A glimpse inside some of the most beautiful synagogues around the globe

A dozen historic and glorious synagogues – from Jerusalem to New York and beyond.

Eldridge Street Synagogue, New York (photo credit: WASABI BOB/FLICKR)
Eldridge Street Synagogue, New York
(photo credit: WASABI BOB/FLICKR)
This entire magazine could easily have all its pages filled with photos and stories of historic and breathtaking synagogues from around the world. For millennia, Jewish communities have been building houses of worship – from grand, imposing structures to intimate, simple buildings. In every corner of the globe, Jews have at one time dedicated time, money and effort into creating beautiful houses of worship. Sadly, many of the most magnificent shuls in Europe were destroyed during the Holocaust; while many of the grand synagogues across the Middle East were abandoned by fleeing Jews and are no longer accessible.
Yet tens of thousands of synagogues across the world remain – and are being built on a regular basis, particularly in the US and Israel, where Jewish communities are growing and flourishing.
This list is by no means comprehensive, nor is it ranked in any order. It is simply a peek inside a dozen historic and glorious synagogues – from Jerusalem to New York and beyond.
Eldridge Street Synagogue
New York
In the period of about 50 years centered around the turn of the 20th century, more than three million Jews passed through the Lower East Side of New York. They famously lived in tenements, sold food from pushcarts and yearned for better lives for their families. Now, 100 years later, the downtown community has lost most of its Jewish residents, but much of the infrastructure that sustained them remains – including the grand and imposing Eldridge Street Synagogue. The building, designed by the architects Peter and Francis William Herter, opened its doors in 1887. For 50 years the synagogue flourished as a center of Jewish life, but by the 1940s attendance was dwindling, and the main sanctuary stopped being used for regular services. But when a group of activists banded together in the 1990s, they managed to raise more than $20 million to restore the synagogue; and it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996. The synagogue – and adjacent Museum at Eldridge Street – completed its restoration in 2007, and now welcomes people from around the world for tours, concerts, festivals and – still – Shabbat prayer services.
Dohány Street Synagogue
The Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue of Budapest, is the largest synagogue in Europe and one of the largest in the world. Built between 1854 and 1859, by architect Ludwig Forster, the sanctuary can seat up to 3,000 people.
Theodor Herzl, who was born in a house right next to the synagogue, celebrated his bar mitzva there. In 1930, the plot of land that once held his family’s home was turned into a Jewish museum and attached to the main synagogue building. During the Holocaust, the synagogue sat on the border of the Jewish ghetto, where thousands of Jews died from hunger and cold; more than 2,000 are buried in the courtyard of the synagogue. It also suffered severe damage from aerial raids in 1945. While the synagogue continued to be used after the war, it was only after renovations – which began in 1991 and were completed in 1996 – that the building returned to its former glory. Today it serves the local Jewish community and is also a popular tourist attraction.
Rykestrasse Synagogue
The Rykestrasse Synagogue in Berlin is Germany’s biggest synagogue. It dates back to 1903, and for decades served as a center for the vibrant Jewish life in the capital. During Kristallnacht in 1938, the building was ransacked by the Nazis, who destroyed furniture, broke windows and burned Torah scrolls. It was saved from being burned entirely due to its close proximity to residential buildings. While it reopened in 1939 after repairs, in 1940 the Germans declared an end to Jewish prayer services and confiscated the building for its own use. The first post-war Shabbat ceremony was held in the synagogue on July 13, 1945, but in a smaller, less-damaged sanctuary inside. Many small renovations were done over the next few decades, but an extensive renovation was begun in 2005, and the synagogue was rededicated in all its former glory in 2007.
Grand Synagogue of Edirne
Edirne, Turkey
Earlier this year, the Grand Synagogue of Edirne completed its government-sponsored five-year, $2.5 million renovation. But there are virtually no Jews left in the northwestern city. Built in 1909 on the decree of the sultan, the synagogue – designed by the French architect France Depré – was the largest in Turkey, able to hold up to 1,200 worshipers.
But anti-Semitic attacks caused the Jewish population to steadily drop, and in the 1970s the synagogue stopped being used. In 1983 the building was officially abandoned by the community, and the Turkish government took control of it in 1995. The reopening of the synagogue – in March of this year – was attended by hundreds of Jewish and Turkish officials who participated in the festivities. The Edirne Municipality greeted guests with a banner hanging in the streets with the words “Welcome home, our old neighbors.” Since its reopening, the synagogue hasn’t been used for regular services, but the Jewish community hosted an Iftar meal there for the city’s Muslims in June, “to thank the people of Edirne,” said Turkish Chief Rabbi Ishak Ibrahimzadeh.
Beth Sholom Congregation
Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
Widely regarded as the greatest American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright designed one synagogue in his lifetime: The Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. The community was founded in 1918 in Philadelphia. It moved out of the city in 1951, and in 1953 its rabbi, Mortimer J. Cohen, persuaded Wright to design the congregation’s new building. It was dedicated in 1959, just a few months after Wright’s death. The architect himself described the shul as “a luminous Mount Sinai.” According to The Wall Street Journal, Wright eschewed a tradition in many synagogue buildings – stained-glass windows – for soaring translucent walls, saying: “Let God put His colors on, for He is the great artist.” The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2007.
Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue
The Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue in Mumbai dates back to 1884, when it was built by Jacob Elias Sassoon in memory of his father, Eliyahoo Sassoon. The synagogue was built to service the then-large community of Baghdadi Jews who had fled to India due to persecution.
Today, the synagogue mostly serves the local Bene Israel Jewish population, as well as visitors and tourists from around the globe.
