Synagogue Design is a Labor of Love for New Jersey Architect

FAIR LAWN. N.J., Sept. 10, 2008 – On a shelf behind his desk at in Fair Lawn, N.J., Joel Ives displays one of his most treasured possessions: a photo of the centuries-old wooden synagogue in Lomza, Poland, that once housed his grandparents congregation before its destruction during the Holocaust.  Mr. Ives is the owner of the Ives Architecture Studio and formally the founding partner of the Ives Group, Architects/Planners and the IS&L Architecture Studio.

The photo is one of thousands of synagogue images that Ives has collected over the years, a collection that initially sprung from his interest in tracing his family roots and that ultimately led to his involvement as an architect in the design of synagogues up and down the East Coast.

“Judaism is about continuity,” he explained. “I have long had an intense interest in collecting books on synagogue architecture and have traveled around the world seeking out old synagogue buildings. Of course, once I became an architect, that interest blossomed into actually designing and rehabilitating synagogues here in the United States.”

A recently completed  synagogue project is Congregation B’nai Torah in Greenwood Lake, N.Y. Destroyed years ago in a tragic fire, the new synagogue, was rebuilt from the ground up.

As the focus of its design, the architects used a beautiful hammered copper Torah Ark, donated by another synagogue that was closing its doors.

“I think it is important to weave tradition and history into the design of a synagogue. This enormous Ark, passed along from one congregation to another, gave us that opportunity,” said Ives. “We designed the building around the Ark, which is about 16-feet high. People walk into a relatively small, simple structure, and their eyes focus immediately on this amazing piece of art.”

Ives’ years of research into synagogue architecture led to the incorporation of yet another traditional element in the Greenwood Lake project. “We know that in Solomon’s Temple there were two columns, one on either side of the building, referred to in the Book of Kings,” Ives explained. “So we designed two columns for the outside of Congregation B’nai Torah, explaining the significance to the members. These historical references to architectural design give us tools to work with.”

Another example of his adherence to tradition is found in the construction of Beth Abraham in Bergenfield, N.J. The project required the design of a 350-seat sanctuary and a women’s balcony that incorporated elements reminiscent of eastern European synagogues of the 18th and 19th centuries. “We also used pews made on a kibbutz in Israel,” he said. “We want every element to have meaning. This way, the congregation can say to the children ‘the pews you are sitting on now came all the way from Israel and were made on a kibbutz.’ I think it adds a special dimension.”

Other elements currently in style that add to the special feel and spirituality of a synagogue include the use of Jerusalem stone; high windows and skylights, which draw the eyes upward; and stained glass with Biblical images that allow the sun to come through the colored glass.

“The Zohar (a Kabbalistic commentary on the Bible) suggests that a latticed window is a “gate to heaven.” That is why many synagogues constructed in past centuries include lattice designs,” said Ives.

The Evolution of Synagogue Design

According to Ives, the one commonality in synagogue design is the need to meet the changing needs of the congregation – some are expanding while others are contracting, and still others are merging. TIAS’s assignments involve a combination of new construction and renovation depending upon the requirements of the congregation.

His very first synagogue assignment nearly 30 yeas ago was the renovation of Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn, where he was a member. The building was constructed in the early 1950s. It needed new finishes, partitions moved to accommodate the different uses of space at varying times of the year, a new “bima” (the raised platform from which the Torah is read), air conditioning and other upgrades.

“Redesigning synagogues has gone on for centuries; tastes, styles and technologies have evolved,” he noted. “The old wooden synagogues didn’t  have bathrooms, and they were lit by candles. Obviously, buildings need to be upgraded over time. But I think that design change really began to take place at the turn of the century, with the advent of picture postcards. Architects suddenly had access to thousands of images from all over the world. Now, with the Internet, the possibilities for sharing design ideas are endless.”

Over the years, Ives has worked on synagogues throughout New Jersey and New York, and even as far away as Louisiana and North Carolina. “Each project presents its own challenges,” he noted. “Each branch of Judaism – Orthodox, Conservative and Reform – has different requirements, and each congregation has different tastes.”

“Some believe a synagogue should be austere and not ostentatious. Others say there is no prohibition against having a building that is beautifully designed,” Ives said. “Unfortunately, there is no single source that provides guidelines about what is required in terms of synagogue design. The Book of Daniel has a reference to praying through an open window. That is the only architectural mention.”

“We know that there are some things you can’t do,” he added. “For example, you can’t chop down a fruit tree to make room for a synagogue. That actually presented a problem for us in working on a synagogue in New Square, N.Y. We also know that the tradition is to pray facing Jerusalem – in the United States, that means facing East. But if the positioning of a roadway or some other impediment prevents you from orienting the building to the East, how many degrees off of true East can you build it? No one really knows, and that sort of thing often leads to intense debates within an individual congregation.”

Yet another challenge is the need to provide accessibility not only to the building itself, but to the bima, which is usually several steps higher than the seating area. The Jewish Federation asked IS&L to conduct handicap accessibility studies for synagogues and suggest some possibilities. “In Orthodox synagogues, you cannot operate an electronic elevator on the Sabbath,” Ives explained. “Other lifting mechanisms can be an eyesore. And it is very difficult to add a ramp in an existing structure because it usually requires a sloping ratio of 1:12 (for every inch of elevation, the ramp must have 12 inches of length). But in new construction like the one in Greenwood Lake, we are able to plan ahead for a ramp.”

The Growth of a World-Class Collection

Much of the design expertise that Ives applies to synagogue projects has been gleaned from his extensive research.

“It started with an interest in Jewish genealogy. In researching family trees, people would often come up with old photos of the synagogues in which their ancestors prayed, or descriptions of these old structures,” commented Ives. “Some of the photos and sketches were published in collections or posted online. I began collecting these, as well as old postcards and books about synagogue design. I went to specialty bookstores and pretty soon book dealers started contacting me for information. I get e-mails from around the world.”

Ives now has hundreds of books, including volumes in Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish, Greek and Russian, as well as thousands of postcards and other synagogue images, making for what some say is the most extensive collection in existence.

Founder of The Ives Group and The Ives Architecture Studio, Joel Ives has been the architect of record on more than 3,000 projects of every building type. He has worked on public buildings and private homes. He has been honored for his involvement at the World Trade Center site and at the Rahway Rail Station. But synagogue architecture and design – past, present and future – will always hold a special place in his heart.

Originally issued as a press release.  Edited and republished here by

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The Ives Architecture Studio (TIAS), based in Fair Lawn, NJ, has over 30 years experience in the disciplines of architecture, interior design & planning.

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