Amherst Magazine

Sanctuary

By Jennifer Acker '00

 

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Manhattan's Central Synagogue after the restoration

Flames continued to surge but, across the street, prayer began again. Crowds of onlookers gathered around the burning temple, but the congregants didn't emerge to join them until after they prayed. "What Jews have been able to do throughout their history is to continue to pray, even in the midst of the darkest nights," says Rabbi Peter Rubinstein '64 of Manhattan's Central Synagogue. So on August 28, 1998, while the New York City Fire Department rushed to quell the flames, Rubinstein directed his congregation to "Go and have a service." It was Shabbat, the holy close to the Jewish week.

Afterwards, the congregation formed a circle and was joined by then Mayor Guiliani and Cardinal O'Connor, archbishop of New York, as well as firefighters and others. They prayed for a future in which they could be together again in a safe and spiritual place of worship. Rubinstein told the gathering, "We will wander for a while, but there will be a day when we'll open those doors and enter with the Torah scrolls again."

Three years later, Central Synagogue had been restored to its Moorish splendor—and modernized in subtle, crucial ways—under Rubinstein's guidance. A group similar to those holding hands in 1998 gathered to celebrate the synagogue's reopening, standing on the building's steps in bustling midtown Manhattan. People smiled, cheered; photojournalists flashed their bulbs as Guiliani spoke of the strong "faith of the Jewish people" and how he would remember being at this site and with these same people for both the temple's destruction and its consecration. It was September 9, 2001.

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Smoke pours from the roof as firefighters battle the flames on August 18, 1998 

Standing on the opposite street corner, on the east side of 55th and Lexington, one feels that the city has grown up around Central Synagogue. Its landmark gold domes are striking, but difficult to see given the skyscrapers that encircle them. Sharing sandwiches and cigarettes, construction workers take their lunch break on the temple steps. A few stairs lead up to the three keyhole-shaped entrances; the lobby is warm and bright with honey-colored woodwork and smooth tile floors. The viewer passes through another set of doorways and beholds the magnificent interior: rows of dark, wooden pews set on cream, brick, and olive tiles; ornate stencils in warm orange and sienna tones decorate side walls that rise to stained glass windows; two rows of elegant chandeliers lead the eye to the ark where a simple raised platform, or bimah, with a lectern is backed by a cobalt dome. A dusk blue ceiling sparkles with gold stars.

Congregant Sam Charap '02 describes the pre-restoration synagogue he grew up in as "astoundingly beautiful—breathtaking inside and out." With its intricate design the building is Charap's favorite in the world. At first glance, he says, the "new" synagogue looks much the same as the one before it, only better.

News of the 1998 fire—started by the blowtorch of a construction company installing an air-conditioning system—made the front page of The New York Times. Even to Charap, distanced by college activities and geography from his Manhattan congregation, "It felt like a devastating blow." Not only was the building a place of beauty he had fallen in love with over the years, but his synagogue was a spiritual place of worship—an atmosphere created in no small part by his Amherst-educated rabbi, Peter Rubinstein.

Rubinstein has led Central Synagogue, his third congregation, as its senior rabbi since 1991. While at Amherst, however, he was not part of a Jewish community, and he was barely acquainted with the college rabbi, jointly appointed to Smith College. The study of religion was attractive, but it was Christian theology that fascinated Rubinstein. Religion Prof. John Pemberton, now retired, had "an extraordinary, singular impact on my life," the rabbi says, because he introduced him, a medical school-bound English major, to thinking about religion systematically, in keeping with the student's background at the Bronx High School of Science. After graduation Rubinstein said to his brother, then in rabbinical school, "I'm clear on what Christians think, but I'm not certain about what Jews think." Rubinstein deferred the M.D./Ph.D. program he'd been accepted to for a year of study at Hebrew Union College—then never left. Christian theology, as well as serious interreligious dialogue, remain a part of the adult rabbi's life. He chairs the board of directors of the Auburn Theological Seminary and has the distinction of being the only member with a Master of Hebrew Letters.

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Rabbi Peter Rubenstein '64

David Moore '79 was married in the majestic Central Synagogue, and he began taking his children to Rubinstein's services when they were still toddlers. Moore remembers his rabbi "would call them up onto the bimah to stand with him. It got them more comfortable so that they liked being there. What greater joy for a parent than to have your children enjoy going to synagogue?" Rubinstein's encouraging attitude had a ripple effect within the congregation, as they witnessed the warmth he extended to children, telling them they mattered and should be included.

When the temple burned, it was up to the senior rabbi to take this congregation he had nurtured and lead them into a new era. They faced enormous decisions regarding architecture, history, community and, of course, religion. Rubinstein needed to consult a congregation of nearly 4,000 members, some of whom are ranking members of the political and social elite—Public Advocate and recent mayoral candidate Mark Green and Estee Lauder heir Ronald Lauder. Where did he begin?

"The very first issue we had to confront was: Should we rebuild?" Rubenstein says. "Our building was completely destroyed except for its external walls. The roof had caved in, and everything in the interior [except the ark] had been destroyed by fire or water. So, what was our commitment to history? To our location—the heart of the commercial section of New York?"

