BJ’s Sanctuary

Sanctuary Interior   Photo: Jono DavidThis building, in the Moorish Revival style, with elaborate, colorful mosaics and painting, was dedicated in 1918. The architects endeavored to embody in the structure the ancient spirit of Semitic art as found in the ornament of building ruins and graveyards in Israel, Egypt, and Spain. The exterior features an ornately carved main portal and weathered stone in a rich buff tone. The lobby design introduced a touch of blue in the marble base and in the glazed tiles bordering the floor. At either end of the lobby, stairs rise to the balcony and descend to the lower level, which originally held the Hebrew School.

The square main sanctuary, with a seating capacity of about 1,100, is intricately and richly ornamented in tones of blue, buff, red, and gold that freely interpret Coptic design with suggestions of Moorish and Persian sources. The rose window in the main portal is of just two colors, blue and golden yellow. The original side windows, which used the same color scheme, were replaced over the years by stained-glass panels representing Jewish stories and dedications in memory of B’nai Jeshurun members. The octagonal ceiling was perforated by a number of segmental arches and featured elaborate stalactites that were thrown into high relief by concealed lighting.

BJ 88th Street Sanctuary with its original ceiling

88th Street Sanctuary with its original ceiling

In May 1991, just a few years after Rabbi Meyer came to rejuvenate the congregation, the roof of the 88th Street building collapsed, bringing half a ton of plaster from the original ceiling onto the bimah and surrounding area. The timing was fortunate, for no one was in the building, and what could have been a major disaster was avoided. In 1996, renovations and repairs to the BJ sanctuary were completed, and the synagogue was rededicated. The original pews were removed to allow for multiple uses of the space, and a new ceiling with a gridlike structure that incorporates a programmable lighting system was installed. This new design maintains the feeling of the magnificent original while maximizing the flexibility of the space.

In 2010 BJ purchased the building directly behind it on 89th Street. This building, which was dedicated in 1928 as the B’nai Jeshurun Community Center was sold to the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in 1995. It originally included an auditorium, ballroom, chapel, classrooms, clubrooms, a women’s salon, and a library. The landmark reacquisition of the 89th Street building will allow BJ members and guests to pray and celebrate together on Shabbat.