Its two domed towers, crenellated decorative stone exterior with three entrance portals, and two side-aisle entrances surmounted by a great rose window represent an interpretation of the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest.
Central Synagogue’s façade, a symmetrical composition of two sentinel towers topped by copper-clad spheres with gilt decoration. Horizontal bands of stone in contrasting tones, and dramatic Moorish stone arches identify these walls as belonging to a singular place. By seizing upon Moorish precedent, Fernbach gave New York a synagogue whose exterior form and detail were–and still are–in sharp contrast to most other religious structures in the city. It remains a distinctive presence next to surrounding buildings.
Basilican in plan, the sanctuary features a tall central nave and two side aisles, with galleries and an organ loft above. The space is subdivided into six bays by ten slender cast-iron columns with high relief. The bimah retains the original ark, which is richly carved and inlaid with fretwork patterns highlighted in gold topped with onion domes finished in celestial blue with gold stars. Above the central dome is a gilded Star of David.
It was presented to Central Synagogue by Zena, Michael, and Jenny Wiener in celebration of the life of Gabe M. Wiener, his love of the instrument, and his passion for music; in the hope that future generations will find inspiration in the superlative music that only an instrument of this quality can produce.
Constructed by the renowned firm of Casavant Frères of St. Hyacinthe, Canada and completed in 2002, the organ consists of two distinct, interconnected instruments: a Bimah Organ (Casavant Opus 3812) located alongside the bimah and used primarily during services to accompany the cantor, choir, and congregation; and a larger Gallery Organ (Casavant Opus 3813) located in the elevated rear choir loft and used both for services and concerts.
It is comprised of two consoles and 4,345 pipes, 55 stops, and 74 ranks, located in the front and rear of the sanctuary. It replaces a 1926 Kilgen organ of 1,552 pipes that was destroyed in the fire that damaged the synagogue in August 1998. (That instrument replaced the original Jardine organ of 1880.)
The Bimah Organ, with Choeur, Echo, and Pédale divisions (groups of pipes) was installed and voiced in July 2001, in time for the re-dedication of the sanctuary on September 9, 2001. The Gallery Organ, with Grand Orgue, Récit, Positif, Solo, and Pédale divisions, was installed and voiced in March 2002. Both coordinate in style and materials with the design of the restored sanctuary. The entire instrument was dedicated at a concert on April 10, 2002, by concert organist David Higgs and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
Each organ can be played from separate movable consoles: the Bimah console, which has three keyboards, and the Gallery console that has four. Either can control the entire organ. The Bimah console is equipped with 40 pistons, 31 couplers, and 30 toe studs. The Gallery console is equipped with 80 pistons, 24 couplers, and 34 toe studs. Both consoles have solid-state combination systems with 128 levels of memory, MIDI connections, transposers, and many other amenities.
The organ contains two very special stops created specifically for Central Synagogue: a Trompette Shofar, that replicates the sound of the traditional shofar, used for services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur; and a Klezmer Clarinette, that reproduces the sound of a klezmer clarinet with great brilliance and clarity, believed to be the first such organ stop in the world. Both are used to enrich the accompaniment of contemporary anthems and liturgical music. The instrument also contains a rich array of other reed registers, including a Trompette-de-Fête that can sound out over the entire organ, and a 32-foot Contre-Bombarde in the pedal division that provides floor-shaking bass to the full ensemble.
The organ was designed by Pierre Dionne, President of Casavant Frères, and Jacquelin Rochette, Associate Tonal Director, in conjunction with George B. Stauffer and Shelly Palmer, who served as organ consultants for Central Synagogue. It is the product of three years of planning and a cumulative total of 21,000 work-hours by Casavant’s artisans and musicians.
To fully enhance the experience of worship and music in the sanctuary, Central Synagogue commissioned a specially designed advanced sound system. The Main Sanctuary Sound Reinforcement System provides clear intelligible reinforcement of speech and music to every listener in the congregation with more than 40 loudspeakers located throughout the sanctuary. The use of a large number of smaller loudspeakers, combined with advanced digital signal processing, allows the listener to hear the sound as though it is coming from the bimah, rather than a loudspeaker, with minimal visual impact.
