Eldridge Street Synagogue

Searching for Sacred Space

“For religious man, space is not homogenous . . . there is, then, a sacred space . . . there are other spaces that are not sacred and so are without structure or consistency, amorphous. . . . This spatial homogeneity finds expression in the experience of an opposition between space that is sacred — the only real and real-ly existing space — and all other space, the formless expanse.”
-Mircea Eliade,The Sacred and the Profane

For the religious man, space is heterogeneous, broken. Some places are sanctified by memory and tradition, while others disappear into the vast multitude that is the everyday and the profane. Judaism especially is about dividing between profane space and holy space, about making space even more interrupted. The world was created on boundaries, and we define ourselves, and our holy spaces, based on who we are and what we are not.

So an intrinsic idea in Judaism is that of sacred space. We find space to be holy. Amidst the turmoil and desecration that is the island of Manhattan, where do we find our mikomot kidoshim?

Shabbat, in Judaism, constitutes sacred time; and it is in this sacred time that we seek out sacred space. We embark on journeys to shuls to find spaces where we can connect to our Creator. Yet different shuls offer different experiences. I’d like to briefly highlight a few of the Orthodox shuls in Manhattan that I’ve attended on Shabbat and describe my experiences at the various establishments, both the profane experiences and the spiritual ones.

The West Side Jewish Center is located in an ornate, beautiful old building. A low mechitza divides the men and the women. The small number attending, just enough for a minyan, are involved and committed. A single boy leads the end of services, and kiddush is brought out from the kitchen in courses, as congregants sit around a long table. The regulars are friendly, but most people are tourists, passing through New York and looking for a place to daven.

At the Stern College Minyan, women seem afraid to sing. It seems to be because the men aren’t singing loud enough to drown them out. This creates an odd dynamic of both men and women singing softly: men singing softly due to disinterest, and women singing softly because of fear of Kol Isha. Although singing takes place, it’s half-hearted. And the chazanim often forget tunes halfway through. The minyan meets in the Schottenstein Cultural Center, and a large mechitza divides the men and women.

The Synagogue for the Arts is located in Soho, in a building with a sweeping, curved, metal-tiled wall. Light filters in from the high skylight, and a shorter mechitza runs down part of the shul, with the exception of the terraces in the back. The synagogue, although Orthodox, is open to anyone who wants to have a religious experience. The congregants are diverse. Kiddush accommodates vegans, and congregants range from food writers to film producers.

One might mistake The Soho Synagogue for a chic clothing store. And that’s because it used to be one, before it was bought and converted into a hipster Chabad. This rabbi might just be too cool for you. The shul itself is on a lower level than the entrance. Partly glass stairs descend into the sanctuary. The walls have a half finished look, and the building is highly modern, fitting in with the surrounding shops. Dress to impress.

Congregation Edmond J. Safra is known for having the best kiddush in Manhattan. The full meal featuring gourmet food is preceded by Sephardi davening in a modern building. The women sit on an upstairs balcony, and all of the seats spiral around the bima. Davening is faster than most Sephardi minyanim, but the Rabbi gives a long and careful speech after the amida.

Built in 1887, The Eldridge Street Synagogue is a national historical landmark. Although I haven’t attended their services, their building is ancient and beautiful, and is complemented by a museum. Rose windows, elaborate chandeliers, and an upper level with wooden pews complement the dim lighting. The museum and synagogue were recently reopened to the public after 20 years of renovation.

There’s an odd dynamic at Chabad of Midtown. Although the davening is what one would expect and not different from the ordinary Chabad, kiddush is set up while davening is still taking place. Kiddush, by the way, costs money. One must pay prior to Shabbat. The women sit on the side where kiddush is being set up, around circular tables. This creates an odd and less serious dynamic during tefilla, though the space is airy, and looks out onto Fifth Avenue.

The Sixth Street Community Synagogue is Greg Wall’s shul. Rabbi Wall, known as “The Jazz Rabbi,” is a member of the band Hasidic New Wave, “simultaneously straddling the gates of the ancient and the avant-garde.” Rabbi Wall brings many artistic and musical events into the synagogue, from heavy metal concerts to Yiddish dance parties. The building once housed the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. The shul itself was founded in 1940 as a hub for Lower East Side Jewry.

While some might find old architecture and artistry distracting from their tefilla, they enhance my experience and make it more holy. I find that the more beautiful the shul, the more kavana I can have. The louder people sing, the more I connect. But I also believe that is is not solely space or others that create kedusha. Kedusha can be achieved in the most profane spaces, in the places where those surrounding us have little concentration. The challenge is not finding holiness in the sacred spaces, but in the profane spaces where holiness is absent.

So next time you’re in a minyan where the mechitza is too high (or too low) for your taste, where the singing is too soft (or too loud), where the building is too ugly (or too beautiful), close your eyes and remember that nothing is holy. Holiness, like God, is only achievable based on our definition of the terms. Nothing, and everything, is holy. Ultimately, our search for space must be internal, because our inner spaces are the only spaces not dependent on our surroundings. Our inner space is the only space that is heterogeneous, the only space we can distinguish from the surrounding homogeneous space. Whatever shul, city, or community in which we find ourselves davening, it’s important to remember that genuine holiness can also come from within.