Congregation B'nai Israel
Congregation B’nai Israel, a Jewish community identified with the Conservative movement located in suburban Millburn, New Jersey, commissioned the architect Percival Goodman to design a new synagogue in 1948. The program called for a one story building with a small basement. The major requirement for the building was an expandable prayer hall to accommodate different numbers of people. Also required was a lobby and walled garden, as well as a school wing containing a small chapel and library. Excluding land, landscaping, and furnishings, the project cost was $150,000. The cost per square foot was $14.40.
Sited on Millburn Avenue near Ridgewood Road in Essex Country, New Jersey, the original Congregation B’nai Israel is a simple low square building rising one story, dominantly constructed from warm tan brick. The original building read from the street as two masses, with a taller and more detailed mass projecting forward from the west side of the facade. The projecting mass houses the sanctuary, the main prayer space within the building. Receding from that protruded mass, and moving eastward on the facade, is a simple entrance. Next to this a brick screen wall concealing a garden with interior space in the rear. The projecting sanctuary contains the focal point of the facade, an 8’ x 12’ sculptural representation of the burning bush, by the abstract expressionist artist Herbert Ferber, made from lead-coated copper and mounted on a wedge-shaped panel of natural cypress which projects from the center of the building and extends beyond the roof line. On the interior, this protruding wooden box contains the ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept inside the sanctuary. The ark is both spiritually and functionally the focal point of the congregation, so its bold expression on the building’s exterior is appropriate. On either side of the central cypress panel is a large square window in which multiple mullions are arranged to create an abstract, asymmetrical Mondrian-like pattern. On one side the mullions form a Star of David. The opposite side contains horizontal boards inscribed with, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” in both Hebrew and English. The windows are treated not as voids but as translucent walls, and are glazed with blue-green frosted glass. One panel in the glass wall opposite the Star of David is transparent, revealing the tips of a seven-branched menorah inside the sanctuary. The section of the facade comprising the entrance is completely transparent, with windows arranged in a linear fashion around the glass doors. Upon entering the lobby in the center of the building, Robert Motherwell’s large mural, Wall of the Temple, enhances the area with its heavily abstracted Jewish symbolism and bright use of color. From the lobby, to the right is a walled garden, expressed through the brick screen on the exterior of the building, which can be used as a lobby extension, to hold outdoor weddings, and as a site on which to construct the Sukkah, a temporary structure built on the harvest holiday of Sukkot. Straight ahead toward the rear of the building are offices, classrooms, and kitchen, while to the left one can enter both the sanctuary and the social hall, which are arranged on vertical axis with each other. This was an innovation in Goodman’s design, which allowed for easy expansion of the seating area in the prayer hall. The room contains 200 permanent seats to suit regular services, but can be extended to include all or part of the social hall by sliding one or two sets of partitions, creating seating for either 350 or 700 people depending on the occasion or holiday. The sanctuary itself is a simple space with exposed brick walls and permanent wooden pews facing the front wall of the temple, in front of which sits the raised bimah, or prayer platform. The translucent wall allows light to enter the room while maintaining privacy and a separation from the distractions of the outside world. The Star of David constructed from window mullions is visible, balanced by the seven-branched menorah on the other side of the bimah. The central focus in the room is the ark in which the Torah scrolls are stored. The projecting cypress panel is continued in the interior and creates a cavity for storage. Covering the cavity is a quilted curtain, designed by the painter Adolph Gottlieb in rich velvets with symbolic appliques and sewn by the women in the congregation.
Built in a suburban neighborhood, the context of the building has grown denser over time. Alterations to the building have most affected the original structure’s immediate physical context. Once a small building on a large lot, with a walled garden and a natural approach to the street, the garden was filled in as part of an addition, the main mode of entry has shifted to the rear of the building where the parking lot is located, and a two-story school wing extends from the eastern part of the building. Notably, the sanctuary wing has not been significantly altered.
The one-story building was built with materials chosen for minimum maintenance. It uses tan, Norman size face brick in cavity wall construction. The interior walls use either the same face brick or colored concrete block depending on the location. The floors are concrete slabs with two inches of insulating concrete below. The concrete slab contains radiant heating pipes. The floor finish is bluestone in the lobby, cork in the sanctuary and chapel, ceramic tile in bathrooms, and asphalt tile elsewhere. Exterior woodwork is natural finished cedar while interior woodwork is natural finished red birch. The roof of the main hall is composed of steel girders supported on steel columns. Other roofs are wood rafters supported on masonry walls. The roofing itself is slag and glass wool batts act as insulation. The interior ceiling finish is wire lath and either white or acoustic plaster. Steel windows are used in most of the building, though the main facade of the sanctuary uses blue heat-resistant windows traditionally used in industrial settings.
Begun in 1924, by 1948 the 118 families that made up Congregation B'nai Israel had outgrown their current building. The rabbi at the time, Max Gruenwald, hired Percival Goodman, giving him free artistic rein over the design. The close-knit community, open-minded rabbi, and small size of the structure made this an ideal commission for Goodman, who had recently addressed the question of appropriate style for synagogues in writing, but who had not yet designed one. The small size of the building brought these artistic matters to a manageable scale, and the proximity to New York City and its cosmopolitan influences enhanced the community’s readiness to embrace something truly new. Goodman’s decision to incorporate modern art into the synagogue was integral to the design of the building, and constituted a significant aspect of the architect’s search for a modern language for synagogue construction.
