Carved in stone above a maroon awning of the Sutton Place Synagogue on East 51st Street are the words “Jewish Center for the United Nations.”
Although it is the synagogue located closest to the United Nations in the affluent Sutton Place enclave of the Midtown East in Manhattan, the name is a misnomer. The shul, a Conservative congregation founded in 1901, does not have an official relationship with the UN, but they still boast powerful brethren.
When the shul’s leaders announced plans to build a new sanctuary and school on its East 51st block in 1965 they threw a swanky fundraising dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, hosting boldface names such as United Nations Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, New York Senator Jacob K. Javits and Connecticut Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff as honorary chairmen. Then-congressman Ed Koch donated a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol. And United Nations Secretary-General U Thant welcomed the shul as as a religious institution serving the United Nations, one of three in the neighborhood.
Few, if any, diplomats or staffers worship there these days. “If they do they’re coming undercover,” one congregant told me. But the sanctuary unwittingly resembles a UN meeting space, with rows of blonde wooden chairs facing the high ceilinged bimah from three sides and six stained glass panels in campy earth tone colors.
The shul is still a welcoming place for the tony neighborhood’s denizens — boasting 475 member families and catering to 1,500 congregants during the high holidays.
The adjacent six-story school building is bustling with classes and activities.
Shabbat evenings are more relaxed. About two dozen congregants, dressed in their business casual winter work attire of sweaters over collared shirts, attended a Friday night service in December.
Rabbi Rachel Ain, a prolific writer and one of the few women leading a Conservative minyan in the city, ran the service, which started on time and took only about 50 minutes.
Ain, along with a cantor, briskly recited prayers in Hebrew from heavy Siddur Lev Shalems printed in 2016.
Once the congregation got to the Mariv, the set of evening prayers marking the second half of the service, she paused to discuss the weekend’s Torah portion on Jacob and his angelic struggles.
“Struggle is a good thing,” Ain said. “That means you’re going in the right direction.”
Parents appeared to struggle to keep their children’s attention as the service wound down.
Three little girls escaped their mother’s intermittent gaze and ambled down a side aisle through the double doors of the sanctuary and into the foyer. Their mother, curious about their mischief, sauntered after them.
On the other side of the shul, a tween boy nuzzled his head into his father’s armpit and turned around in his seat facing the back of the sanctuary while he recited a prayer from memory.
The rabbi likely noticed his fidgeting.
At the end of the service Ain invited the boy to the pulpit to sing Adon Olam as congregants thinking about the weekend ahead tucked their prayer books into wooden slots in the seats in front of them.