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Naomi Simhony

Arch. Naomi Simhony, Department of Art History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Synagogue Architecture in Israel's First Two Decades of Statehood: Religious Architecture in a Secular Age

My dissertation examines synagogues designed by prominent architects in the State of Israel in the first two decades following its establishment. To date, Israeli synagogue design has received relatively little scholarly attention in the field of History and Theory of Architecture. I uncover the ways in which modern Israeli synagogue architecture shaped and mirrored an emergent Jewish national identity, which combined tradition, symbolism and memory, with a modern Zionist and national ideology.

The research argues that the synagogues under examination constituted a secular age in local religious architecture, by means of blending modern architectural styles with traditional elements. The synagogues were characterized by austerity and simplicity, and by their minimalist approach to religious symbolism. Thus, they reflected the Zionist spirit and the secularization of contemporary Israeli society.

At the core of the research, I examine three synagogues designed by prominent European-born Israeli architects: the synagogue in the workers’ cooperative settlement of Sde Ya'aqov, designed by the Komet-Rath-Kanner architecture firm (1956); the synagogue in the religious cooperative settlement of Shluhut (1965), designed by architect Josef Schönberger; and the central synagogue in the development town of Nazareth Illit (Nof HaGalil, 1968), designed by architect Nahum Zolotov. The discussion explores the contribution of European-born architects to the conceptualization of the Israeli synagogue, as evident in the integration of modern architecture and traditional elements; the impact of archeological findings and Holocaust memorialization on the articulation of Jewish historical awareness; and the influence of interreligious struggles on Israeli identity crystallization.

The research is based on architectural-historical investigation, while also integrating insights from three intersecting methodological approaches: primarily the History and Theory of Architecture, as well as Jewish art, and Jewish thought. This multidisciplinary approach provides a complex and composite view. The research period ends at the Six-Day War of 1967, which was the catalyst for a dramatic shift in Israeli synagogue architectural identity.

The dissertation contains a pioneering discussion of early Israeli synagogue design, by illuminating a missing episode in Israeli architectural historiography and Art History. The research also provides fertile perspective to the field of Israel Studies, by highlighting religious ideas, themes and voices that were widely rejected by mainstream secular views that dominated Israeli society during the period, but subsequently became dominant in Israel’s built environment. Finally, my work suggests new insights into the discourses of migration and cultural transfer, highlighting the contribution of European-born architects to the conceptualization of the Israeli synagogue