Glass Art, Murals and Building Frontispiece of Temple Beth-El
[excluding the stained glass windows of the Prophets]
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
June 23rd, 2012
Temple Beth-El's Main Sanctuary building is renowned for the stain glass windows representing the Prophets of Israel, those who have a separate book as well as Elijah, from the Book of Kings, and Moses from the Torah. Yet there is much more religious artistry that embraces all those who enter the Sanctuary building, even as they approach it from outside. This document explains the glass art of the synagogue, excluding those of the prophets. There are also two murals, one in the main lobby as one enters the sanctuary room, and one on the rear wall as one exits. All this is in addition to the artistry that surrounds the bemah, subject of a different document. There is a great richness portrayed thematically, with great depth, in the vibrancy of deep colors, that in unison create a divine glow and aura for all those "who lift their eyes to the mountains."
There are four doors at the rear of the Main Sanctuary that have a pane of glass, each with a different theme. The execution is a simple style, not like that of the major windows. References to location often use the bemah as the point of observation.
From Left to Right:
1st Door: Keter Torah – the crown of the Torah. Crown also represents God.
2nd Door: Menorah – seven branched, like that of the Tabernacle and Temple
3rd Door: Lulav and Etrog, main elements of Sukkot Observance.
This holiday was a most significant celebration in Jerusalem.
4th Door: Center with a bird and cluster of grapes (a most familiar representation).
The bird can represent the Shechinah, God's presence, or the quail that sustained the Israelites in the wilderness.
The grapes represent the land of Israel.
The themes of these windows present a unified vision of being in the land of Israel and entering Jerusalem where God's Presence is manifest. The center of Jerusalem is the Temple from which emanates God's light and Torah, which is observed with great festivity. Sukkot represents God's sheltering presence by the clouds that led them through the wilderness years, 'aninei Kavod' – 'Clouds of God's glory.' The word Kavod is brightly presented in Ezekiel's window.
On the sanctuary side, above the doors are three murals. They were executed by A. Raymond Katz, who executed the stain glass windows of the Prophets. The center one contains the verse from Psalm 16: "I have set the Lord Always Before Me." This quote is also located above the bemah in Hebrew. Therefore, these are mirror images in the Sanctuary, bilingual, to be seen and impressed when entering and leaving. The center and other murals need further examination and clarification of their content.
On the lobby side, above the doors are three murals recently executed by Paul Bertholet. They are donated by Margie and Jake Clayman in memory of Irvin and Irene Kocen, an extended family long associated with and dedicated to Temple Beth-El who both died in the spring of 2012.
From Left to Right (as viewed standing in the lobby):
This is a view of the Old City of Jerusalem as one is approaching from the northwest corner of the city. It is a pastoral setting with no other buildings in the scene, as was the case until early in the 20th century. People coming from Jaffa and the north would have seen Jerusalem this way.
This is a view of the Old City of Jerusalem from the southwest side of the city. The major focus is the Tower of David, Migdal David, that sits adjacent to the Jaffa Gate on the west side of the Old City and was the main entrance way and the singular route came from Jaffa to Jerusalem.
This is the view of the Old City of Jerusalem from the eastern approach to the city. The viewer is standing on Mount of Olives, Har HaTzofim.The Mosque of Omar, Dome of the Rock, recognizable by its golden dome, is viewable in the distance. It stands where the Holy Temple once stood. Off to the left can be scene the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world.
The lobby on the main level is illuminated by three large glass windows. They are best viewed from within the lobby. They are dedicated by Mrs. Lena Sinker. As viewed facing the exit doors:
The left window is dedicated in the memory of Betty J. Gordon, her sister.
The illustration is of the Torah and David's harp, upon which rests his crown. By tradition David is the author of Psalms which were the core of the liturgy in the Holy Temple and thus became the core of synagogue liturgy.
The center window is dedicated in the memory of Samuel C. Sinker, her husband.
