Original article found at Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. The formal entrance with this monumental screen, is rarely used; most people enter from the parking lot. The inscriptions include the Shema, and “Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself”. “Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Sanctuary exterior. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Parking lot entrance with sculpture “The Family” by Joseph Greenberg, Jr. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. One wall of Jacob Landau’s The Prophetic Quest windows, installed in 1974. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
USA: Keneseth Israel, the “Other” Mid-Century Modern Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
By Samuel D. Gruber
In 2019 I had the pleasure of visiting Elkins Park outside of Philadelphia, and spending most of a day looking its two most notable synagogues which are located within a block of each other. The first is Congregation Beth Sholom with its world-renowned sanctuary designed by Frank Lloyd Wright about which I have written about before, as have so many others. But just up the road is the contemporary Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel KI), also dedicated in 1959, and which is of architectural and artistic interest, too. Notably, KI’s sanctuary boasts stunning stained glass windows designed by Jacob Landau, and a rich collection of historical materials and Jewish art. I recently wrote about KI’s lesser-known chapel stained glass windows here.
My friend historian and KI Senior Rabbi Lance Sussman showed me around, and when travel is allowed again, I look forward to a return visit to dig deeper into the collection and the archives.
Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel (KI), founded in 1847, is one of Philadelphia’s oldest Jewish congregations. KI first met in several locations, then rented and eventually bought and renovated a former church in 1854. A decade later, during the Civil War, KI sold the building to another Jewish congregation (Adath Jeshurun) and erected its first purpose-built synagogue at Sixth and Brown Streets. Then in 1891, the congregation moved north to an enormous new purpose-built synagogue building with dome and tower at 1717 North Broad Street at Columbia Avenue). That building was a North Philadelphia landmark for more than seventy years.
Pictured above: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Congregation Keneseth Israel. Sixth and Brown Street, 1864.
Pictured above: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Congregation Keneseth Israel. Broad Street and Columbia Avenue. Louis C. Hickman and Oscar Frotscher, architects, 1891-92. Postcard in collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia.
In the period after World War II, as Philadelphia’s Jews moved away from the North Broad Street area towards the northern suburbs, the congregation eventually followed suit. In 1951, when esteemed Rabbi Bertram Korn headed the congregation KI sold its Broad Street buildings to Temple University which wanted them for its Law School. KI eventually found a new site on a triangular parcel of land at Old York and Township line roads in Elkins Park.
Israel Demchick (1891-1980) was hired as architect, assisted by Irwin Michaelson, a congregant who was responsible for engineering decisions. Demchick is an architect who deserves further study. He was born in Russia, came to America as a boy, and graduated from Southern and Manual Training High School for Boys (later South Philadelphia High School) in 1911. Like many ambitious young Philadelphia Jews, he was able to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania from which he graduated in 1915. At Penn, he studied with Paul P. Cret and Leon Arnal. As a senior, he received both the Stewardson Scholarship and a Beaux-Arts medal. Demchick worked with several firms in his long career, and he and theater architect David Supowitz began sharing an office as early as 1945 before formally establishing the firm of Supowitz & Demchick in 1963. Demchick endowed a chair in architecture to the Hebrew University in Israel and was named the school’s Man of the Year in 1971.
A symbolic groundbreaking was held on Nov. 28, 1955. Excavation began in April 1956, and the cornerstone was laid on October 7, 1956. In the summer of 1957 construction was almost complete, and a de-consecration service was held at the Broad Street Temple. Though the new building was not finished, the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) was taken down and the Torah scrolls removed. The actual dedication of the building to place from December 4-6, 1959, which was also the 10th anniversary of Rabbi Bertram Korn’s position a Senior Rabbi.
In the style of the time, the sanctuary is a large and somber space, originally seating up to about 850 congregants without expansion. There is a flat ceiling and artificial light (which has been enhanced) but no natural light entering anywhere near the ark and bimah. After the installation of the Landau windows in the 1974 the room got darker, since the richly colored windows filter out sunlight. This was the style in the 1960s, though today congregations crave more contact with the natural world.
The floor level slopes from the rear to the front, and in the style of the time the bimah and Ark are raised high – one needs to ascend seven stone stairs to get to the top of the bimah and the ark is three steps higher. consequently, a new lower and more accessible bimah has been built out into the congregant space which fortunately was large enough to accommodate this 21st century change. Even so, it must be hard to adapt the hierarchical architecture of the 1959 to the more collective, communal and intimate preferences of modern Reform services. The chapel, however, is more modest in size, but large enough to offer a less formidable space.
The form of the ark is simple; a clear rectangle, emphasizing horizontal lines, and framed with expensive polished marble. The architects of KI followed a path laid out by Percival Goodman a decade earlier at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and behind the Ark rises an enormous screen that transitions the size of the Ark to a much larger scale, and also enlivens the wall with patterned screen. This still uses the established rectangular form, but multiples it and lightens it. For an example of other near-contemporary Ark wall screens, see my post from 2019 about the DeHirsch Sinai Temple in Seattle.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Sanctuary Ark. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
Flanking the ark, but included within the large stone frame, are a series of ten reliefs by Philadelphia decorative sculptor George Kreier depicting the life of Moses. These works from 1938 had been moved from the Broad Street Temple. In the 1930s and 1950s (as even today), including narrative and figural sculpture on an ark was unusual. Traditionally, arks have not included human representation, even for symbolic or narrative purposes. Though not the same thing, we do find in antiquity four large patriarch and/or prophet figures painted on the ark wall at the 3rd century synagogue at Dura-Europos. These and the overall narrative decoration of the ancient synagogue were discovered in 1932, and certainly would have been known to Rabbi William Fineshriber who officiated at KI when the Moses reliefs were made, and presumably to the artist as well. There may, in fact, be some direct references in the KI ark reliefs to the Dura paintings, such as the scene of Moses and the Burning Bush, though the KI artist George Kreier does not have Moses remove his footwear (boots at Dura-Europos, sandals in Philadelphia and Elkins Park).
