"My kid didn't have school today, but he still wanted to go to Hebrew School.
He really enjoys it."
Beth Liebeman, member
What is now the Synagogue for the Arts was founded as the Civic Center Synagogue in 1938. Jacob J. Rosenblum, special assistant to District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey saw a need to provide a place of prayer for Jewish commuters working in the downtown area. The area's many Jewish lawyers, civil servants, and those in the textile industry needed a place where they could come on weekdays to say Kaddish and other prayer obligations. There was no other synagogue around.
The Synagogue initially held services in a loft space above a store, and was open from Monday to Friday. In 1957 the Synagogue finished construction on its own building for the first time. Located at 80 Duane Street, it was fated to have a short life. A mere three years later it was condemned by eminent domain for the building of Federal Plaza (now the Jacob Javits Federal Office Building).
Synagogue PlazaAs a result of the negotiations around the eminent domain process, the Synagogue was given a parcel of land at 49 White Street. Here the current, award-winning building designed by William N. Breger rose, and was completed in 1967. Initially it was highly utilized; when Yizkor fell on a weekday, as many as two thousand would attend one of the several services.
As the city sank into bankruptcy in the 1970s, Jews left civil service and downtown businesses closed. The Synagogue experienced a crisis of mission, and by the 1980's was feeling financial strains. However, through it all, hundreds of Jewish families were moving into Soho, TriBeCa, and lower Manhattan.
With new people seeking a spiritual home, the Synagogue changed. In 1989 Rabbi Glass arrived, bringing new, full-time leadership. That leadership, combined with the vision of the shul's administration at that time, led to a transformation. The Synagogue began its metamorphosis from the "Civic Center Synagogue" to the "Synagogue for the Arts."
The congregation was renamed "Synagogue for the Arts" to reflect the nature of the community in which it now found itself. A conscious effort was made, to reach out to the unaffiliated Jews among the area's new, creative residents. The Gallery was established and became an ongoing facet of the Synagogue's activity.
The climate of welcome, openness and acceptance continues. By 2006, the Synagogue for the Arts had transformed itself from a synagogue focused on the needs of the business community, into a dynamic, full service synagogue, exceeding the wildest dreams of its founders more than 60 years ago.
The Synagogue's building was designed by architect William N. Breger, a student of Walter Gropius and later chair of architectural design at Pratt Institute. In 1968, the American Institute of Architects awarded the building a National Honor Award.
Breger wanted to create a building that would make the Synagogue stand out, yet he set it back from the street so that it would not disrupt the line of the street's cast iron facades. The front curves up and out over a glass-walled entrance, then backward and up again. It evokes images of flame and the burning bush—or perhaps the curve of a scroll.
The main sanctuary is an extraordinary place to pray and meditate. It is hugely open, the roof swooping up to a skylight, 40 feet above the bima, which floods the room with sunlight for hours at mid-day. It is not a decorated space, although the ark is scaled to the size of the sanctuary. The building itself provides the design interest. To some, it feels tent-like, as though its curving forms were driven by the desert winds. Many feel it to be awe-inspiring. Some in the congregation have described it as a place of comfort, or a womb.
The reception hall is a flexible space downstairs, a large, open room, attractive but undecorated—except for the paintings or sculpture that constitute the Synagogue gallery's current exhibit. The room's lighting is far more elaborate than a typical room of this kind, reflecting the seriousness with which the synagogue treats its role as a gallery.