My Favorite Things: Synagogues
There are two facts about me that people usually find somewhat incongruous. One is that I am a nonreligious person. Yet, my travel itineraries always include at least one religious site. Over my many years of traveling, I have found that there is no better way to get to know a place and the people who live there than by experiencing a snapshot of their religious routines. Especially with the increasing lack of acceptance that seems to be permeating the United States and the wider geopolitical scene, I can’t help but want to put my own little piece of understanding and goodness out in the world. I have never entered any of these places and been felt anything but welcome. I have asked, learned, and, at the end of the day, always leave feeling that we are all more similar than different. It sounds cliché, but it never fails to be true.
Now, in terms of logistics, not every religious site/house of worship/etc. welcomes visitors. But, I bet you would be surprised by the amount that do and offer weekly tours. While some people seem to assume that these tours are probably proselyting crusades in disguise, that has rarely been true for me. I can’t say that I’ve never felt like the person speaking was actually trying to convert me, but I can confidently say that overwhelming religious fervor is the exception.
If I’ve convinced you to give a religious site a spot on your next trip, know that most places have a section on their website listing visiting options. Places that have strict clothing requirements also tend to have it listed in this same section. Some places have no dress code. If there are no instructions, my go-to is usually a maxi-dress and a cardigan in the summer or pants and a long shirt in the winter. There’s no foolproof outfit, but generally avoiding bare shoulders and knees is a safe bet, plus a scarf just in case you need additional coverage.
Of all the religious sites to visit, synagogues are always my favorite. I’ve been to plenty of churches where the history is simply that they are old, but synagogues always have more of a story. I’ve never been to a one where the guide hasn’t told a seemingly impossible story about either their founding, their people, or an artifact. Combine that with stunning interiors, and I don’t know why people don’t have them at the top of their travel lists. Here are five of my favorites
Eldridge Street Synagogue (New York City, NY)
Located in what is now Chinatown in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Eldridge Street Synagogue (now known as the Museum at Eldridge Street) is one of the first synagogues built by Eastern European Jewish immigrants and today is one of the last markers of their previously vibrant neighborhood. With an absolutely gorgeous interior, you will not believe the story of decay and then painstaking restoration that brought this stunning building back to its former glory. The museum hosts tours, other educational options, and community events, so there are plenty of reasons to visit and support this truly hidden gem. Tickets are available online.
Synagogue of the Hills (Rapid City, SD)
Tucked away in what seems to be the back of a suburban neighborhood, the Jewish communities of South Dakota came with the other influx of gold-seeking settlers and now the Synagogue of the Hills stands as the only Jewish community left in Western South Dakota. The draw of this house of worship is less about an ornamental or architectural worship space and much more about the history and legacy they carry from their original start in the wild town of Deadwood to their current location in Rapid City. As they are a smaller synagogue, ensure you make arrangements in advance to visit, but know that they are friendly and welcoming people. Who knows, they may even show you the famed Deadwood Torah, if you’re lucky.
The Old-New Synagogue (Prague, Czech Republic)
You could spend the entire day touring the beautiful and historic synagogues of Prague. (I did – in case you’re wondering.) If you’re interested, there is a one ticket option that allows you access to all the synagogues and the cemetery. However, of all the stunning options, my favorite is the Old-New Synagogue for its long history, as it was built in the thirteenth century, supposedly foundational stones from the Temple of Jerusalem and fascinating golem folklore. There are many versions and debates about the story of the golem (a magical being made from clay/mud), but the one I always heard was a Rabbi in Prague created it to protect the inhabitants of the ghetto. However one Sabbath, the golem got out of control and the Rabbi finally immobilized him outside the Old-New Synagogue, where he then stored the pieces of the golem in the attic. You can make your own decisions about which version and what to believe, but, all I know is that the attic of this brick bastion is not open for visitors.
Bevis Marks (London, England)
This list would be seemingly incomplete without the oldest synagogue in England, that also happens to be the longest continuously running synagogue in Europe - over 300 years! In my opinion, the Bevis Marks has a classic look that matches its illustrious history. With warm wood paneling and grand, gold hanging candelabras, this is a place that matches beauty with serenity, a rare find in a city as bustling as London. Tickets cannot be bought in advance, but tours here also don’t seem to be crushingly popular. Show up and few minutes early and you should have no trouble getting in.
Stadttempel Synagogue (Vienna, Austria)
The only synagogue to survive while Vienna was under Nazi control, the entry point is hidden from the street as was the agreement struck with the city when it was built in the early 1800s. With the ceiling painted a sky blue and gold accents, you will feel like you left Vienna behind and walked into the new world of the Stadttempel Synagogue. When I visited, they had the most strict security policy of any religious building I’ve ever been to. They have every right to screen visitors how they deem appropriate, I just note this so you are prepared for the long list of questions and metal detectors. However, to be a in a space that is a last standing monument to determination in the face of extermination, it is certainly worth it.