A separate Reverberation Enhancement System helps to create an acoustical environment favorable to a concert organ. It incorporates four small microphones hung from the ceiling to pick up sound generated within the room, process it, and feed that sound back into the sanctuary as additional reverberation. This system improves the amount, tonal balance, and spatial aspects of the reverberation within the sanctuary and enhances congregational singing and responsive worship.
Our organ concerts are free of charge and held on Tuesdays (October - May, dates vary) in the Main Sanctuary, 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm.
On September 11, 2009, Central Synagogue dedicated new bimah chairs, a gift from Nancy Fisher and Marc Kirschner in honor of Dr. Janice Gabrilove, whose mother Hilda Gabrilove worked with members of the Synagogue’s Sisterhood on the needlepoint covering of the original chairs in the 1970s.
Nancy Fisher, a longtime member and avid needlepointer, describes the dedication as “the culmination of the unique intersection of my love for Central Synagogue, my love for needle-pointing, my life-threatening bout with Lymphoma, extraordinary care from Dr. Gabrilove and return to good health.”
Nancy, who began battling cancer in the winter of 2008, spent many days under Dr. Gabrilove’s care at Mount Sinai Hospital. There, Dr. Gabrilove learned that Nancy enjoyed needlepoint. She shared that her mother, Hilda Gabrilove, had also pursued the hobby. At the time, Nancy did not know of Hilda Gabrilove’s connection to the bimah chairs.
Soon after that time, Central Synagogue began plans for restoring the original chairs, which had been damaged in the fire. Nancy and Marc decided to donate eight brand new chairs in memory of Hilda Gabrilove and in honor of Nancy’s physician Dr. Janice Gabrilove so that the Gabrilove family name would remain associated with the new chairs.
In honor of this occasion, Central Synagogue Archivist Anne Mininberg has prepared the following historical account of the “old” bimah chairs:
Ahawath Chesed purchased and adapted a church at Avenue C and Fourth Street in the 1860s. It was their premises until 1872 when they moved to their present location on 55th Street and Lexington Avenue, a new synagogue which was designed for them by the architect, Henry Fernbach in 1869, and consecrated on April 19, 1872.
There were four large armchairs, which were designed to be part of the overall architecture and scheme of Fernbach’s decorative Moorish Revival style. The carving on the crest rail of the chairs replicates the designs surrounding their setting on the bimah. The alternating interlaced leaf pattern directly relates to the motifs on the cast-iron columns of the bimah arch, the carving on the wood ark columns and on the ark doors. The ark, designed by Henry Fernbach, was made by the Pottier and Stymus Co. in New York.
It is my instinct, based on some knowledge of furniture styles and the archival material about Central’s early history, that several chairs with a carved lion head design were brought by Shaar Hashomayim when they merged with Ahawath Chesed in 1898. The chairs with a carved lion head design and the original Fernbach chairs had their upholstery redone with needlepoint by Central’s Sisterhood in the 1970s.
In October 2009, Central Synagogue gifted one of the original Fernbach chairs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; one to the American Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia; and one to Yeshiva University Museum in New York, along with the armchair of the “lion style,” all for their permanent collections.
One of the original Fernbach chairs remains on the bimah, indicating the integrated original decorative program.
Photos by: Max W. Orenstein/Central Synagogue
The side walls of the sanctuary feature twelve two-story stained-glass windows with clerestory roundels above them. The northeast roundel is composed of glass, which was salvaged from fire damage and dedicated to the firemen who saved so much of the building. An ornate rose window is at the east end. Three six-foot-square stained glass laylights above the ark, covered over for decades, were revealed during restoration. As originally intended, the ark is now bathed in colored light.
Perhaps the most salient element of the synagogue’s interior is the stencil work that covers the walls with highly patterned, colorful designs. The current colors are a return to the exuberance of the historic original scheme, with elaborate floral and latticework patterns in sixty-nine colors, including shades of green, terra cotta, slate, cream, peach, and red. The patterns are highlighted by a soft gloss finish. The paint is deliberately applied by brush through stencils to reinforce the handmade character.
More than forty thousand tiles in a wide range of colors, patterns, and sizes make up the design of the floor, comprising original tiles made by Maw & Company, of England, as well as new tiles fabricated by the original manufacturer’s successor company.