The illustration is of the Torah with a hind or deer leaping in the center of the window. As all references in the synagogue artistry is connected to the Tanakh, this must refer to verses in the Megillah of Song of Songs. The protagonists are God and Israel. In chapter 2 verse 9: "My beloved is like a gazelle or like a young stag…" In chapter 2 verse 17: "…set out my beloved, swift as a gazelle or a young stag, for the hills of spices." It represents either Israel running to God or God running towards Israel.
The right window is dedicated in the memory of Michael Gordon, her father.
The illustration is of the Torah with candles, a Kiddush cup, two challot and apples. Therefore this must symbolize Rosh HaShanah whose core meaning focuses on proclaiming God as our King.
All three windows have Magen Davids and are surrounded by clusters of grapes and greenery, clearly representing the Land of Israel, "a land flowing with milk and honey," while the use of grapes as a symbol comes from the spies sent by Moses, as related in the Book of Numbers.
The upper lobby of the Main Sanctuary is also richly illustrated. There are four doors entering the balcony and three large windows facing towards the front of the edifice.
Looking at the doors from inside the balcony:
The first door represents Mt. Sinai enshrouded with clouds with the children of Israel surrounding the mountain at its foot. There are Magen Davids in the windows. This scene depicts the giving of the Torah, a symbol so prevalent throughout the synagogue, the core document of the covenant between God and Israel.
The second door represents the hand of God and the cloud that was present as they left Egypt. There is also a lamb which was the instrument of salvation in Egypt, the blood of the Passover sacrifice. There is a green sea representing the Sea of Reeds and thus this window depicts Yitziyat Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt that leads to Mt. Sinai.
The third door represents the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, also has Magen Davids in the top and has two crowns, as well as grape clusters.
The fourth door represents Shabbat with candles and Kiddush cup. Shabbat enshrines God as creator and liberator, and is the sign of the covenant, the core of Judaism, as it is the relationship of God and Israel.
The three windows of the upper lobby have inscribed verses from Psalms and the Prophet Amos which are written to be seen from the steps of the edifice. Because of their protective covering, they are only viewable from inside.
Facing the windows from inside the upper lobby:
The left window quotes Psalm 1:
"Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water."
The central image is a luxurious tree, perhaps representing the tree of life. It depicts the river mentioned in the verse and has the Hebrew word Shalom meaning peace, the ultimate blessing for one who fulfills this psalm. All three windows have a depiction of Torah and it is surrounded with clusters of grapes and have Magen Davids in the corners.
The center window quotes Psalm 19:
"The Law of the Lord is perfect, rejoicing the heart."
The central image is the Ten Commandments and it has the Hebrew word Emet meaning truth, the seal of God, thus this window proclaims the truth of Judaism. It is appropriate to be the central window. Placed high in the architecture, this window as part of the synagogue replicates Mt. Sinai.
The right window quotes the prophet Amos chapter 5, verse 24:
"Let justice well up like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."
Paralleling the verse, there is a two tiered water fountain as the central motif with lions, representing God's majesty and strength facing in opposite directions. The window has the Hebrew word Mishpat meaning justice and judgment, a core value of creating a holy society.
The front of the synagogue Main Sanctuary building is emblazoned with religious symbolism as well. It presents those entering the synagogue with the main motifs.
Uppermost are four representations of the Ten Commandments at both end, and also separating the words Temple, Bet-El (in Hebrew), and Beth-El.
Below that are four menorot, all are seven branched as was the Temple menorah.
Below that are three Torah Scrolls each flanked by a lion (as mentioned above) and each containing a Magen David.
The front of the building is faced with four tall columns. While the number might not be significant, the columns represent those of the Holy Temples, that building which followed the existence of the Tabernacle, which was built at Mt. Sinai.
The concrete side pieces are emblazoned with the Magen David. As this construction of the synagogue building was completed after the Holocaust, perhaps the prominence of its placement had particular meaning. While the Nazis wanted it to be a badge of shame, Temple Beth-El restored its luster and used it to proclaim the pride and honor of Judaism and the eternal existence of the Jewish people, which is "set in stone."
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
3330 Grove Avenue
Richmond, VA 23221