Once the congregation resolved to rebuild, Rubinstein asked the next question: "Do we rebuild to what we had?" Their synagogue was the city's oldest still in use. Built in 1872 to seat 2,000 attendants, the sanctuary was designed by Henry Fernbach, considered the first practicing Jewish architect in the United States, for a congregation founded by Jews from Bohemia. "The building we had in 1998 was in many ways different from what was there in 1870. Elements had been taken away, stencils had been simplified," says Rubinstein, who has studied the synagogue's archival photographs and plans. "So did we go back to 1870, or 1998, or a time in 1940?"

The answer was one of integration. Architect Hugh Hardy—who also renovated Radio City Music Hall—was pleased to strip away some of the 20th-century add-ons and reveal Fernbach's original intentions.
Rubinstein, the architects and the congregation now had a structural concept for the restoration. But what about the spiritual vision? Surely today's congregation holds vastly different ideas about Judaism and religion than their forebears did more than a century ago, when the world was slower, more segregated, more authoritarian. Rubinstein began to consider, "What have we learned about worship that would lead us to evolve that building?" Members' renovation suggestions were largely practical—better sound, better light, easier to enter—but they pointed, importantly, to overall preferences for the feeling of the synagogue: welcoming or off-putting, safe and intelligible or cold and remote.

Worship has undergone dramatic changes just in Rubinstein's lifetime. "Those of us who were in college in the '60s always see Vietnam as a watershed," he explains. "In certain ways [the war] did shape the idea of what authority was. In many ways the clergy and the pulpit represent authority, usually signaled architecturally as well as liturgically. That began to evolve, and I think the pace quickened in the '80s and '90s when people were gaining everything they ever thought they wanted and began to ask: ‘Is this all there is?'" Rubinstein looks through his square glasses thoughtfully, but as if he has considered and discussed these issues many times before. "Once you ask that question, one's spiritual being comes to the fore. People did not want to act as an audience to drama. Though there need to be elements of drama, that is not all we are.

"Worship now needs greater accessibility to the front. It involves greater interfacing of all the elements of the service: music, worship, clergy, the congregation. It demands a greater sense of involvement and participation. And more than anything else, to build now demands that you know that you don't know, that worship and its needs change rapidly and radically."

Despite the building's age and status as both a city and national historic landmark, the sanctuary has been equipped with invisible 21st-century technology such as visual and digital sound recording devices to Webcast services. Restoration planners also had to acknowledge the current population's extended longevity. The main lobby was sunk to eliminate two feet of exterior stairs that were frightening to older people. A first-floor bathroom is unisex and spacious enough for physically limited seniors with opposite-sex caregivers. "I realized this was the case of my parents," the rabbi says.

On a tour through the building, Rubinstein, small-framed with graying hair and dressed in a blue suit, points out that the front 12 of the 148 new pews—"all equally uncomfortable as the old ones"—are moveable, to create greater intimacy during small services. Similarly, the bimah functions like a trundle bed, pulling out closer to the congregation. Rubinstein purposefully puts his left foot on a spot at the end of a row, and his right a short distance apart and says, "You can straddle 130 years." The tiles under his right foot are brighter than the ones to the left, but they show a precise color match. Both sets—from 1872, and post-restoration—were made by the same manufacturer in England.

Columns support the balcony and the seven trusses that form the basic structure of the synagogue. One collapsed during the fire, but the other six were saved. The firefighters knew these remaining trusses couldn't fall, and chose their means of rescue carefully; they poked a six-inch hole in the dominant, rose-shaped stained glass window on the street side of the synagogue, but quickly realized that position was not advantageous and saved the window. "They treated the sanctuary with such dignity and respect," the rabbi said. Several days after the fire the department returned to study the structure and create plans for rescuing comparable buildings in the future. Rubinstein has framed pictures of these men on his office wall. The man in charge of the rescue was killed, along with many of his workmates, during the collapse of the World Trade Center. This congregation, however, was ahead of the city in fully appreciating the fire department and other civic workers, though they had a hope-filled, rather than tragic, occasion to commemorate. Before the September 9 consecration, Central Synagogue had dedicated the preserved rose window to their firefighters.

Rubinstein not only implements structural changes that make the sanctuary and worship services inviting and accessible, he also develops programs that contain a vision of a collective future. Genuine warmth and embrace of community have come to be hallmarks of the rabbi's leadership style.

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In a decision that might strike other leaders as unusual, Rubinstein has committed himself to an often overlooked social group: teenagers. He loves them. Talking about them makes him laugh. He directs the Confirmation program, a ceremony of renewed faith occurring in 10th grade, two years after a Bar or Bat Miztvah.

"Teenagers can be tough, okay. I remember," Rubinstein says from a couch in his book-lined office. "There is something so alive and challenging and vital during that period of time. It's an important time for people who are generally anti-authority, who are seeking and challenging," Rubinstein says. As their rabbi, he does something special for teens. "I take them seriously," he says. "I care about them. I promise them that I will be their rabbi until they find their own. Wherever they go they know this is their home and they can always come back." A synagogue is not just a building, a house, for those who are present. It is a community that must be flexible and embody a continuous spirit.

