Wednesday, February 23, 2011
The synagogue offers free docent-led tours every Wednesday at 12:45 pm (http://www.centralsynagogue.org/index.php/worship/tours/). Central Synagogue, formed from the merger in 1898 of Shar HaShomayim (meaning Gate of Heaven), founded in 1839 by German Jews, and Ahawath Chesed (meaning Love of Mercy), founded in 1846 by Bohemian Jews. Its name was changed to Central Synagogue in 1920 symbolizing not only its location, but also its change to Reform Judaism. Today, Central Synagogue is the center of Reform Judaism in the U.S. and has over 7,000 members.
The docent was a welcoming older lady who obviously really loved the synagogue and work and devotion that takes place there. She told us about the history of the building, first designed and constructed by Henry Fernbach (one of America's first Jewish architects) in 1872 (taking 2 years to build), but which suffered 2 fires (one in 1992 and the second in 1998). Reconstruction according to the original plans took 3 years, and while some things are new, there are several notable original pieces like the solid wooden front doors, most of the English floor tiles, and the ark at the bimah (altar). All the stained glass visible from the sanctuary are beautiful (see the rose window flanked by the organ pipes, above right), but newer, and the only 2 original stained glass windows are on the north side of the building and visible only from the exterior.
I am not religious, but when the docent invited us up to the bimah (see right) opened the ark to reveal the background tapestry by Laurie Gross and the various Torah scrolls with their covers and told us about how one of the covers was saved from the holocaust (see left, the one with the star of David), I had an emotional reaction. She also told us about how the restoration after the second fire revealed 3 stained glass skylights directly above the bimah that had previously been painted over.
The docent next took us up to the organ and allowed us to sit in the balcony. This gave us a closer perspective to the stained glass windows, the magnificent organ and the stunning Moorish arches (see below) that frame the upper pews, which unlike in orthodox synagogues are not delegated to women (men and women always sat together, which was a daring innovation when the synagogue was first built).