Of all the sites that the U.S. government has officially designated as historic, only about 2,500 are National Historic Landmarks. This past Sunday, Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park was added to the list, becoming one of only four synagogues to earn such considerable status. Basically, it means that the synagogue is not just of cultural importance to the Jewish community, but to the entire American landscape.
To honor the honor, congregants gathered for a black-tie fundraising gala on May 5, to celebrate Beth Sholom's permanent place in the tapestry of American history, and space was at a premium during the next day's dedication ceremony. Crowds of people flowed in from around the neighborhood, with the parking lot and neighboring streets filled with cars by early morning.
On September 20, 1959 — a few months after the building was completed — the collaboration between legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Beth Sholom's Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen was codified in a dedication ceremony. The physical expression of that collaboration stood before that earlier crowd — a new synagogue that from the outside harkened back to the imposing sight of Mount Sinai in the desert, while evoking the softer image of a set of cupped hands from the inside.
"If ever I thought there was a shoo-in, Beth Sholom would be it," said Emily Cooperman of the synagogue's efforts to attain National Historic Landmark status.
As director of historic preservation at Cultural Resources Consulting Group, Cooperman spearheaded Beth Sholom's research and presentation to the National Park Service.
During her remarks at the dedication ceremony last Sunday, Cooperman explained that Beth Sholom had to navigate a tricky path before gaining the designation. Houses of worship can only be listed for exceptional architectural value — the fact of being designed by Frank Lloyd Wright wasn't enough.
"Not every one of his buildings can be described as culturally important to the nation," explained Cooperman. But Beth Sholom has proven itself over the years to be a stellar achievement for Wright.
"This is not an easy building, but it's not supposed to be," she said. "This is not a building that immediately ingratiates itself."
Wright's collaboration with Cohen was unusual for the architect, who was normally dictatorial in nature with his designs, she noted. But his lack of knowledge of Jewish liturgy wound up forging the partnership to create Beth Sholom.
"God is in all places when we choose to recognize God's presence," said Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin, Beth Sholom's current senior rabbi, to the 400 or so people gathered in the sanctuary on Sunday, the day after the gala.
The building "represents not only an architectural masterpiece, but a manifestation of the divine presence," noted the rabbi; its form takes echoes not only God's awesomeness, but God's intimateness as well. It is symbolic "of the living and eminent God of Israel, whose presence is near as the hand of a loved one."
A host of elected officials attended the ceremony, including U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), State Sen. LeAnna Washington (D-District 4), State Rep. Lawrence Curry (D-District 154), Montgomery County Commissioner Ruth Damsker and Beth Sholom congregant State Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-District 153).
Synagogue president Fred H. Wolfson said that the new status "gives us a renewed opportunity to dream our future."