Temple Beth El: A Community of Living Memory

Recently, George Cassidy Payne has been exploring Cobb’s Hill and the surrounding neighborhood.  As he writes:

I have lived in Rochester for 17 years and I am just now falling in love with the Cobb’s Hill neighborhood. It has so many tucked away treasures.

George offered two montages of Washington Grove.  And last week, he gave a comprehensive look at the First Unitarian Church on South Winton.  Today, George turns our attention to Temple Beth El, just across the road.

Temple Beth El: A Community of Living Memory

Photography by George Cassidy Payne

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For years I have driven or walked by the magnificent Temple Beth El without really stopping to investigate its history and significance. So, this Holocaust Remembrance day I decided to stop by one of the most alluring architectural accomplishments in Rochester to see what I could find.

As I learned in my research the building was designed by Percival Goodman who was one of the first Jewish architects to create private and public structures for a generation of Post-War World II Jews. Goodman perfected a style which embraced the more favorable aspects of suburban life, and he maintained-especially in his religious structures- a sense of holiness, awe, and reverence that represents the more favorable aspects of Judaism.

Temple Beth El was unveiled in 1961. It is a perfect example of Goodman’s vision as an architect. It combines everything his work has come to symbolize for today’s generation of builders. It is a massive complex but no matter where one stands they feel at ease and at home in the space. Each angle and corner invites the viewer to be a participant in a feeling that predates them, sometimes challenges them, and ultimately can redeem them. It is a building that is multifaceted, formidable in scope, but above all practical. For every Jewish house of worship is also a community center, school, administrative office, playground, arts complex, garden, and more.

At Temple Beth El, there is no sign of the 6 million dead after Hitler’s sadistic rampage across Europe. There is no tangible evidence of the horror that engulfed an entire race of human beings. Instead, there is a marked feeling of everlasting faith in God, resilience in the face of evil, and a belief in human ingenuity and functionality. This is a living, breathing community that has endured for over a 100 years.

Invigorating without intimidating, Percival Goodman’s landmark Temple Beth El will endure for as long as people place their faith in the power of community, memory, and God’s eternal watch.

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Percival Goodman (January 13, 1904 – October 11, 1989) was an American urban theorist and architect who designed more than 50 synagogues between 1948 and 1983. He has been called the “leading theorist” of modern synagogue design,[1] and “the most prolific architect in Jewish history.”[2] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percival_Goodman)

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Temple Beth El is rooted in communal values. This is a building that emanates a spirituality for the whole person and the whole family. It is not ornate. It fits in with its idealized suburban surrounding naturally and humbly; yet the temple is an unmistakable presence that leaves viewers with an experience of remembrance and vitality.