Architectural Judaism

Israelite Zionist Center of Costa Rica, view from the entrance of the building toward the Synagogue. Mosaic of Jewish holidays. Main facade of the Synagogue La Janukiya [The Chanukkiah], which lights up every one of its columns on Chanukkah


By Virginia Gil 

Large endeavors require big inspiration, and architect Susana Merenfeld Weisleder roots her unbounded need to create in the deep spiritual waters of Judaism. From the time she began her studies in architecture at the Technion Institute-Israel in the early 1970s, to then furthering her studies at Stanford University-California, Weisleder knew there was something great and transcendent guiding her in her career. “I always had the feeling that I was to do my spiritual work through my architecture,” reveals Weisleder. In fact, continuous studies in Jewish mysticism have broadened and enriched her architectural perspective, to the point of claiming that for her, “a building is not just a building; but an extension of who I am”. Architecture is the tool for expressing this deep spiritual sense she puts into her work, and she has proven to be outstanding at that.

I believe that music is like a magic carpet that connects you to all spiritual levels


For the first few years of her career, Weisleder struggled to find work that appealed to her spiritually. She worked on several community projects in her native Caracas, Venezuela. “I was raised with community in mind,” says Weisleder, whose father was a community leader. “Community, school and education were very important.” Still, Weisleder believed she was destined to deliver her spiritual message through a much greater project—one that would allow her to express all she had learned through Jewish Mysticism. As luck or faith would have it, the project came to her one evening during Shabbat dinner. A family member in attendance brought to her attention that an architectural competition was taking place in Costa Rica, a country in which her family has strong roots. The challenge: the design of the Jewish Community Center and Synagogue for the community of Costa Rica. “I saw it as an opportunity to allow myself the freedom to respond to architectural queries in a new, more spiritual way,” she says. Two weeks later, Weisleder’s design was chosen for the project. “I don’t believe in coincidences,” says Weisleder, “concatenated events have a reason, and this was my opportunity to develop a spiritual approach to architecture”.

Construction of the Zionist Israeli Center of Costa Rica began in 2003 and held its first official services to the public September 2004. The synagogue, which comfortably holds 1,200 people, was designed with a spiritual connotation in mind. In this project, she explains, “a Menorah became the guiding principle. This evocative shape gave way to an architectonic project: a synagogue and a meeting center. It’s easy to understand that in a space defined in such way, Divine Order will surely find expression!” says Weisleder, who then made the Menorah a central element of design in her master plan. She kept in mind that the Menorah was the first instrument of worship that G-d commanded Moses  “All of it is one piece of hammered work, of pure gold” (Exodus 25:31-40).

This symbolizes a community that must become a single piece.

The buildings in the Costa Rican complex take the form of a Menorah as well as the quality of light. “In the synagogue, the Menorah is the central vein,” she explains. The Jewish calendar is engraved on the floor, right at the entrance, so the visitor may feel a connection with the Jewish Holidays.

The Tree of Life, leaves in remembrance of loved ones.

Weisleder believes that music is a powerful vehicle of inspiration, thus she ensured that along with a clear visual perspective, every member in attendance would totally enjoy the sound of the prayers. Thus, she carried a careful test of the acoustics in the synagogue in order to achieve this. “I believe that music is like a magic carpet that connects you to all spiritual levels”. Weisleder ensured that sound could be carried out to every corner of the structure without the use of a microphone. The design for the 175,000 square-foot space, which encompasses approximately 10 acres, was tailored to include a museum, a school building and a multipurpose hall for parties, conferences and community activities.

A new project would soon follow the Costa Rican community center: a community center and synagogue for the Bethel community of Panama. “My synagogues are places designed and built to experience spirituality.”  For this project, that sits atop a hill, the architect turned to the story of Jacob: “Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it.  He called that place Bethel” (Genesis 28:10-22).

The architectural challenge in this project was a stony hill. Weisleder would conceive an answer to this architectural dilemma by turning it into a mystical concept: Jacob’s stone in Bethel. Over the course of five years, Weisleder worked alongside a team to create a community center and Synagogue that seats 850 people. The services at the synagogue are scheduled to begin this Rosh Hashanah 2013. Using the stone in Bethel as a guiding principle and pattern to her architectural design, she envisioned the rocky hill as Jacob’s rock. To walk into the Synagogue you start of with two staircases, as Jacob dreamt: “The angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it”. So, the two initial staircases in the synagogue are meant to evoke Jacob’s Ladder, and they unite into one stairway that reaches the round building of the Synagogue, “the circle symbolizes, Jacob and his twelve sons, the community as one.

In both synagogues, the one in Costa Rica and the new project in Panama, we find the colors that G-d instructed Moses to use within the tabernacle. “There is so much symbolism in my design!” says Weisleder. “Mysticism, lived out in community—it’s all very important.” In both projects, patrons are separated from the Aron HaKodesh by a curtain of natural light that falls through an opening aptly designed in the ceiling. The light, according to Weisleder, symbolizes G-d’s presence in the place. “Whether or not you can see G-d depends on how much closeness you are willing to feel with Him,” she explains. Weisleder has taken this notion as her personal mantra: “I deeply believe in G-d and believe that everything is in perfect order and harmony. My synagogues are places designed and built to experience spirituality.”

Weisleder currently lives in Miami, Florida designing residential and commercial projects, in addition to her deep study of spiritual architecture.