History of Temple Emanuel

Restoration Campaign Update…

By Temple Emanuel’s architect, David Hoffman. The article was the winning submittal in the 2004 Sylvia Wolens Jewish Heritage Writing Competition as administered by the Texas Jewish Historical Society. It will be published in the Society’s Journal. The listing of contributors, with updates, will return in the August Bulletin.


A Divine Collaboration

By David Hirsch Hoffman, FAIA


            Throughout history, human inspiration in many forms has manifested great things upon which our civilization has been built. Inspired vision captivates our intellect and moves us forward to greater heights of awareness. Inspired design produces buildings of pure function with integrity of form in which we find sustenance. Inspired art yields objects of beauty that invoke our wonderment and ignite our emotions. Individually, each inspiration can be a subtle influence on our lives. Collectively, they can have a powerful effect on generations. In the early 1920’s, the thoughts and talents of three inspired individuals combined to produce a magnificent and enduring house of worship in Beaumont, Texas. They were Rabbi Samuel Rosinger, architect Albert S. Gottlieb and artist Ze’ev Raban. And together, in the creation of Beaumont’s Temple Emanuel, these gifted men comprised a divine collaboration.


            The Temple Emanuel congregation in Beaumont, which grew out of an 1887 minyan, was actually formed in 1895 and originally consisted of fifty members. With the influx of people due to the discovery of deep oil at nearby Spindletop and the resultant boomtown economy, the congregation grew and they soon sought their own edifice. Their first temple structure was dedicated in December of 1901 and was a handsome frame structure with gothic windows, intersecting barrel vaults and twin onion domes flanking a Palladian entry. Rabbi Rosinger, then thirty-three years old, joined the congregation in 1910 after responding to an advertisement which listed their search priority for “ a good lecturer who can make himself agreeable with either Orthodox or Reform Congregation. In other words, we want a MIXER”.   Their unanimous selection of Rosinger proved to be a wise one as he successfully administered to Temple Emanuel for over fifty years.


            Born in Hungary in 1877, Rosinger attended universities in several European cities ultimately receiving a degree in philosophy and German literature. He emigrated through New York in 1904 where he pursued a master’s degree at Columbia University and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1908. His first pulpit was in Toledo, Ohio where he served for two years before engaging with Temple Emanuel in Beaumont. From the outset, he was a strong presence. As he later wrote, “ I gave them to understand right then that they were engaging not a lackey, but a leader whose specialty was religion. And Judaism is not a petrified creed, but a way of life; its interpretation and application must be left to the rabbi’s judgment.”


            At the urging of Rabbi Rosinger, when it was time to begin actual planning for the construction of a new temple to serve the growing congregation, a New York architect, Albert Gottlieb, was selected for the commission. Gottlieb had authored several papers on synagogue design, had published in The American Hebrew and made a presentation on the subject to the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1916.

His main design premise was that houses of worship for the practice of Judaism should express a spirit unique to its faith and embody in its physical form and detailing those qualities which best represent the characteristics of the religion: “solemnity, dignity, grandeur, nobility and withal simplicity and clarity.”


            Prior to World War I, American synagogue design had developed a pattern of emulating the styles of the churches in their local environments. The synagogue building had in effect assimilated with Western culture to the extent that there were few outward design expressions to distinguish it. The oldest surviving synagogue in the United States, the Touro Synagogue (1763) in Newport, Rhode Island is a good example. It is simplistically Georgian in style and is patterned after a Colonial meetinghouse. In Charleston, South Carolina, the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue (1843) was a Greek Revival structure utilizing, of all ironies, the Greek temple form. During the last half of the 19th century, the predominant style for temples and synagogues was in the Moorish/Islamic tradition. One of the most elaborate examples of this style is the Central Synagogue (1872) in New York City.


            Upon entering the 20th century, the styles were often mixed combining architectural elements from multiple origins. The first Temple Emanuel in Beaumont (1901) is an example of such an amalgam. It incorporated twin onion domes in the Eastern Orthodox Catholic tradition, gothic windows from the medieval period and a classically inspired symmetrical entryway. It was architecture born of the Diaspora which reflected the local culture of past experiences but it lacked Jewish expression. While Gottlieb recognized that this design emulation was evidence of the remarkable adaptability of the Jewish people, he also strongly felt that a religion that had stayed true to fundamental principles and traditions for so many centuries should have more of an expression of its own timeless spirit. It was against this backdrop that Albert Gottlieb sought to change the direction of synagogue design. Rabbi Rosinger, himself a forward thinker, eagerly provided support and encouragement in enabling Gottlieb to apply his design theories to the plan for the new Temple Emanuel.


