On Friday evening one of OHNY’s summer interns, Jordan, decided to take a field trip that would be both cultural and spiritual. She went to visit Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side. Originally founded in 1825 by a group of German and Polish Jews who broke from New York’s Temple Shearith Israel also on the Upper West Side, B’nai Jeshurun has become a staple and landmark in this neighborhood.
After many years of searching for the perfect space to build the congregation, they settled on a plot of land on the Upper West Side. The exterior of the building, constructed in 1916 is vast but also humble to those who pass by. A New York Times article reported that the original architects Henry B. Herts and Walter S. Schneider, both congregants at the time, were said to have taken influence for the designs from an Egyptian temple at Aswan. While the exterior details are noteworthy, what is truly spectacular about the sanctuary is the interior.
The interior was originally decorated by Emil Phillipson in the shape of a giant cube. The wide range of colors one notices upon entering the main sanctuary are bold and powerful. Entering the synagogue, one sees that even the little kids who are attending the service enjoy the space and spend most of the service surveying the colorful details. Beautifully lit for a Friday night Shabbat service in the summer, the Bimah (the front podium where the Torah is located and the rabbis position themselves) gleamed as a result of the meticulous gold detailing set against bright reds and blues.
Bromely Caldari Architects, in partnership with Cosler Theater Designs, re-designed parts of the synagogue in 1996 after a ceiling collapse. Originally, the seating on both the main floor and the balcony were pews. Now, post renovations, the first floor is set up with stackable chairs to give the room a variety of functions including reception hall and lecture space. The balcony maintains the original pew setup allowing for the congregation to seat over 1,000 people comfortably. For pictures of the interior space, check out the Bromley Caldari website.
Jews of the Upper West Side are only few among many who feel that the space is spectacular. In fact, B’nai Jeshurun has gained high visibility as a result of its beauty. The movie featuring Ben Stiller and Ed Norton, “Keeping The Faith” features B’nai Jeshurun as the congregation of Rabbi Jake Schram (Stiller). Also, the sanctuary has been featured in a number of “based in New York City” TV shows, including “Sex and the City.”
The architecture and detailing contributes to the not-so-ordinary vibe of the congregation, in the best sense. Known around the Upper West Side as the “hippie synagogue”, B’nai Jeshurun’s service often includes a variety of musical instruments including bongos, acoustic guitars, cellos and flutes and the occasional egg shakers to accompany the beautiful voices during their services. Congregants attire varied including some in suits and ties, and others in jeans and sneakers. The total package: immensely aesthetically pleasing surroundings, the unique spiritual experience and the varied interesting congregants made for a transformative experience.
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun
257 West 88th Street, New York, NY
Get subway directions via HopStop