented rebirth of the downtown area, Beth El remains close enough for apartment dwellers in town to walk to Shul.
What was one of the most surprising aspects of the final plans for the new Beth El dedicated in 1957, was that it was not oriented to the East or Mizraḥ but rather was laid out along the incline of a small hill, oriented towards the South, perhaps pleasing to some who even in those days were headed to warmer climes in winter. The Orthodox were none too pleased about it and the absence of a meḥitzah and a miqveh only added salt to their wounds. Following the topography put Mizraḥ of course on the wrong side of the building and in checking Goodman’s records it turns out that many of his synagogue projects were not oriented toward Jerusalem. The custom of sacred orientation is already well established in Tannaitic times but is also mentioned in biblical literature.
“Those who stand outside Israel must direct their hearts [face] toward the land of Israel, as it is written: ‘And they will pray toward their land’ [2 Chron 6:38]. And those standing in the Land of Israel shall direct their hearts toward Jerusalem and pray, as it is written: ‘And they shall pray toward this city’ [ibid.]…Thus, all Israel will be praying in the same place.” (T Berakhot 3, 15-16; Sifre-Deuteronomy 29, 26; Y Berakhot 4, 5, 8b–c; B Berakhot 30a and others, Levine, Ancient Synagogue, p.196.).
Hence those in Galilee would pray facing South, and those in the Negev pray to the North. While a few of the more than 150 ancient synagogues discovered in Israel diverge from this pattern the vast majority follow the pattern of sacred orientation. And world over where a synagogue was unable to orient itself towards Jerusalem the East wall was marked with a decorated plaque labeled “Mizraḥ.”
So it was a surprise that the balebatim of Beth El who had such a strong allegiance to tradition and many years as an Orthodox congregation were willing to overlook this important aspect of tradition. Without offering idle speculation about the motives of those who accepted the lack of sacred orientation, surely the changing demographics of the 1950’s and greater involvement of university families and members of the business community, including long-term mayor, E.J. Evans, contributed to this lackadaisical view toward tradition. It is sufficient for our purposes here to note that over time the membership of Beth El became increasingly uncomfortable with this accommodation to modernism and whatever reasons had led to the decision not to orient the new building eastward, and began to grumble about it more and more. And most recently, when finally there was talk of major renovation due in part to necessary repairs, a consensus soon emerged that whatever we do let’s try and rectify the orientation issue no matter what. This of course meant that the old basilical-type worship hall that was oriented on the short wall would have to be re-oriented on the long, “east” wall, making it a broadhouse-type structure.
While this is not a well-attested floor plan, it is attested in the Land of Israel in the rabbinic period at Khirbet Shema in the north, Susiya and Eshtemo’a in the south, and others as well. It has many appealing aspects to it that cannot be accommodated in the basilical plan. Among them is the elimination of the awkward about-face, when upon entering once does not have to turn around to face the Ark. More important perhaps is that the leaders of worship preside in the very center or heart of the congregation that surrounds them and that the rear is not so far away. Better acoustics, better sight lines, and some additional, fortuitous pluses arose during the planning of our renovation. We wish Percival Goodman was around to have participated in our discussions with our architect, Ellen Weinstein, he would surely have been happy to see that his modernistic style could be altered within a truly reliable, historical framework that was true to tradition and the special building history of the Jewish people.
Placing the new Torah Shrine on the long wall was a bit of a challenge since the building was being significantly enlarged by almost a third. The enlargement was necessary because of the dynamic growth of the congregation and the large attendance at high holidays, and special occasions required both additional seating for worship and receptions at Benei Mitzvah, weddings, etc. That meant that the center of the enlarged seating plan for high holidays on the east wall had to be in a different place than the center for regular worship. The Beth El team after much discussion came up with the idea that it would be best to break into the long, eastern wall twice to locate the two arks, with the smaller seating arrangement having the more prominent one. The High Holiday ark would be smaller, and would be hidden so as not to distract during the rest of the year. In the course of these discussions talk soon focused on what to do with the bema. The old Beth El had a rather high bema that had been once altered to make it easier for handicapped individuals to be honored there. The first plan was to make it much lower and with a ramp. But with the high holidays so important it would have to be portable, which was a huge challenge.
The bema first appears in the architectural history of the synagogue sometime in the rabbinic period but certainly no later than the beginning of the Amoraic period in the third or fourth century CE. It is precisely at this time that early Christianity was growing in the Land of Israel and a common understanding of the importance of the bema is related to emergence of Scripture as an authoritative book in both traditions. The reading of Torah was the centerpiece Jewish worship and liturgy from late Second Temple times onwards, and is already mentioned in the famed first century Theodotus inscription from Jerusalem that notes the centrality of the reading of the Torah and teaching of its commandments (Meyers and Chancey, Alexander to Constantine, pp.208-9) in a synagogue. As Judaism and Christianity began to diverge more and more in worship the Torah scroll was increasingly read from a raised platform or bema, its format for Jews being the rolled scroll or megillah, the Christians adopting the codex or book form in their worship, except for a few eastern communities.
And then a strange and wonderful thing happened at one of our planning sessions with the architect. Rabbi Greyber brings up the issue of the bema and offers the suggestion of doing away with it altogether so as to make it easier for handicapped individuals to approach the Ark and even to enter it a bit. He also talked about what that would mean for a more egalitarian community. Eric Meyers then bursts out with the following story: “As a freshman at Dartmouth College in the fall of 1958 I was drafted by the Hillel Director, Rabbi Julius Kravitz of Hebrew Union College, New York, to be cantor with him for High Holiday services in a local church that had an awfully high bema. Rabbi Kravitz informed me that we were not going to lead worship from the bema but from floor level since a high platform did not encourage an egalitarian feeling and that Jewish worship leaders were no more important in the eyes of God than the student parishioners and townspeople who attended services. It sent a powerful message to our small Jewish community in Hanover, New Hampshire, and till the day that Rabbi Greyber made his case, I had never heard it again.” Because of the historic importance of the bema, especially in medieval times under the influence of Islam when it was called an “ambo,” we devised a way to have a step in the Torah Shrine that would be a vestigial reminder of the important role the bema had held in the architecture of the synagogues for nearly two thousand years.
Photos courtesy of Beth El Synagogue