            In a prelude to the actual design of the building itself, Rosinger and Gottlieb confronted their first planning consideration. Gottlieb was concerned that the configuration of the property purchased for the new building was an obstacle to efficient design. He wrote “…it is next to impossible to plan a building in which the seats face the East and still have a good arrangement for the building, not only                               from an architectural standpoint but also from a practical one”. While Rabbi Rosinger believed in the traditional orientation of worshiping toward Jerusalem with the ark located on the east wall of the sanctuary, he deferred to higher authorities and suggested that the architect contact Dr. Cyrus Adler, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rosinger’s alma mater. This was a wise action on the part of the rabbi because, by deferring to others, he avoided a direct challenge to the preferences of the designer and consequently preserved a respectful and cooperative relationship between them. Adler, the administrator, referred the matter to Louis Ginzberg, the professor. Ginzberg was a highly respected author and professor of Talmud at the Seminary for over fifty years. He formulated a scholarly and concise but conclusive reply and referred to the “high antiquity” of the custom that originated in the Bible and is later reinforced by Talmudic interpretations and later Codes. The matter was then settled by the momentary but consequential participation of yet another collaborator, Ginzburg, in the design of Temple Emanuel. Both Rosinger and Gottlieb accepted his interpretation and proceeded to plan for the detailed design of the building whose congregation would pray to the east in the traditional orientation.


            Gottlieb sought to instill a Jewish identity in the design for his synagogue buildings. He rejected inappropriate and irrelevant architectural styles of the recent past and attempted to reinforce the religious character of his buildings through the use of architectural detailing. Even though Gottlieb’s overall exterior design for Temple Emanuel incorporated a modified Byzantine Revival style, characterized by an octagonal dome topped by a cupola, massive planar brick walls and selectively placed stone detailing, he remained true to his design precepts. He incorporated the tablets of Moses and the Star of David in both copper and stone that give the building his intended identifiable Jewish expression. A biblical inscription in cut stone over the entryway furthers the religious identity.


            Based on Gottlieb’s precepts, the rabbi and the architect conceived that the great domed sanctuary would be planned around an awe-inspiring and magnificent design feature whose symbolism would embody Jewish experience and virtues. They mutually decided that the symmetry of the octagonal sanctuary space would be dramatically reinforced by six massive leaded glass windows that would represent not only a high level of aesthetics but convey a rich sense of spirituality as well. To that end, they enlisted the talents of the third major collaborator in the design of Temple Emanuel, the artist Ze’ev Raban.


            Born Wolf Rawicki in 1890 in Lodz, Poland, Raban made aliyah to Palestine in 1912. Prior to that time, he had received training in the decorative arts in several of the cultural centers in Europe including Munich, Brussels and Paris. He was a complex artist who was exposed to extensive aesthetic influences and had produced a wealth of artistic expressions in a wide variety of media. As a member of the Belazel School of Arts and Crafts, he dedicated himself to the renewal of Hebrew art in Palestine. Much of his work was deliberately focused on strengthening the identity of an emerging Jewish state through the revival and artistic expression of Jewish symbolism. This emphasis was so consistent with the design goals of the Temple Emanuel undertaking and it must have been with the greatest of anticipation and expectation that the rabbi and the architect solicited the creative genius of the artist to join them in their pursuit.


            While the precise details of the interaction between the three dedicated men are unknown, the testament to their collaboration exists in the glorious statements in leaded glass that flank the central body of the sanctuary. The arched windows, each six feet wide by fifteen feet tall, are best described in the words of Rabbi Rosinger:

“It was with keen knowledge of Jewish history and pencil and brush handled with appreciation of the best in art that these windows came to be. Each window has a pronounced meaning. Centralized in each design is a single theme. Each panel is at once a delight to the eyes and a study, a liberal education in its particular phase of Bible history.” The principal figure in each of the windows is one of the six prophets: Jeremiah, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Moses and Ezekial. There is a wealth of other representation contained in the smaller detailing of the windows depicting biblical events and Jewish symbols.


            The second commandment reads “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath”. This dictate has been widely interpreted throughout history to not necessarily forbid the integration of human and animal representation in synagogue decoration but rather was offered to prevent idolatry and the actual focus of worship on those symbols. Examples of such decoration are plentiful and date back to the ancient past. It is clear that Rabbi Rosinger placed a high value on the aesthetic importance of the building’s decoration when he sanctioned Gottlieb’s design of the sanctuary being dominated by the windows and, with the solicitation of Raban’s participation, committed to the highest level of artistic manifestation. The traditional representation of elements with the lack of abstraction, the richness of the colors, the visual depth created by the unique pattern of texture to the glass and the placement of the windows in the appropriately scaled room combine to create a powerful expression. It is one that genuinely supplicates the worshiper and effectively facilitates a prayerful environment.


            Rabbi Rosinger had a very strong sense of the self-worth of the individual. In a sermon entitled “Man Can Become Godlike”, he once wrote, ““Man can rise to divine heights…Man is born fit to become the companion of God. He can rise to be the co-worker of the Creator.” With divine guidance, the rabbi, the architect and the artist all collaborated to collectively seek this level of attainment. In doing so, they brought into existence a house of worship of national significance and international prominence that inspires Jewish faith and will continue to serve its lofty purpose for many generations.