Shabbos Shorts is an occasional series on metro area synagogues, which offer an intimate view into contemporary Jewish life.
If you didn’t know what the TriBeCa synagogue looks like, you might think you’re in the wrong place.
A stroll down White Street puts you at the doorstep of a convex wave set back from the street and wedged between two five-story stone and cast iron lofts.
The marble-adorned structure resembles the cross section of a Hershey’s kiss, attracting gawkers for a quick detour inside just to see the building.
The credit goes to Pratt Institute architecture professor William Breger, a graduate of nearby Stuyvesant H.S. and Harvard University, who won an American Institute of Architects Honor Award for his 1967 design. Breger for once envisioned a helical grocery store that resembled the Guggenheim Museum but it was never built. The shul remains his legacy following his death two years ago at the age of 92.
The shul’s Orthodox congregants still thank Breger for the building’s unusual shape, which is even more spectacular inside.
Congregants enter a small door at the base of the shul before ambling up half a floor to the four-story concave sanctuary. Which may have the best acoustics of any house of worship in the entire city.
The sound “resonates” by bouncing off the interior walls from the bimah back down to the pews, one congregant told me on a Friday night in November. The prayers recited on a Shabbat evening with only 20 people sounded rich and mellow. Thanks in part to the sanctuary’s curvature.
Rabbi Jonathan Glass kicked off the service just after happy hour — a seasonal certainty that occurs in the weeks surrounding the December solstice. He handed out an art scroll siddur and pointed to the page number before returning to the bimah.
“You only missed the mincha, about twenty minutes,” he said.
Glass came to TriBeCa in 1989 in one of the synagogue’s transition periods. Civil servants founded the shul in 1938 and named it Civic Center Synagogue, although the location changed to make way for the Jacob Javits Federal Building. Many of the names on memorial plaques on the walls of the sanctuary are from deceased city and federal government workers who once attended the shul, although few public employees attend regularly these days, congregants said.
By the 1980s membership had declined and there was even talk of demolition, but the shul reached out to artists who had settled in the neighborhood for decades to join and hold events there.
TriBeCa’s transformation in the 1990s to one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city buoyed the shul which launched a new Hebrew school this year to cater to the area’s growing population of young families. And the shul often host events with charities such as the Jewish Community Project, which held a shabbat dinner for families with preschoolers this month after services.
The service itself is warm and spare with little explanation of the prayers or their meanings, which is common among modern Orthodox shuls. There’s usually a partition between men and women but it was removed so not to vex any guests attending the JCP dinner in a basement social hall afterward.
An hour later and Glass finished the service, thanking those who came. Two women who sat in the corner of the shul told Glass they were from Israel and wandered in from the street.
Glass invited them and the rest of the congregation to the shul’s kitchen for kiddush.
A man carrying an acoustic guitar case who bore a passing resemblance to William H. Macy pulled a bottle of blackberry whiskey and began pouring shots into plastic cups. Another congregant handed out cups of the more traditional Jack Daniels. All was well.