With year 5773 now underway, it is important to realize the cultural and architectural prestige of these synagogues, and the place they hold in the hearts of congregants, passersby, and preservationists. As Jewish people pray for a better future, the history of these cornerstones is often overlooked. It is also significant to pray for their preservation for generations to come.
“This new building, raising its hands to heaven, is more than a sacred structure. It is an example of the type of thinking that will bring universal peace and solution of the problem that faces all mankind,” were the bold words of Mayor O’Dwyer to 5,000 attendees on the steps of the newly dedicated Forest Hills Jewish Center on September 18, 1949. “Sacred institutions embodied the democratic ideal and principle.”
The center’s cornerstone was laid in 1947, and incorporated one stone from the Holy Land and another from a desecrated synagogue’s ruins in Frankfort on the Main in Germany. The cornerstone reads, “That The World May Be Perfected Under The Kingdom Of The Almighty (1947/ 5708).”
Forest Hills Jewish Center is situated on Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser Square at 106-06 Queens Boulevard. It was organized in 1931 in a wooden frame house on Kessel Street, and then a two-story synagogue was erected on site.
Forest Hills Jewish Center was designed by Joseph J. Furman, and represents the Art Moderne and International Style. The front façade curves to the streetscape. Limestone steps with modernistic brass railings lead to varnished carved wooden doors with brass handles. Etched in limestone above the entryway is, “They Shall Build Unto Us A Sanctuary” and “That I May Dwell Among Them.”
Limestone surrounds hold sleek stained glass windows, and are believed to depict the Burning Bush. The crab-orchard rock façade is reminiscent of the stone pattern of the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem; the only surviving remnant of the destroyed Holy Temple. On December 6, 1949, FHJC received Honorable Mention for its excellence in design and construction in the Queens Chamber of Commerce's public buildings category.
Stepping into the 1,400-seat sanctuary, the simplistic charming space is embellished by stained glass windows and the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark). The over 20-feet-high elaborate golden ark depicts Judaic traditions and holidays, and was designed by the famed artist Arthur Szyk. This was his first 3-D creation for a synagogue, and resembles the breastplate of a Torah scroll.
It is unique how a Torah design element can serve as an inspiration for a larger than life model, which houses the Torah. Historians and critics consider the Ark to be one of the greatest works of 20th century Judaic art. Two of Szyk’s candelabras sit adjacent.
According to the Arthur Szyk Society, Szyk’s art was his means to promote ethnic and religious tolerance, human dignity, and social justice. Syzk worked in the tradition of 16th century miniaturist painters utilizing text and illustrations.
The famed Szyk Haggadah was given to Forest Hills Jewish Center. It became a work of hope and courage during Hitler’s rise. It addressed the era’s politics paired with earlier oppression. Referring to WWII, Szyk told the New York Daily Mirror on April 10, 1941, “The Revolution America fought was an ideal that any artist could thrill to. Today, art must be almost negatively directed against a force that destroys all ideals. But no true artist has the right to avoid using his strength to strike at the darkness."
The Times of London referred to his work as “among the most beautiful ever produced by the hand of man.” Szyk is considered by art critics to be the greatest illuminator of the past four centuries.
Rego Park Jewish Center is another neighborhood cornerstone. The synagogue played a significant role in the Conservative yet Traditional movement in Rego Park. The congregation assembled in 1939, which was the time of the 1939 World’s Fair, and when Rego Park and Forest Hills underwent sufficient development.
Situated at 97-30 Queens Boulevard, this Modernist building was designed in 1948 by Frank Grad & Sons, who also designed the Essex House on Central Park South. Rego Park Jewish Center was dedicated by Mayor O’Dwyer on September 26, 1948, when he declared, “The people of Israel will be free.”
Several thousands marched from the original site at 63-51 Wetherole Street to its current home, including Rabbi Josiah Derby, FHJC Rabbi Bokser, and Reverend Northacker of the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown. It opened on January 15, 1949.
During the 1946 groundbreaking, O’Dwyer discussed the need to resettle thousands of displaced Jewish people following WWII’s end. Notably, Eleanor Roosevelt presented the synagogue with a plaque of honor.
Rego Park Jewish Center is Bauhaus-inspired. Spanning much of its Queens Boulevard frontage is a colorful mosaic mural depicting Old Testament scenes and symbols. It was designed by A. Raymond Katz, a prolific 20th century Jewish artist. Katz also designed the stained glass windows on the front and side facades; the latter which dominate the main sanctuary.
He was famous for his ornamental treatment upon the Hebrew alphabet in conjunction with Judaic symbols. The sleek vertical stained glass window bands are crowned by Moderne tripartite granite lintels. The windows were crafted by J. Gordon Guthrie, who was known for his windows at Temple Emanuel, Riverside Church, and Church of St. Vincent-Ferrer.
Atop polished brown granite steps are three sections of paired wooden doors which bear biblical motifs in octagonal panels, and depict symbols such as a menorah, Tablets of The Law, and a hand holding a shofar. A large Modernist Star of David placed in a roundel is another focal element of the pier-enframed limestone façade.
In 2008, President Allen Trousdale of Grad Associates, the incarnation of Frank Grad & Sons, explained, “The fact that this act of faith in the future was occurring at a time when Nazi Germany had set upon a course of destruction of the Jewish people, makes the symbolism of the construction of this temple much more important than the architecture. Yet, it also has importance as architecture. The design is both a grand and a restrained architectural conception that has retained these characteristics for over half a century.”
He nominated Rego Park Jewish Center for Individual Landmark status by sending a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. A public hearing has not been calendared to date.
The synagogue‘s October 2009 placement on the State and National Register of Historic Places commemorates its historic and religious value to the community, and makes it eligible for funds for future restoration work.
Queens Borough President Helen Marshall honored the synagogue at a December 2009 ceremony. “Rego Park embodies decades of history, architectural character, and cultural heritage, and its listing is proof of its enduring value through generations," she said.