Eighteenth-century wooden synagogue, Wolpa, Poland (now Voupa, Bel.), ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

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Synagogue Architecture

There has been neither uniformity nor consistency in the synagogue architecture of Eastern Europe. The constants are the ritual necessities—primarily the bimah and the ark containing the Torah scrolls—and illumination suitable for reading, adequate seating, and at least 10 adult Jewish men to perform the complete services. From the seventeenth century on, it became common practice to hang a perpetual lamp above the ark, a menorah near it, and a curtain over the ark. Male congregants sat on benches around the building’s perimeter and on the sides of the bimah, with elders perhaps seated on either side of the ark. The focal point was the ark–bimah axis and the bimah desk at which the officiants stood. Individual chairs and reading stands—and occasionally even pews in the nineteenth century—were added, to increase seating capacity.

Bimah in the seventeenth-century wooden synagogue, Zabłudów, Poland, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

Little is known about synagogues in Eastern Europe before the late sixteenth century. Small congregations may have worshiped in rooms set aside for this purpose in the homes of prosperous members. No wooden synagogues survive from the period of early Jewish migration to Central or Eastern Europe; some were rebuilt using masonry, while others may simply have been destroyed and never rebuilt. In a few surviving late medieval masonry synagogues (Altneuschul, Prague, thirteenth–fourteenth century; Stara [Old] Synagoga, Kraków, sixteenth century), columns divide the interior into two aisles, adding breadth while reflecting the sponsors’ wealth and status; the plan and elevation probably derive from monastic meeting rooms (chapter houses).

For smaller congregations, private foundations (synagogues that were the property of individuals, rather than of the community, such as the Pinkasshul in Prague) served as places of prayer, while in centers with modest Jewish populations (such as Sopron in the fourteenth century; Poznań, Strzegom, and Oleśnica in the fifteenth–sixteenth centuries) single-naved masonry buildings were common. Resembling small Christian chapels and secular buildings in style and structure, they were probably erected by local Christian builders. From the fourteenth century on, there is evidence of annexes for women—which had existed a century earlier in Germany (Worms, Speyer)—connected to the men’s area by small openings or latticed windows that prevented visual contact. Women’s services may have been conducted separately both then and later.

Sixteenth-century fortified synagogue, Husiatyn, Poland, 1920s (now in Ukraine). The photographer wrote: “A border city in eastern Galicia. The synagogue . . . stands on a hill and is the last building in town. The small white houses in the distance are over the border in the USSR.” Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)

In cities, synagogues were often located on streets designated for Jews. Although an attempt was made to conceal the structures from public view by situating them behind the house of the chief rabbi or community leader, they were still visible because of their height. In localities of several hundred to a few thousand people, where substantial Jewish minorities or even majorities lived, synagogues were usually large and highly visible. Such buildings were generally located close to the marketplace or a place near running water, the latter required for rituals. Until the late nineteenth century, synagogues might also have been placed within complexes that included some or all of the following: small structures for prayer and religious study; the rabbi’s house, with perhaps a room used for meetings and judicial decisions; housing for synagogue employees; a ritual bath; a kosher slaughterhouse; a well or fountain; and community offices. Vilna’s Great Synagogue (1630) was surrounded by these facilities. The building group at Kleck (Bel., Kletsk) offers a smaller example.

Synagogue, Peschanka, Russia (now in Ukraine), ca. 1915. (The Russian Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg, Russia)

Jewish settlement increased in East European lands during the sixteenth century, creating a need for new accommodations. In the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, synagogues usually consisted of square single rooms with annexes; they were often irregularly configured to accommodate vestibules, study rooms, and women’s prayer rooms. In the eighteenth century, it became common for women’s rooms to be placed above a western vestibule, with stairs integrated into the building’s construction (as at Grimailov and Warka); the stairs, corner towers (where included), and access galleries combined to form an impressive configuration, as at Wolpa, Gombin, Nasielsk, and Jurbarkas. Humbler examples, as at Mukacheve (Hun., Munkács), had only a modest porch to one side, although the main synagogue or one where a famous rabbi officiated in the same town could be imposing.

