The politics of synagogue architecture with Bill Lebovich

Photo by Bill Lebovich

Whenever Bill Lebovich visits a new place, he scopes out its synagogues. “I stand out like a sore thumb because I’m not looking at the prayer book, I’m looking at the building,” says the Chevy Chase resident.

Lebovich, 73, an architectural historian and photographer, has documented properties from Boston to Los Angeles, from northern Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, he says, it’s increasingly hard to get into synagogues due to increased security, a response to rising antisemitic violence.

“I used to knock on doors, and it used to work,” he said. “I wouldn’t even try now.”

He adds: “If I really wanted to, I would just make arrangements in advance, but I tend to be more spontaneous.”

Lebovich predicts that growing safety concerns will make synagogues “more fortress-like,” which will in turn lead to the crowding of entrances, challenges with evacuation and other issues.

His worries speak to his work consulting on accessibility; his book “Design for Dignity/Studies in Accessibility” details how beautiful architecture can be made to accommodate disabled people.

Lebovich also has decades of experience documenting buildings and properties of historical, architectural, engineering or industrial significance, such as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, at the National Park Service.

His writing and photography can be found in the Library of Congress and other archives, as well as in numerous newspapers, magazines and books.

Lebovich first got hooked on synagogue architecture while growing up outside Boston, whose impressive synagogues “felt like Hungary in the early 20th century or earlier,” he says.

When he was very young, his family switched congregations, which made him aware of — and interested in — the diversity of synagogue architecture. Over time his interest became an obsession. As an undergraduate at Brandeis University, where he studied anthropology, he took an art history class with a professor who often discussed synagogue architecture in lectures.

When he came to the Washington area to work for the National Park Service, he was seldom asked to look at synagogues, but they always remained of interest. In 2005, at the gallery of the Charles Sumner School, one of the earliest schools for African Americans in the city, he curated an exhibit called “Shared Sacred Spaces” about local synagogues that morphed into Black Baptist churches — and sometimes back again.

As far as synagogues go, Lebovich isn’t a big fan of the architecture of any in the Washington area — though he attends Congregation Beth El in Bethesda — due to unfortunate “political realities” that also plague nonprofits, he says.

Lebovich said that in his experience building committees are often made up of wealthy developers who “have undue influence,” lack expertise and are more concerned with “getting the most for their money” and their names on plaques “than with aesthetics.”

“To be in the construction business,” Lebovich said, “doesn’t mean you understand what a synagogue should look like or how it should work.”

When he served on building committees in the past, he did not feel heard. “The architects spent time listening to the people with money even if they knew absolutely nothing,” he said. “I thought I’d be taken more seriously as an architectural historian, but I’m not a wealthy person, so my vote didn’t count.”

One of Lebovich’s favorite synagogues, though, is the sanctuary of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in New York. Designed by the famed Norman Jaffee, the cedar-shingled synagogue has been called a masterpiece.

Lebovich also admires synagogues designed by German-born architect Erich Mendelsohn, which often allude to Eastern Europe.

Many synagogues lose this kind of character in their ballrooms, he says, adding that synagogues should design multipurpose spaces so that they can have a smaller, more intimate sanctuary as well as room for high holidays.

Because folding chairs are unpopular, synagogues might be better off if they rent space for the high holidays or even share it with other congregations, “but I don’t think that would sell,” he says.

Above all, “the key” to synagogue architecture is practicality: “how it can deal with different sized crowds, rather than give us an Eric Mendelsohn shrine to Judaism.”

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