Central Synagogue
New York City - April 7, 2010
I took pictures of the Central Synagogue on Lexington and 55th Street on the Wednesday of April 7, 2010. Every Wednesday at 12:45pm, the Sanctuary is open to the public and a tour of the Synagogue is conducted for free.

The tour started at the foyer with the guide saying that the Synagogue was completed in 1872 when the U.S. President was Ulysses Grant, implying that the Synagogue is almost as old as the Civil War.

The guide fast-forwarded to modern times, specifically to 1998 when the Synagogue caught fire. She pointed out parts that were original and parts that were renovations. A plaque on the wall listed dozens of people who contributed to rebuilding the Synagogue. I thought at the time she was spending too much time talking about the fire. I wanted the tour to continue. My later online research revealed that the fire damage was extensive -- the photos look like those of a WWII bombed-out shelter -- and the renovation having been completed only 9 years ago in 2001, the fireís trauma must still be fresh and gratefulness for those who aided in rebuilding the Synagogue, eternal.

Eventually we were led into the Sanctuary and were asked to sit anywhere we liked. I thought that was surprising since a guided tourís unspoken rule is usually restraint -- things are not to be touched unless told otherwise. Being asked to occupy someoneís favorite seat during their Saturday Shabbat was to me a welcoming gesture.

I was even more surprised when the guide invited us up the speakerís podium and all the way to the altar. There she opened a cabinet that revealed scrolls wrapped in blue velvet cloth. My apologies if wrong but I believe the guide said they were the Torah.

Churches Iíve been to consider the altar sacred and therefore not for the non-clergy. Yet there we were, tourists with NYC grime on the soles of our shoes rubbing against the carpet, getting up close and personal with their most sacred relics.

While at the altar I noticed the lectern offered a great view of the Sanctuary and the rose window above and back. I asked the guideís companion, an old man with rimmed eyeglasses and short white beard who was following us around, if I may put my camera on the lectern so I can take a picture. Seeming puzzled, he glanced at the guide then turned and smiled at me saying, “She (the guide) is not very particular about these things. So, yes,” he added with a soft laugh -- had his black Jewish skullcap been a red, pointed, velvet hat instead he would have looked like Santa Claus at the mall -- “Go ahead. Itís alright.”

Then we were led up the organ at what is traditionally the choir loft in the back. I positioned myself in a corner and took pictures of the Sanctuary and altar below. When everyone was leaving, I was still finishing my shots. The guide was about to lock the door when an alert visitor told her I was still inside. When I hurried past the guide apologizing, she said, “Oh thatís alright. If I locked you in you could still get out the other way.” Instead of being eyed with suspicion that I might be pocketing souvenirs, she expressed concern for my safety.

While Catholic churches are pretty much everywhere and so I am fairly familiar with their customs, other religionsí places of worship are to me a source of fascination, albeit guarded at that. After all, I myself would be protective of my temple and leery of outsiders if the only purpose for their being there is to satisfy their curiosity. The reformed Jews I met at Central Synagogue and their hospitality made me re-think that. Just as I try to be open, forthcoming, and operating on a principle of trust in just about every facet of life, there is no reason why I shouldnít do the same when it comes to dealing with people expressing interest in my faith.

Click on a picture to enlarge.
Sanctuary.
We were asked to sit anywhere we wanted.
Altar.
View from the lectern -- organ and rose window.
The wood carving shaped like an open book above the closed cabinet doors on the altar is inscribed with The Ten Commandments in Jewish script.
Stairwell that leads to the choir loft.
View from the choir loft (gallery).
Foyer. Where the tour began.
Central Synagogue of Reformed Jews on Lexington and 55th Street.
Facade. The man with the white beard who followed us around during the tour can be seen walking towards the lamppost on the right.
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