Although the building represents one of Goodman's earliest synagogue commissions and his use of modern architectural language and integration with modern art differentiated it both from previous and contemporary synagogue architecture, Congregation B’nai Israel is emblematic of the greater post-war Jewish experience. The booming postwar economy and broad migration from urban areas to the suburbs necessitated new synagogue construction in areas like Millburn. As families moved away from urban enclaves that could support a local synagogue, new suburban developments were more isolated and contained a mix of religious affiliations. In this new environment, synagogues were pushed to include classrooms, social halls, and recreational facilities in order to foster close communities like those that naturally occurred in urban immigrant areas.
In June 1947 Percival Goodman became involved with a symposium sponsored by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations titled, “An American Synagogue for Today and Tomorrow.” A series of articles by Goodman after the conference established Goodman as an authority on synagogue architecture, despite never having designed one. Subsequent articles and lectures led directly to three synagogue commissions, including Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn.
Despite Percival Goodman’s Jewish heritage, he had little Jewish education, and his early architectural practice focused mainly on commercial and residential design. In 1947, Goodman and his brother Paul published Comunitas, a social and architectural manifesto expressing how community could be conveyed through architectural language. The events of the Holocaust awakened a Jewish connection for Goodman, and his radical social thought combined with this interest, leading him to synagogue design. In an article published in Commentary magazine in January 1949, Goodman described the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish communities, “…among Jews it seems to have had the following effect: they became aware of themselves as a physical community, a congregation. We mean in the barest physical sense… the reaction has been the sense of the co-presence of a certain identity and certain rudiments of a tradition, what we are calling the sense of being a physical congregation… The chief effects of this congregational sentiment have been twofold: an increase in Jewish social work, philanthropy, and community centers… and secondly, an entirely new impetus in synagogue building.” The Congregation B'nai Israel commission was the ideal place for Goodman to design an innovative modern building that reflected his new strongly-felt Jewish heritage, integrating his ideas about community with his vision of Judaism into one project.
Percival Goodman was one of a group of architects trying to develop a new, modern typology for the design of post-war synagogues. A major aspect of this challenge was how to integrate what Goodman saw as the three main functions of a synagogue complex—the liturgical, the educational, and the social. Goodman wrote that Judaism, unlike Christianity, is horizontal. “All is holy, the temple, the home, the mountain, and the valley. The Christian concept is vertical: from a point of the ground, man aspires to God. So all is profane except this aspiration. Our faith makes it possible for me to design the social parts, the educational parts and the worship hall as a unity for all out activities shall be a hymn in His praise.” As one of Goodman’s earliest synagogues, the arrangement of parts at B’nai Israel strongly reflects this model. An additional design challenge was how to deal with the discrepancy in prayer attendance between the number of members at a weekly service and the large number of members who only attend on major holidays. To address this, Goodman placed the social hall, a space for community functions, directly behind the sanctuary, dividing the rooms with a set of movable partitions. The partitions would remain closed, except when additional seating was required. This strategy, first used by Goodman at B’nai Israel, became the dominant typology for post-war synagogues and remains a defining feature of synagogue design. Percival Goodman argued that there was no strong tradition of synagogue design and decoration. In this absence of plastic tradition, Goodman believed the only way to avoid previous historicist styles was to use the new language of modern architecture and adapt it to create a meaningful religious and community space. As one of Goodman’s first synagogues, B’nai Israel employs many tropes of modernism, including the low, flat relatively unornamented facades that express a sense of horizontality, the interplay of rectilinear volumes, and the contrasting of simple materials on the exterior. The abstract designs created through the slightly industrial looking window mullions further situate the building squarely within the modern movement. The full integration of modern art not only differentiates the building from previous and contemporary synagogue design, but also clearly identifies the building as a product of its time. The building and especially its art, was widely praised upon its completion.
Congregation B’nai Israel was highly commended for its modern design as soon as it was completed. Architectural Forum praised the building as “an impressive demonstration of allied art and architecture.” Before the three main artworks were installed, they were exhibited at the Kootz Gallery in New York City, illustrating the anticipation and innovation of the inclusion of these works of art. Percival Goodman was part of a group of prominent architects who were interested in modern synagogue during the immediate post-War period. Architects like Eric Mendelsohn, Philip Johnson, and Frank Lloyd Wright also designed synagogues in the modern idiom, but Goodman's B'nai Israel was pioneering in its adaptation of industrial materials to create an evocative religious structure, and its integration of art as an essential element. Goodman went on to design more than fifty synagogues across the United States, surpassing in quantity his greatest contemporary Eric Mendelsohn. Although Goodman remains a less well-known figure of the modern movement, his contribution to synagogue architecture, demonstrated by his restrained yet powerful application of the modern style to the B’nai Israel building, place Congregation B'nai Israel, and Goodman himself, securely within the canon of modern architecture.
Goodman’s design for B’nai Israel represents an innovative combination of modern art and modern architecture to build a powerful religious experience for visitors to the congregation. Although it is recognized locally as an important building, beloved by its community, it has been subject to additions that moderately disrupt its architectural integrity. In spite of these additions, key aspects of the building are in tact, such as the main facade and sanctuary space. As well as representing an important aspect of the modern movement, the building encapsulates the suburban postwar Jewish experience. Preservation protection for the building is currently nonexistent, which must change so the buildings simultaneously an important landmark of the modern movement and a functioning as it was intended, as a busy synagogue for a growing community.
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