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Gallery+Story: Temple Mount Sinai – El Paso’s Beacon on the Mountain

We’ve all seen it, there on El Paso’s Westside, rising into the skyline with the mountains just behind it.

I’ve heard it called many things. Recently someone called it a shark’s fin. Others (like myself) have likened it to the front of a ship sticking out of the mountain.

Back in the 60’s, I’m told, it was called a nun’s hat simply because it looks like the habit worn by Sally Field in the Flying Nun.

It’s been called a lot of things, and there seems to be a lot of misconceptions about just what it is, and who built it. I’m talking about Temple Mount Sinai. “They say it looks like a nose,” says the Rabbi of Temple Mount Sinai. “That’s what people told me.”

I hadn’t thought about the Temple in a very long time; that is until, I was part of a conversation with some individuals who were visiting the city and wanted to know what the shark’s fin was. I ended up mentioning this conversation to some friends of mine in the Lower Valley, and they didn’t know what the building was either.

So, I had to find out the history of the Temple and share their story, and some photos, with everyone.

The current home of Temple Mount Sinai, at 4408 North Stanton Street, is the third location of the Temple. The first Temple, built in 1898 is no longer standing, sadly.

The second location, which is part of the El Paso Community College Rio Grande Campus is a beautiful red brick building that you could easily miss. I used to walk by that building for years before I noticed the menorahs in the brickwork.  What also makes this building unique is that it was designed by Henry Trost.

The current Temple is designed by Sidney Eisenshtat. Myself, like a few others that I know, was under the impression that this building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, another design by Eisenshtat, has been compared to the work of Wright.

One of the references I found about Temple Mount Sinai, from Wikipedia, reads “At Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso, Texas (1962) the Ark is a giant open tripod inside a soaring, tent-like concrete sanctuary; one writer has commented that this building  “with its soaring arched shell seems to spring out of the rocky Texas soil” and gives the congregants a view of the mountains “through the high glazed arch behind the Ark.”

This building is also featured in the book American Synagogues by noted architecture critic Samuel D. Gruber, where it is described as “a dramatically sculptural building perfect for its austere setting.” Rabbi Ben Zeidman, the current Rabbi of Temple Mount Sinai, agreed to sit down with me, and among other things, talked about the current home of the Temple.

Discussing the type of worship service had at Mount Sinai, “We are a liturgical religion. We have a liturgy we follow. According to the traditional liturgy, it’s always the same,” says Rabbi Zeidman. “It’s been the same for a thousand years, two thousand years.” According to the Rabbi, they follow the same structure you would find in a traditional Synagogue. Their worship is also in a mixture of Hebrew and English.

“We like to sing; there’s a lot of singing involved.” And they do. I’ve attended services at Temple when Rabbi Wise was still there. The worship service, though old, is modern, and that matches the style of their building. It’s almost as if the building itself sings to El Paso.

About the building, the Rabbi says, “If you want to stick out, against the mountain, you build a building like this.”

And the Temple does stick out. When you reach a point on Mesa, you can’t help but notice it. From I-10, you see it. It’s a beacon on the Westside.

“It’s white, it’s pointy, it draws the eye on this side of town,” says Rabbi Zeidman. “Here’s how I understand what they were trying to say. I understand them as trying to say  ‘We are a part of this community and we [the Jewish people] are here to add to the beauty of El Paso. And to take part in this town.’”

The Reform Jewish community, which was the first Jewish community here in El Paso, founded Temple Mount Sinai and participated in creating the city, and advancing it to what it is today. Just reading the history of the Temple, you can see that.

To me, Temple Mount Sinai, and the way the building was designed and built is a testament to the unity we have here in El Paso. A unity that is as unique as our city and way of life. “They want people to be aware,” says the Rabbi, “that there are Jewish people here, and we are not different from anyone else.”

The sanctuary is a wide-open space with large windows that overlook not only El Paso, but Mount Cristo Rey as well. The Eternal Flame and the Cross, the title of an article about the Temple written by Floyd S. Fierman is quite apt a description of the view.

The Ark, in which the Torah is kept, is a beautiful piece. To me, and it may be different for you, it reminds me of the Tree of Life. The colors are reminiscent of leaves, and you can see the vines or branches behind them.

There is also a Torah that was saved during World War II and the Holocaust. A sad reminder of what man can do to his friends and neighbors. It is, also, a symbol of hope and rebirth. The scroll itself is believed to be written in the 1700’s. For more click here ->Holocaust Memorial Scroll

Windows! Anyone who knows me knows that I love windows. Temple Mount Sinai has some of the most beautiful windows I have ever seen. Including one that is from the original Temple. It is five panels and can be found within the entry of the Temple.

Another set of windows is found in the smaller space. When you are looking at them from the outside, you can’t even tell that the windows have any color in them at all. They look bland, dull. But when you walk inside, WOW! These windows feature a Menorah on the left and the Ten Commandments on the right.

In the center is another Ark and Eternal Flame. (The photos of the Ark and Flame I took while dark to show off the light that comes from them. Just like the light that comes from Scripture). Temple Mount Sinai is a magnificent building that commands a beautiful view.

Even the Sukkah, which has been used for weddings, has an amazing view of El Paso and Mount Cristo Rey. The Temple is one of the hidden gems of El Paso, be it a nose, a shark fin, or a crashed ship, and I love it. “It represents,” says the Rabbi of the building, “to many of our members the beauty of what the congregation is.”

He’s right.

About Steven Cottingham

Steven Cottingham is an artist, poet (haiku, tanka, senryu) as well as a photographer. Growing up, he wanted to be a columnist, as well as photojournalist. Life, and poor decision, led him down a different path. Today, Steven is chasing those dreams. He is currently working on his next book, as well as starting a small poetry journal. You may visit Steven, online, at www.StevenCottinghamPhotography.com

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2 comments

  1. RabbiWeiss@israelmail.com'

    I followed a link posted to Google+ that was talking about this article, and the photographs that were attached. I must say, I am very surprised at the beauty of Temple.

    I myself am an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, and I am able to see the beauty within all branches of Judaism. The design this Temple has left me in awe. The way the photograph shows it jutting from the mountains. I can imagine it overlooking your city.

    The Ark is a thing of beauty. Both of them are, but the one that looks as if it is branches of a tree is striking. And the Holocaust Torah. It is sad that such items must exist in our world. It is good Temple has it in a place where the public may see it.

    I do hope the peoples of El Paso will take time to visit the Temple. Thank you for such an article.

    • suepickens@att.net'
      Susie Simon Pickens Owens

      Thank you Rabbi. I was blessed to be raised in this beautiful Temple and it has always amazed me. Truelu a sacred space

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