By the mid-seventeenth century, many communities favored square plans, which were efficiently compact. These permitted direct visual contact among the worshipers, views of the ark–bimah axis, and natural illumination on all sides; the arrangement involving six pairs of windows may also have had symbolic meaning. Restrictions against building beyond legally specified dimensions may have suggested a plan requiring each side to be built to a specified limit, thus producing a square form. The desired amplitude led architects to provide internal supports that could accommodate large roofs.

Fragment of a copy of an eighteenth-century synagogue mural by Yisra’el Lissnitsky, Chodorów, Poland (now Khodoriv, Ukr.). (Beth Hatefutsoth, Permanent Exhibition, Tel Aviv)

In Lwów (Ukr., L’viv) in 1632, the nearly square Vorstadt Synagogue (known as the Suburban Synagogue) had four cylindrical pillars forming an approximate square in the central bay of its nine-bay plan. The origin of this unusual configuration is uncertain, and the plan was most likely not copied; a recent unconvincing hypothesis relates it to Dutch Sephardic models. More common from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries were nine-bay synagogues with a compressed central bay supported by four pillars that created a canopied enclosure above the bimah. The origin of this form is also unknown, but seems to date back to masonry buildings of the late sixteenth century, the first example apparently having been the Maharshal synagogue in Lublin (1567), followed by the extant synagogue at Przemyśl (1595).

Masonry synagogues were concentrated in areas with stone quarries, such as in the town of Łańcut, where Jews were under the protection of local nobles who permitted or helped pay for synagogues for court-connected Jews, and in towns like Tarnogród or Żółkiew (now Ukr., Zhovkva) that required buildings to be fortified against Tatar, Cossack, or other invasions. Fortification was required of the Jews at Luts’k (Łuck), but crenellated rooflines might have been merely decorative (as at Luboml). Some masonry synagogue parapets were used in case a roof burned, preventing fires from spreading to nearby buildings. Wooden synagogues were probably more common, as wood was abundant and thus likely to be less expensive, but it had the disadvantage of being combustible. Such synagogues were often situated at some remove from other buildings to forestall the spread of fire.

Tłomackie Street Synagogue (opened 1878; Leandro Marconi), Warsaw. (YIVO)

Wooden synagogues could have spacious interiors without internal supports if the builders knew how to make self-supporting roofs that receded successively (multilayered roofs are common in churches and mansions; contemporary American synagogue designers have adopted them as signs of Ashkenazic Jewish tradition). Nearly all wooden synagogues in Eastern Europe were destroyed as a result of fire, natural decay, or antisemitic activity. Nevertheless, photographs, plans, and documentation were preserved before 1939 in Poland by Oscar Sosnowski, Szymon Zajczyk, and others, and were published by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka in 1957, 1959, and 1996. A central bimah might have been surrounded by four posts, as at Suchowola, recalling the four masonry supports of brick and stone synagogues. It could also stand under a wooden canopy, as was the case at Sidra. Usually the interior simply had a central bimah platform that was easily visible to all, as at Piaski. Cascading roofs inside the buildings, or domical wooden forms above the building’s center, emphasized the bimah and were believed to guide prayers upward. The tentlike roof at Gwoździec and others in Galicia evoke the tent of the tabernacle, based on teachings of the Zohar. In some synagogues, symbolic meaning has been attributed to floors that are below grade level, which relates to the idea that “out of the depths” the worshiper cries to the Lord. Sinking the floor when civic authorities limited the synagogue’s size added height to the interior, which was desirable on purely aesthetic grounds.

Both masonry and wooden synagogues might have contained wall paintings, especially in Galicia and Belorussia. Evidence of painting elsewhere is lacking, except when artistic activity in these areas has been documented. Animal, plant, and architectural forms abound. Framed painted texts were common sources of inspiration, often serving as a poor person’s substitute for prayer books. Texts include prayers written in letters large enough to be read by anyone in the men’s area (though probably not by women in the annexes); the text frames were derived from printed book frontispieces. Other painted texts on the walls included pious inscriptions, biblical passages, donors’ and artists’ names, kabbalistic references, and astrological lore. Border motifs imitated the forms and ropes of ancient rulers’ tents, symbols of authority, and references to the tabernacle prototype.

