By Aaron Short
Where does a synagogue fit in the contemporary world, and how can it best serve its congregants living in an increasingly computerized age in which it is difficult to unplug?
In Judaism the answer to a question is more questions, but these thoughts tend to dissipate once you walk up the stone steps of Central Synagogue at Lexington Avenue and 55th Street and through a metal detector in the foyer. This is because the inside of Central Synagogue is a sensory faith experience. You are meant to feel as well as think, and also to gape in awe as an organ playing a stirring melody in major chords fills the colossal four-story sanctuary.
On Shabbos, ushers line the back rows handing out programs of the weekend’s festivities that note the rabbis leading the service—the synagogue employs four as well as two cantors—the weekend’s Torah portion, selected hymns in English and Hebrew, and notable guests visiting from out of town.
One usher points to the organ above the foyer before the service begins and adds, “We’re known for our warmth.”
From the outside, the formidable Moorish-revival shul complete with minarets looks more in tune with the Middle Ages than Midtown East. But Central Synagogue, which dates back to the Gilded Age, has been one of the leading Reform congregations in the United States since it was built in 1872.
The shul is known in Reform circles as the more progressive, “new money” shul, as compared to the buttoned-up Temple Emanu-El on 65th Street, as one regular told me. It attracts Wall Street executives and celebrities such as Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan.
In 1998, a five-alarm fire scorched the shul about 45 minutes before Shabbos, destroying the roof and damaging the walls. The destruction forced the synagogue to shutter for three years as the congregation restored the sanctuary at a cost of $40 million.
During its closure, the congregation continued to grow. Not all members can sit inside during the high holidays—its capacity is 2,964 seats including the balcony—but the shul comfortably fits the 600 congregants who regularly attend services on Friday evenings.
On a Friday night in October, Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl was on the bimah. She made history in 2001 when she became the first Asian American in the world to be ordained as a rabbi. She joined Central as a cantor in 2006 and became its senior rabbi in 2014—a leadership change noted by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR and the White House, which invited her to lead Hanukkah services later that year.
Three years after headlines described her as a “pioneer” and the “face of Judaism,” Buchdahl has settled in nicely. At the recent service, she serenaded congregations with the evening’s prayers along with a cantor who strummed an acoustic guitar throughout the 90-minute service.
The shul often has a 10-piece band accompanying the rabbi and cantor, but that night it was just the organist and a keyboard player sitting off the stage. Their harmonized vocals soared throughout the room as congregants sang along, some with their eyes closed, to the evening’s liturgical songs.
Music lingered throughout the service, during breaks between prayers and when another rabbi spoke of members of the congregation and American soldiers fighting overseas who had recently passed away. At the mention of the loss of relatives, one middle-aged woman sitting three rows in front of me wept softly as her daughter and mother comforted her.
The instruments were only muzzled during the Amidah (a reflective silent prayer) and during the Torah portion—read on both Friday nights and Saturday mornings in many Reform congregations. That week’s reading from Genesis covered the story of Eve’s bite of an apple from the tree of knowledge.
I wasn’t any closer to answering profound questions about the role of a synagogue in 21st-century America. But after a solid hour and a half of prayers, I, like Eve, needed a snack.