April 8, 2024
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April 8, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Famed Wash. Heights Shul Gets a Facelift

Situated on the corner of West 187th Street and Bennett Avenue in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, Mount Sinai Jewish Center has long been a cornerstone of the local Orthodox community. Founded in 1910, the congregation has seen significant fluctuations in attendance and membership over the last century. In the last two decades, Mount Sinai has experienced a surge with an estimated 400 current members, many of whom are recent college graduates and young couples. The resurgence of the community and demographic shift have amplified the shul’s need for an updated space for prayer—an ambitious project for an ambitious community.

Mount Sinai’s current structure, built in 1959, retains its mid-century architecture, displaying tall stained-glass windows on all sides for the neighborhood to see. Inside, the grandeur continues with a glass chandelier hanging from the center of the large social hall, where congregants have returned to pray indoors as the pandemic winds down. Attendees are using stackable event chairs and a temporary mechitza, and many people have yet to see the main sanctuary of the shul since their last visit pre-pandemic. As it stands now, the sanctuary space has been completely leveled of its tiered seating and wooden pews facing the center, another relic of the synagogue’s mid-century design.

Currently, Mount Sinai’s main sanctuary is awaiting a complete reconfiguration, with the goal of creating both a wheelchair-accessible space and an even divide between the men’s and women’s sections. In its previous setup, men were seated in the center, several steps down from the entryway; and women were seated in two smaller sections along each side of the men. This layout made it difficult for those who needed assistance to be seated properly, and also raised some concerns about visibility and inclusion from Mount Sinai’s female congregants.

“As a physical therapist, I certainly noticed that there were accessibility issues getting into the main sanctuary,” said Ari Rieser, a Washington Heights native and treasurer of Mount Sinai. “When conversations about the flattening project began about 10 years ago, it also made us reckon with the mechitza setup in a real way. This is a reality that has now come to the fore and we are working through a way to deal with that,” he said of the remodel.

A long time in the making, the reconstruction of the sanctuary has been both time-consuming and costly, requiring a significant effort from the board and the shul’s membership to move things along.

When Ari Senderowicz took over as president of Mount Sinai in September 2020, plans were already in place for the redesign. He explained that Mount Sinai’s previous president, Yehuda Krupka, did much of the legwork in pushing the initiative on all fronts.

“I was an officer last year, so I was familiar with a lot of the aspects of the planning,” Senderowicz said. “The architect had already been hired before I began as president, and when I started, we moved forward with checking that the shul’s structure could handle such a heavy-duty project.” It wasn’t until December 2020 that the construction plans were finally given the go-ahead.

Such a significant undertaking isn’t cheap—it will cost an estimated $300,000, and probably more once furniture has been selected—but the funds were raised organically through a matching campaign set up on charidy.org.

Though a seemingly high price tag, the current project is not costly compared to the last major renovation done at Mount Sinai, which was a complete remodel of the lower level and foundation inside the building several years ago. “That one cost us about a million,” recalled Mount Sinai’s Executive Director Mirasha Moore, who explained that the previous remodel included the building of several classrooms, as well as the Torah & Tefilah Center.

Senderowicz anticipates that there might be a need to raise more funds during what he calls “phase two” of the sanctuary remodel. “The first phase is the raising of the floor, installing of the carpets, and then moving back into the main sanctuary using the temporary chairs and portable mechitza we’ve been using in the social hall until this point. The second phase will be the purchase of the furnishings and mechitza.” Though the project is nearing the end of phase one, “it’s hard to put an exact date on the total completion of the remodel,” he explained.

While the board awaits selection of the carpet and furniture, the introduction of the second phase of the remodel may take longer than anticipated due to the conversation around the mechitza, which has not been updated since the shul’s construction 62 years ago.

According to Mount Sinai’s constitution, the board makes the majority of shul-wide decisions—except halachic ones. And so in the redesign of the sanctuary, Rabbi Yaakov Taubes, Mount Sinai’s mara d’atra, has stepped in to provide guidance on the configuration of the seats, the placement of the bimah, and of course, the mechitza.

“I think having the mechitza down the middle and the seating will give ownership of the space to our members,” explained Rabbi Taubes. “That’s what they want to feel—that the shul is theirs, that they feel comfortable in it. I think this change reflects the majority of what people want and are used to from other shuls.”

Rabbi Taubes noted that the old seating arrangement and setup, while very beautiful, reflects a very particular period in the architecture of American shuls. “At this point, this is not what people want out of their space; they seek familiarity,” he said, adding that with the increased participation from female congregants in recent years, it’s important to make sure there is more inclusion in the sanctuary’s space.

“We want the shul to feel comfortable equally for men and women, and that’s incredibly important to us,” Rabbi Taubes said.

With all of the moving pieces, the timing on this project was just right—fewer attendees at minyan, less rentals of the space for events. Plus, Rabbi Taubes explained, it gives returning members something to look forward to in the post-pandemic world. “There was a lot of back-and-forth about whether COVID was the right time to take this on. Ultimately, we decided that we want people to be excited about coming back to shul; that excitement will be absolutely crucial in creating a better Jewish experience for everyone.”

It is still unclear when congregants will be able to return to the remodeled sanctuary. Senderowicz anticipates the completion of phase one of the project will be before the end of June. Many congregants, especially those who need greater accessibility, are looking forward to a leveled space in the very near future. “The new floor will help us tremendously in creating a sanctuary that’s accommodating and comfortable,” noted Rieser.

A project years in the making, and centered around some heated discussions and challenges, is finally paying off for Mount Sinai’s congregants. “When people from different generations can express their concerns about how to do things, that’s how you get things done right,” said Rabbi Taubes. “I am incredibly excited about this project; I think it’s going to open up a whole new chapter at Mount Sinai.”

By Channa Fischer

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