Moorish-design synagogue built in 1908, Samara, Russia. (YIVO)

The artists were Jews capable of painting the Hebrew inscriptions, including Yisra’el Lissnitsky (Gwoździec, Chodorów, [see image below, left]); Ḥayim Segal (Kapustiany, Dolginov); Ya‘akov Yehudah Leib (Przedbórz); and Eli‘ezer Sussman, who executed Galician-style paintings in southern Germany. These as well as other eighteenth-century artists are known from painted signatures captured in photographs and from research conducted by the artist El Lissitzky, who investigated Jewish material culture in Belorussia shortly after the Russian Revolution. Architecture, painting, and applied crafts are also known through early twentieth-century research by architect and historian Alfred Grotte, as well as through architectural scholars and historians such as Alois Breyer, Szymon Zajczyk, Majer Bałaban, and Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz. Jewish and Christian carpenters and craftsmen are occasionally named in inscriptions as builders and carvers of ark frames, ark door reliefs, bimahs and their canopies, exterior balustrades, and decorative ceilings.

As Jews left villages for larger towns and cities, synagogue forms underwent significant changes in the nineteenth century. The partition of Poland after 1772 led to the introduction of new forms influenced by modes prevailing in the conquering countries. Where Jews were either not trained or were prevented from being masons, Christian builders erected synagogues using plans adapted from basilican (aisled, usually rectangular) churches, albeit with galleries for women above the aisles and a recess for the ark. Illustrated architectural source books conveyed ideas from Germany and Austria to eastern builders. Reform congregations adopted ideas from Central and Western Europe, where the Reform movement originated.

Po‘ale Tsedek, Baritsu Street, Cluj, 2000. The synagogue was established in the early twentieth century by a group that included many craftsmen, including carpenters, tailors, and shoemakers. Photograph by David Gordon. (© David Gordon)

Choral synagogues, known from Russia to Hungary, partly replaced the individual chanting of prayers with male choruses. There, as well as in all Reform temples, the ark and bimah stood close to each other at the eastern end. Rows of fixed seats directed congregants to that focal point rather than to a bimah placed in the center of a square-shaped room. The temple at Kraków-Kazimierz, the choral synagogue of Saint Petersburg (1893; architect Ivan Shaposhnikov, painter Lev Bakhman), and the eclectic Romanesque and Moorish-style choral synagogue of Vilna (1904; architect Adolf Zeligson) exemplify this type of building.

Where government authorities limited the number of synagogues permitted in a city, such rules encouraged larger than usual buildings, which could also accommodate expected newcomers. By 1868, the rapidly developing city of Odessa boasted two large, elaborately designed synagogues, as well as several dozen modest houses of prayer, as did Wrocław. In 1863, Ignacy Herzog built an eclectic-style Reform temple on the outskirts of Kazimierz, the Jewish suburb of Kraków, where smaller masonry synagogues had existed since the sixteenth century.

The rectangular plan was most common in cities, although around 1900 there was a turn to centralized plans, which were often domed, as at Szeged (1902; Lipót Baumhorn) and Poznań (1907; Richard Wolffenstein). The frequent desire of urban Jews to assimilate, at least in part, to the practices of the surrounding culture also helps to explain the growing resemblance of synagogues to basilican churches, often with women’s galleries above and flanking the men’s space or, as earlier, raised above the entrance (normally the western end), over the vestibule. Orthodox women were still screened from men’s view, while the women in the comparatively few Reform synagogues could be seen if their galleries rose above the north and south aisles rather than only at the western end.

Neolog synagogue designed by Lipót Baumhorn, built in 1924–1926, Lučenec, Slovakia, ca. 2000. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber. (Courtesy of the photographer)

New problems involving architectural style developed after 1830, a time marked by nationalism and historicism in design. Historical forms were revived for their connotations; for example, the pointed and delicate style of Gothic architecture was considered Catholic or French since it had first developed in thirteenth-century France. Jews, by contrast, often turned to commonly used forms, as they had done until the nineteenth century, or as late as 1860 in the case of the main synagogue in Odessa. Designed by Franz Morandi, the so-called Glavnaia Synagogue reflected a then common mixture of medieval forms known as Romanesque-Gothic.

Once style was linked to group identity, however, Jews adopted exotic architectural forms, such as Moorish, which proclaimed their collective difference from their surroundings, especially when their numbers were large or they were confident enough to do so. In 1868, for example, cosmopolitan merchants engaged a Reform rabbi from Lwów and erected the Brody synagogue built in what a contemporary called “Arabian” style. Compromises between Russian and Moorish styles governed the façade, structure, and decoration of the choral synagogue at Saint Petersburg. Moorish design was widely known elsewhere and was often based on Viennese models.

