About six years ago, Park Avenue Synagogue’s leadership acknowledged the writing that had been on the wall since the Upper East Side egalitarian Conservative mainstay first began to lease classroom and activity space as membership grew.
As the 137-year-old congregation nears completion of its seven-year, $86 million expansion, with the sanctuary slated to reopen next month, it’s easy to overlook what makes its nearby Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center so unique — a design that literally puts the writing on the wall with texts and art that reflects Judaism’s four-plus-millennia history.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, said he sees the two-year-old center not only as a place where people can gather to learn, but as a text that students can learn from.
“To the degree possible, the design of the physical space reflects Jewish values,” he said. He is most proud of the ground floor, where Jewish values and the beginning of the Ahavah Rabbah (God’s Boundless Love) prayer have pride of place.
“Everyone who walks into the Lifelong Learning Center sees the wall with the passage before the Shema: ‘Allow our hearts to fulfill all your teachings with love,’” he said. “The choreography of the building is the Shema.”
The six-story townhouse on East 89th Street has striking, uncluttered art depicting the Torah parshas, one book for each floor (above ground level). Works are depicted in a horizontal line. Amy Reichert, a Chicago-based architect and artist who is collaborating with the architecture firm Murphy Burnham & Buttrick on the project, created the friezes by reproducing photos on luminous photo paper that is pressed against thick, clear acrylic and then “literally embedded into the wall,” Reichert said. The 14-inch-high, 30-to-40-foot-long works are hung four feet high: eye level for children and people using wheelchairs.
Reichert illustrated each Torah portion by culling works from across geography and time. She used illustrations of Torah stories from the Chagalls, Rembrandts and Raphaels of the art world, but also secular pieces — such as a fruit still life by Cezanne and Jean-Francois Millet’s agricultural scenes in an illustrative capacity. Many contemporary works are featured, some by famous artists, some not, and several are by artists — Toby Kahn and Archie Rand, for example — who are prominent in Jewish art circles.
The staircases are home to 1950s-era stained-glass windows, 10 of them, designed by expressionist Adolph Gottleib, and the ground floor sanctuary/performance space houses a chameleon-like ark.
“The ark is something that needs to be really prominent during services, but also rather quiet during those other functions,” said Sara Grant, an architect at Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects who collaborated with Reichert and synagogue leadership on the project. The ark’s exterior “is plastered to match the adjacent wall, so it’s very quiet when closed.” But when opened, there’s a riot of color. Instead of traditional ark motifs — an eternal flame, a burning bush — the design references a midrash about the Ner Tamid being a window in Noah’s Ark.
“There’s this idea that we talk about ideas only through texts, Reichert said, “but there are wonderful kinds of spatial and visual iterations throughout … [Jewish] history that really engage the visual.”