Shabbos Shorts is an occasional series about Shabbos services at city synagogues, which are a window into contemporary Jewish life in New York.
By Aaron Short
The rush-hour bus ride uptown toward Congregation Emanu-El in February is surprisingly lonely. Maybe it is the winter doldrums.
Security guards stand in the glass entryways of Madison Avenue’s designer boutiques, counting down the minutes of their shift. Patrons will go shopping on the weekend, but no one is in the mood on Friday night. Instead, Upper East Siders in-the-know head to East 65th Street for services at Temple Emanu-El, one of the largest synagogues in the world, and a pinnacle of modern Reform Judaism.
The imposing Romanesque Revival colossus takes up half a city block. Its marble and mosaic-tiled sanctuary is 103 feet high and can accommodate 2,500 worshippers, slightly more than St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Founded in 1845 in the Lower East Side by German Jews, the congregation became a beacon for Central European immigrants — and an entry into the city’s ruling class as the shul grew. By 1929, its congregation merged with another and settled at its permanent home overlooking Central Park.
Many of the the city’s media and cultural elites still call the shul home — former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, CNN president Jeff Zucker, and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer are members. So was the late Joan Rivers. And former Mayor Ed Koch’s funeral was held there.
Famous faces were rarer on a Friday night in February when the temperature outside dipped into the 20s. Only about 150 people were scattered in the first few rows of wooden pews that filled out the cavernous sanctuary.
Several members were handing out friendly smiles and the evening’s program in the foyer. At 5:45 pm, the largest synagogue organ in the world started blowing melodic major tones through its 9,000 pipes. It was rebuilt a decade ago in a massive renovation that buffed the shul’s 62 stained glass windows and added a modern air conditioning system.
Families clustered in the first ten rows of the sanctuary and chatted in whispers before the service in the pews and aisles, although I overheard the word “cardiologist.” Fathers stood close to their sons, wearing matching dark wool suits, while several women wore fur coats over black dresses and sweaters.
The frigid temperatures outdoors could not compete with the warmth from the shul when two of the shul’s rabbis and a cantor wearing long white robes entered the dais from a side door on stage right at 6 pm.
Rabbi Amy Ehrlich, now in her thirtieth year at the shul, stepped to the bimah to open the service welcoming the “Sabbath Queen.” Then Cantor Mo Glazman began a lovely rendition of L’cha Dodi backed by the shul’s powerful organ and stirring choir which were rarely silent throughout the evening.
Glazman is a wonderful tenor and one of the shul’s star attractions. He’s performed at Lincoln Center, and appeared in concerts throughout Europe, Israel, and North America. At the midpoint of the 70-minute service, another rabbi gave her interpretation of the weekly Torah portion, involving Moses’ reunion with Jethro (his non-Jewish father-in-law), that she expanded to a striking call for tolerance towards immigrants.
Glazman picked up the rest of the service with a prayer for those in need of healing, or the Mi Shebeirach, to the tune of the Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof. It was the only hymn sung in a minor key the entire night.
“May the One who blessed our mothers, may the One who blessed our fathers, hear our prayer and bless us as well.”
Once the service was over, the rabbis and the cantor sauntered up the center aisle and hugged congregants before making their way up the foyer. Four teens from the shul’s bar mitzvah class flanked dozens of glasses of wine sitting on a table behind them.
Ehrlich proclaimed a hearty mazel to the youngsters and led a kiddish in their honor.