The building, designed by the British architectural firm Gostling and Morris, features stone and brick masonry as well as Victorian stained-glass windows. The building is in need of repairs, and in 2010 the World Monuments Fund created a comprehensive conservation plan to address its structural and architectural integrity as well as restoration of its historic finishes and stained glass. Work and fund-raising for the project is still ongoing.
Grand Choral Synagogue
St. Petersburg
Despite the many limitations on Jewish life in Russia in the late 19th century, the St. Petersburg community finally obtained permission to build the Grand Choral Synagogue in 1869. Its design – by architects I.I.
Shaposhnikov, L. Bakhman, and V.A. Shreter – was approved by Tsar Alexander III in 1883 and in 1893 it was officially consecrated. Renowned Russian poet Osip Mandelstam called the Moorish-style building a “lavish, outstandish seductress.”
During World War I, the St. Petersburg Jewish community housed a 100- bed city hospital for the wounded on the synagogue premises. After the 1917 October Revolution, the Bolsheviks slowly restricted the religious freedom of Jews, and finally ordered the synagogue closed in 1930. It was later allowed to reopen, but very few public expressions of religion were tolerated.
Jewish life around the synagogue continued over the next decades, despite constant supervision and limitation by the authorities. In post-Soviet life, the synagogue once again serves as the center of the Jewish community.
The building is a registered landmark and an architectural monument, and a popular attraction, especially after extensive reconstruction efforts, which were completed in 2005.
Torah Synagogue Acre
The Ohr Torah Synagogue in Acre is covered in mosaics – literally! The Tunisian synagogue, built in 1955, was modeled after the El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba. Zion Badasche, the Acre resident who dreamed up and designed the synagogue, is a native of the island. The mosaics, which cover just about every surface of the building, were manufactured in Kibbutz Eilon, and depict the history of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
The synagogue’s main sanctuary has seven Torah arks and a dome adorned with symbols of the tribes, signs of the zodiac from ancient synagogue floors and some of the building’s 140 stained-glass windows. The women’s section is embellished with scenes of powerful biblical women. The beautiful synagogue is in use for regular prayers every day.
Szeged Synagogue
Szeged, Hungary
Built in 1907, this breathtaking synagogue is the second largest in Hungary, seating up to 1,340 people.
Architect Lipót Baumhorn, who designed more than 20 synagogues in his career, created a blend of Art Nouveau and Historicist styles in the soaring building.
At the Szeged Jewish community’s peak, the synagogue was a hub of vibrant Jewish life. By World War II, the population had declined, though there were still thousands of Jews remaining, the majority of whom were imprisoned in a ghetto before being shipped off to death camps. The synagogue’s longtime leader, Rabbi Immanuel Loew, at 90, was put on a train to Auschwitz but was smuggled off in Budapest. He later died in the ghetto there.
During the war, the Szeged Synagogue was used as a storage facility, but after the war ended a few hundred of the city’s Jews returned to reclaim it. In 1989, after renovations, the synagogue was rededicated, and the city’s small Jewish population uses it as an events center. In August, a $3.4 million government-sponsored reconstruction began on the synagogue, to fix decay and damage over the years.
Hurva Synagogue
In many ways the Hurva Synagogue is the oldest and newest on this list. Hurva means destruction in Hebrew – the fate of this synagogue in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter not once, but twice. First built in the early 1700s, by a group of Jewish mystics, the building quickly became a financial burden to the group.
In 1720, Arab lenders who were owed money for the construction got tired of waiting for repayment and burned the synagogue to the ground. The rubble was left desolate for over a century, which is when it got its name. After decades of struggling over debts and building rights, disciples of the Vilna Gaon – backed by Moses Montefiore, the Rothschilds and other wealthy donors – succeeded in building a new synagogue on the site, inaugurated in 1864. For the next 80 years, the synagogue served as the heart of Jewish life in Jerusalem, and was considered its most important and most beautiful shul. But in the War of Independence, Jordanian soldiers blew a hole in the wall to gain entry, then later returned to blow the whole thing to pieces. After decades of arguing over reconstruction, a plan to rebuild was finally approved in 2000, and the new building was completed and rededicated in 2010.
Great Synagogue of Rome
The Great Synagogue of Rome – the largest in the city – was constructed after the unification of Italy in 1870, when the Jewish ghetto was demolished and Jews were finally granted citizenship. Work began on the present building in 1901 and was completed in 1904, according to the designs of Vincenzo Costa and Osvaldo Armanni. The synagogue’s Art Deco style is capped by an aluminum dome – the only squared dome in the city.
In 1982, Palestinian terrorists threw hand grenades at a crowd of people leaving the synagogue after Saturday morning services, and then opened fire with submachine guns.
Two-year-old Stefano Gaj Taché was killed and 37 others were wounded.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have paid visits to the synagogue.
Today, in addition to being used for regular services, the synagogue is part of the Jewish Museum of Rome complex, and houses the offices of the chief rabbi of Italy.
Great Synagogue of Sydney
The Great Synagogue of Sydney – an imposing, Gothic-style building in the heart of the city – is both a national heritage site and a hub of Jewish communal life.
Consecrated in 1878, the building reunited two rival Jewish synagogues that had split a few decades earlier. The Great Synagogue is the oldest surviving synagogue in New South Wales still in use. Designed by architect Thomas Rowe, the building is elaborately decorated, with stained glass, molded plaster, cast-iron columns and gold-leaf stars painted on the midnight blue ceiling. At the time the building was completed, it was the most imposing structure on the street, but since then it has been superseded by more modern buildings.
Over its more than 130-year history, the building has undergone renovations and construction, including adding a large reception area, building a library, installing a Shabbat elevator and increasing the seating capacity. In the 1980s, the AM Rosenblum Jewish Museum opened on the grounds of the synagogue, housing a collection of Jewish artifacts including textiles, ritual silver, photographs and paintings.