Sam Charap was recently reminded of being a young teenager in Rubinstein's congregation. An envelope from Central Synagogue arrived in his campus mailbox this year. Inside was a letter that a 15-year-old Charap had been instructed to write to himself six years ago, describing how he felt about himself at the time, his relationship to Judaism. It was "remarkable," Charap says, "I was reminded of the place of Judaism in my life, what it still means to me."

This effect is exactly what Rubinstein intends. "[Writing the letters] does two things," he says. "Number one, it demonstrates in the most dramatic way that we still care about them, that [these youth] still have a connection to this place. The second is that it provides a time mark. I ask them to write about themselves and their thoughts on where they'd like to be, to paint a picture of what's important now, the things they care about and remember." Six years later the recipients compare themselves to the young writers, noting whether they are where they thought they'd be and whether their goals have changed.

During the three years of labor-intensive restoration, the rabbi held out a vision for his synagogue, much as he asked his teens to do for themselves. But Rubinstein's aspiration for Central Synagogue wasn't grounded in their future house of worship; rather, it was a life-affirming conception of who they were as a group, as Jewish people. For Jews, he says, are never "locked to a particular sacred space." David Moore adds, "In Judaism you can have a service in the woods; there's no religious significance to a synagogue as a building." The congregation did repeat the stories of the Bible; they wandered for several years. Small services were held in many different homes—Rubinstein says he would eat hors d'oeuvres at one table and appetizers at the next, until over several nights he had visited all 50 of the congregation's gathering places.

"It was a wonderful time of journey," he says. Reminding people that their misfortune was not a tragedy—"A tragedy would be loss of life"—he emphasized continuity in the vacuum of a central space. Through this process a mental transition occurred: the community ceased to align itself with an awe-inspiring historical landmark and began to think of itself as something far greater. Rubinstein says, "Since then, it is much clearer that the sanctuary may be—how could I say this—it may be a projection of what we are, but it's not who we are. We are something much more profound and deeper than that place."

Rubinstein would come to draw upon this depth of spirit more than he could foresee. On Sunday, September 9, Central Synagogue was exuberant—celebrating their homecoming and rebirth with media, with civic and political figures, with New York City as a whole. "We had about two days of consummate joy," the rabbi recalls.

Then came the terrorist attacks and all the mayhem and destruction of September 11. Because of the hope and faith with which he carried his synagogue from the eve of the fire until the dawn of its renaissance, and because of his existing connections with the fire department, a network of religious leaders, and politicians Guiliani and Governor Pataki, Rubinstein played an important role in New York City's response. David Moore describes him as already "ascended," through his brilliant congregational rapport and leadership, when real tragedy struck.

Rubinstein describes Guiliani's motivation in inviting him to Ground Zero for President Bush's emotional and photographic visit. The governor and the mayor "thought of [Central Synagogue] as a symbol for rebuilding. They introduced me to the President saying, ‘This is a congregation that lost its sanctuary and rebuilt. And this is exactly what we're going to do. They built out of the ashes.'" Bush's visit was on Friday, Shabbat. Moore remembers Rubinstein walking into services "with the dust from Ground Zero on his shoes." The sanctuary was packed. There were twice as many attendants as the usual 700. "Everyone was there to be comforted. We were all nervous." Rubinstein talked about his visit to the scene of the destruction, of his time with the president, and suddenly listeners felt, through their rabbi, a great connection to the city—that they, too, were involved in the communal mourning and the effort to understand.

With the tremendous, desperate need for prayer and memorial services, Rubinstein's synagogue remained a focus. Just the following week was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Central Synagogue had a special guest. Upon the mayor's entrance, "the place erupts in a standing ovation," Moore remembers. "There wasn't a dry eye in the place." Guiliani had planned to attend even before September 11, and with his multitude of obligations that week, people expected he would stay only a short time. "I asked [Guiliani] if he wanted to speak—at this point he was the messiah—" Rubinstein says, "and he spoke beautifully. Then he sat through the service. I was very moved by that. He sat with me on the pulpit. Afterwards I told him how touched I was." The mayor responded, "I needed it for me."

In the ensuing weeks and months, citizens continued to flock to Central Synagogue, members, non-members, even non-Jews. "Those who had been saved needed to talk,"

Rubinstein says. The rabbi talked and counseled, and talked and prayed, and prayed more.


There's a heroic story about Rubinstein rushing into the synagogue the night of the 1998 fire to save a historic Torah, one that had been rescued from the Nazis. He did run in, and though he wasn't the one to break the glass case with his elbow, as the newspapers reported, Rubinstein admits to pulling out the Torah and carrying it to safety, a feat that greatly upset the fire department. He shrugs, as if he is amused by the "myth," as he calls it. "Who knows if my life was in danger? I mean, there was fire and there was smoke, but I thought, ‘Rabbis are invulnerable.'" Then he sent the congregation to pray.

Photos: Frank Ward

Second Photo: Richard Harbus/The New York Times