By the twentieth century, several synagogue designers had abandoned the Moorish style and had begun using alternative folk art forms, as at Radymno (1918) or in the unexecuted design by architect Szyszko-Bohusz for a synagogue in Kharkov (1910). The Subotica synagogue (1901; Marcell Komor and Deszo Jakab), which is now located in Serbia but was in Hungary at the time of construction, follows an exuberant, folk-influenced style allied to art nouveau that was then popular there.

Members of the Jewish community in the Great Synagogue, Soroca, ca. 1920. The chair hanging from the chandelier was deposited there by the waters of a flood that engulfed the town. (YIVO)

Modern synagogue styles could also reveal aspects of communal social status, degrees of observance, and political orientation. In Warsaw, the imposing classical façade of the Tłomackie Street synagogue (opened 1878; Leandro Marconi) associated the prosperous Jews of that congregation with the prestige of imperial Russian architecture. The dignified but less grandiose Nożyk Synagogue of Warsaw (1902), which still survives, reflects the local application of Romanesque-Moorish designs and suggests different aspirations from those of the worshipers at the Tłomackie Street synagogue. In Kraków, the surviving Tempel or Synagoga Postępowa was enlarged in 1883 and 1894, yet still retained its hybrid historical forms. These may have been employed to demonstrate its affiliation with other large Reform synagogues in Habsburg cities. They differentiated the synagogue and its congregation from their more traditional neighbors, who frequented the older, outwardly modest synagogues nearby.

Poverty, government restrictions, emigration, and world wars made new synagogue construction rare in Eastern Europe after 1914. During World War II, Nazis and local sympathizers destroyed numerous synagogues. Some surviving structures were converted to serve various uses—particularly by the Soviets—while others served as community facilities, such as libraries (Zamość) or archives (Rzeszów). Some have been restored, such as Warsaw’s Nożyk Synagogue, Kraków’s Tempel, and synagogues in Łańcut and Tykocin. Others, such as those in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, survived the war and the Soviet regime and remain in use.

Scholarship on East European synagogues has recently increased. The Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem, which has conducted surveys of surviving monuments, is creating databases and other library resources. Most of the serious scholarship has centered on the territories of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which include parts of present-day Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, and Austria. Other regions await further investigation.

Suggested Reading

Eleonora Bergman, Nurt mauretański w architekturze synagog (Warsaw, 2004); Eleonora Bergman and Jan Jagielski, Zachowane synagogi i domi modlitwy w Polsce: Katalog (Warsaw, 1996); Jiři Fiedler, Jewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia (Prague, 1991); Anikó Gazda, András Kubinyi, László Gerő, et al., Magyarországi zsinagógák (Budapest, 1989); Samuel Gruber and Phyllis Myers, Survey of Historic Jewish Monuments in the Czech Republic: A Report to the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad (New York, 1994); Thomas Hubka, Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth Century Polish Community (Hanover, N.H., 2003); Zoia Nikolaevna Iargina (Yargina), Wooden Synagogues, trans. L. Lezhneva, ed. Nancy Hanley (Moscow, 1993), text in English and Russian; Algė Jankevičienė, Vilniaus Didzioji Sinagoga / Great Synagogue of Vilnius (Vilna, 1996), in Lithuanian and English; Carol Herselle Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning, rev. ed. (New York, 1996); Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, Heaven’s Gates: Wooden Synagogues in the Territories of the Former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Warsaw, 2004); Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, Oppidum Judaeorum: Żydzi w przestrzeni miejskiej dawnej Rzeczypospolitej (Warsaw, 2004); Izabella Rejduch-Samkowa and Jan Samek, City of Cracow: Kazimierz and Stradom: Judaica: Synagogues, Public Buildings, and Cemeteries (Warsaw, 1995); Rachel Wischnitzer, The Architecture of the European Synagogue (Philadelphia, 1964); Tomasz Wiśniewski, Bóżnice Białostocczyzny: Heartland of the Jewish Life; Synagogues and Jewish Communities in the Białystok Region, trans. Jarosław Wojtach (Białystok, 1992), in Polish with summaries in English.