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Ark reliefs by George Kreier (1938), moved from Broad Street Temple. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Ark reliefs by George Kreier (1938), moved from Broad Street Temple. Detail of Moses and the Burning Bush. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
Pictured above: Dura-Europos, Syria. Synagogue wall painting of Moses Before Burning Bush. Photo: Kraeling, The Synagogue, Pl LXXVI.
There a few exceptions to the rule of figures on arks, nearly contemporary with the building of the new KI in the 1950s. In 1956, Ilya Schor created an Ark at Temple Beth El in Great Neck, New York, with metal plaques illustrating human action. The Doors of the 36 consist of highly-stylized silver repoussé panels based on the Hasidic legend of the thirty-six wise and good humans who live in every generation (Schor’s ark is fully illustrated in Kampf, Contemporary Synagogue Art, op. cit., pp. 204-207). Soon after, Luise Kaish was at work on her great Ark of Revelation for Congregation Brith Kodesh in Rochester, New York which was commissioned in 1960 and installed in 1964.
At KI in Elkins Park, a large stone Decalogue with the Ten Commandments inscribed in English is set over the ark. Above this is a large relief sculpture of the letter Shin, added in 2010 by calligrapher and congregant Karen Shain Schoss, which stands for HaShem (the ineffable name of God). It can also be taken as the first letter of Shalom, the Hebrew word for welcome and peace. Embedded in the screen as sculpted reliefs are carved panels, representing holidays, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and various symbols of Judaism I think these were all brought from the earlier building and incorporated into a new design.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
On the side walls of the rear half of the sanctuary are installed the magnificent and brilliantly colored stained glass windows designed by American artist Jacob Landau. These ten windows were not part of the original building design, though the designers and the congregation apparently anticipated installing stained glass. These tall windows, five on each side, were only commissioned in 1970 and installed in 1974. They are a major work of American Jewish art, and American expressive art, and deserve a full scholarly, descriptive and critical treatment.
When they were installed Rabbi Korn wrote a explanation to help the congregation understand and adjust to the images – a copy was placed at every seat. In 2015 Rabbi Lance Sussman and graphic and comic book artist JT Waldman created a new Reader’s Guide to the windows to make them accessible to a new generation. Very soon, there will also be a substantial sumptuously illustrated new book out from Penn State University Press about the windows that will be have critical and appreciative texts from a wide range of authors (myself included). Therefore, I’ll soon give these windows a separate blog entry as a third installment on KI, so readers can appreciate them more fully.
I hope that when the book is published it will revive interest in Landau, synagogue stained glass, and the remarkable history of Keneseth Israel. These windows should re-emerge in the public awareness as major 20th century works of stained glass, Jewish and American art.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Prophetic Quest windows in sanctuary, Jacob Landau, artist, 1970-74. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Sanctuary windows from exterior. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Sanctuary windows detail, Elijah window. Jacob Landau, artist, 1974. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
When KI opened in 1959 there were 1700 family member units, making it one of the largest Reform congregations in the area. Today, the membership is closer to 1,000 families, which is still large enough to make good use of the facility, but much smaller than planned. Consequently, KI offers space to the Conservative congregation Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El which occupies part of the former education wing, but has its own entrance. With two congregations, there is more activity in and around the large complex, and this also helps to share the costs.
Though the KI sanctuary is large, it can be made even larger for High Holiday services when attendance soars. Like most mid-20th century American synagogues, the space was expandable by the means of partitions which opened up onto the large social hall. Though examples of movable partitions and folding walls can be found in synagogues and churches going back to the turn of the 20th century, it was Percival Goodman, again, who set a new and popular example by having large worship and social spaces separated by large folding doors. But as at so many other congregations of its size, today regular services are often held in the ample chapel space.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Sanctuary, view from ark to rear partition walls. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Social hall adjacent to sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
Besides being worship and educational center, KI is known for rich and varied cultural offerings. Its extensive Judaica Collection is housed in the Temple Judea Museum and throughout the complex. The Museum has posted much of its collection of 4,000 plus Judaica, photos, and other objects on-line. It also maintains a gallery space and active exhibition schedule (obviously, presently suspended during the pandemic) that includes exhibits generated by work from an active Artist’s Collaborative. When I visited there was on view a very engaging and high-quality exhibit “Recycled/Repurposed/Repair the World: Art as Tikkun Olam“, a show filled with marvelous collage creations in many media (examples of which can be seen at the museum website).
KI also houses an exceptional archive and it has the substantial Meyers Library, with over 13,000 volumes, for the congregation and larger community. Because Rabbi Sussman is. like his predecessor Rabbi Korn, a distinguished historian of American Jewish history, he has given encouragement and attention to various historical initiatives from the congregation and partnerships with local and national institutions including the Library of Congress and the National Museum of American Jewish History.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Meyers Library. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
Pictured above: Elkins Park, PA. Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. Historical Archives. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2019.
You can read about the history of Keneseth Israel at
And at the Congregation archives and history webpage here: