One of the characteristics of the holiday season in New York City is the abundance of light. I acknowledge that New York City is the city that never sleeps and the lights are seemingly always on, but during the holiday season this is especially true. Park Avenue is lit with Christmas trees all the way from 54th to 97th street, Rockefeller is ablaze with color and light, and as we all know, Time Square is lit 24/7. Aside from the Christmas trees in the park, street garlands across Court street in Brooklyn, and wreaths hanging above the arches in Penn station, there is another place ablaze with light and tradition.
If you find yourself on the Upper West Side near 72nd street or 66th street at Lincoln Center, take a detour and walk past the Lincoln Square Synagogue. Completed in January 2013, this synagogue is the largest synagogue built in New York City for the last 50 years. It cost upwards of $50M to complete and was seven years in the making. It also won the Architectural Lighting Design Award of 2015! (Read this to find out more)
What is so beautiful and meaningful about this structure is that all the materials and the structural design is layered with Jewish tradition and significance. In an interview with NY Daily News, Theresa Genovese, associate principal at Cetra/CRI Architecture, the firm that designed the synagogue said, “We wanted the core of Judaism to be the core of this building. We developed spaces that would remind congregants of meaningful objects like the prayer shawls and the Tabernacle, and allow them to pray as a community.”
For instance, the facade of the synagogue with made of five ribbons of glass, undulating and curving to resemble the five books of the Torah. If you look closely, the glass looks almost like woven fabric, which was intentional. Inside the panes of glass are laminated bronze-colored layers of fabric, evoking the Jewish prayer shawl. All of the wood used inside on the sanctuary benches is cedar from Lebanon which was used to build the temples of the Old Testament. There are many other layers of symbolism, but my favorite is the sanctuary’s lighting design.
When you walk in, (make sure to call ahead and confirm there isn’t any event going on), you will notice small, LED downlights distributed abstractly throughout the entirety of the ceiling. There are approximately 613. No more, no less. They represent the 613 commandments in the Torah and are designed to resemble a starry desert sky. LED lighting is also found in the top and bottom of each glass panel on the outer facade of the structure. What I find to be so beautiful is that modern technology, if used well, can help connect the past with the present, and amplify tradition without nullifying it. This synagogue is truly a story told through light.
Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, the coming of the Christ child at Christmas, or just Santa and his reindeer, I hope that the lights of Lincoln Square Synagogue remind you that for us as humans, tradition is important. It keeps us rooted and grounded. The artful life is the holistic life. Deep and meaningful living is not something we can accomplish on our own. We stand on the shoulders of giants as someone once said, and we must remember that history did not being when we were born. As contributors and not just consumers, we ought to be aware of the stories of those who’ve gone before us. If we are rooted in tradition and a connection with the past, our present can be influential and the future can be built.