SHALOM FROM THE SEPHARDIC TEMPLE OF CEDARHURST, NEW YORK
It is with a sense of pride and joy for our Temple and unique Sephardic heritage that we share our history and role as the foremost Balkan Ladino synagogue.
We invite you to our beautiful house of G-d to worship, gather, and deepen your connection to the Sephardic universe.
The history of our synagogue, Congregation Emeth Ve'Shalom, is intricate, with its origins in a section of Brooklyn known as New Lots some seventy years ago. Integral to this story is the leadership and unwavering determination of our beloved founding rabbi, Rabbi Arnold B. Marans z''l, whose dedication to our Temple and community continues to inspire.
IN THE BEGINNING...
In April 1954, Rabbi Arnold B. Marans was invited to meet a committee of young men in New Lots who founded a congregation one year prior with a vision of establishing a new community that would promote a modern perspective of Judaism while honoring venerable Sephardic customs. Rabbi Marans was recommended by the Jewish Theological Seminary to lead this new congregation in this initiative. The committee expressed the fact that prior to serving in the armed forces during WWII, they were unaware that rabbis could speak English! They wanted a rabbinical authority at their helm that could lead the traditional liturgy with its Hebrew and Ladino prayers, yet also have an excellent command of English to educate closely and interact meaningfully with the younger generation of Sephardim. After two meetings with the committee, Rabbi Marans quickly understood the needs of this special community and readily accepted the invitation to become its Rabbi. Rabbi Marans lead this congregation until his death in July of 2020, a feat attained by very few.
This new Sephardic community of New Lots did not have a building of their own, and under the title of "The United Sephardim of Brooklyn" conducted religious services and programs across a complex of three synagogue buildings. The building for the Monastirlis Society stood at Williams Avenue (at the bisection of Malta Street and Louisiana Avenue) and the building for the Kastorialis was located one block away. These societies represented the towns of Monastir and Kastoria, respectively, as well as other Sephardim from Macedonia, Greece, and Yugoslavia. The Angoralis building for Sephardim from Turkey, stood on Hinsdale Street. The spiritual and cultural heritage of the Balkan, Greek, and Turkish Jews were represented in these buildings. The Monastirlis building was used for occasions such as Bar Mitzvahs, the Kastorialis building housed the religious school, and the Angoralis building was the site for a combined daily Minyan. Yet, the members of the United Sephardim of Brooklyn worshipped with their separate communities on Shabbat and holydays.
Rabbi Marans and the congregation acknowledged that if worshipping on Shabbath and Festivals were to continue at separate synagogues, there would never truly be a "United Sephardim". For there to be a future for the Sephardic Balkan tradition, unity was essential; the three synagogues would have to come together.
The United Sephardim of Brooklyn grew in strength even as significant demographic changes in the community were occurring. By the end of the decade it was clear that a transition to a new location would be necessary. Leaders and elder members of the United Sephardim suggested that if they quickly established a new location on Long Island, other members would follow suit and they could all move together. Concurrently, for those unable to make the move out of Brooklyn, a Sephardic congregation was established in Canarsie known as the Sephardic Jewish Center of Canarsie. This synagogue reached a fulfillment of its own, as did the United Sephardim in their new home.
THE NEXT CHAPTER...
The Sephardic Home for the Aged in Brooklyn provided demographic information to the United Sephardim of Brooklyn via membership lists which indicated that approximately 1,100 Sephardim were centered around the Five Towns on Long Island, New York. Quietly, a strong infrastructure was developing. The Rousso, Hazan, Zacharia, and Elias families came forward to lead the transition to create a posterity for the Sephardic tradition in a village called Cedarhurst.
At a meeting of the United Sephardim leaders, they reviewed the lists from the Sephardic Home. Soon after, in February 1962, founding members Irving Rousso and Albert J. Cohen filed for incorporation as a religious organization under the title "The Sephardic Temple". The desire for unity was reflected in the name chosen for the congregation: Kahal Kadosh Emeth Ve'Shalom. Hebrew words were taken from the names of the Monastirlis and Kastorialis synagogues: 'Emeth' meaning truth and 'Shalom' indicating peace. This consolidation was a symbol of the synagogues joining as one force.
A search was conducted in the Five Towns by founding members Albert J. Cohen and Ike Elias for a suitable area for the synagogue. A new home for the Sephardic congregation was located on Branch Boulevard in Cedarhurst on a plot of 5.5 acres. June 1962 marked the groundbreaking for the Temple building that would measure approximately 300 feet in depth and 2.5 blocks in width. To accommodate this plan, the position of adjoining Oakland Avenue needed to be redesigned as it originally bisected the Temple land. Special arrangements in Nassau County were made to make this a reality. The plot purchased, although prime in location, was a poor tract of land for construction. It was marshland and the adjoining waterway of Motts Creek had to be pushed back to Jamaica Bay. To ensure the stability of the Temple building, 435 piles were driven down 45 to 50 feet to support a 3,600 square foot concrete platform.
The vision was as follows: when traffic begins on Branch Boulevard and when vehicles drive by or on foot, the Sephardic Temple should be high in your vision. The Temple was built as one level, eight feet above sea level. Providentially, this decision saved the synagogue from difficulties during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when, unlike surrounding buildings, the Sephardic Temple thankfully remained free of water.
The congregation searched for an architect, and Bert Bassock was chosen. Bassock and founding member Jack Baker were assigned to devise a building plan. Bassock wanted to design a building that manifested Jewishness and the Sephardic Balkan tradition in particular. The architect was approached by the Board with a vital question: what kind of building are we to have? The answer: our Temple building has to be Sephardic!
Bassock hired students who studied the history of architecture, in particular Jewish houses of worship. It was determined that historically, there was a unified structure for Sephardic religious institutions. Architecture of the Byzantine Empire from the 12th to 14th centuries was consulted and used as inspiration. In keeping with traditional Sephardic architectural plans, the Sephardic Temple of Cedarhurst needed to be built in one abstract manner: no windows were to face the outside; high circular walls and serpentine contours had to be constructed (not straight or even rectangular); and religious artifacts and works of art must beautify the edifice. With these principles, a plan was soon created.
The architect and design committee approached the synagogue with a complex vision, however the resounding concept that was agreed upon was simple. Whatever was to be decided for the plan of the Temple building with regard to communal areas, two internal gardens, catering facility, and religious school complex - an unparalleled structure was required for the Sanctuary.
The plan for the Sephardic Temple Sanctuary required significant adjusting. The unique design of 15-foot walls was crowned with an exceptional dome that continues to be a feat of imagination and engineering. The dome was the last aspect of the building that was to be completed and was designed to resemble a mitre: a multi-layered peaked hat worn by the high priest (Kohen Gadol) found in the Torah. Six arches support the structure of the dome constructed of pine wood that was bent under high steam-pressure until curved. A metal shoe in the ground and pocket system provides support for the arches that join at the top without a screw or nail. This crown of wood imparts a sense of uplift that completes the majesty of the sacred space. Archways, mullions, and abounding glass lend to a remarkable open-air feeling.
Unlike theater seating that became pervasive in synagogue construction in America, a design guided by Sephardic tradition was chosen. Pews surround the Sanctuary on three walls in a 'U' shape, leaving the Tebah (what Ashkenazim call a 'bimah') - the raised platform for reading the Torah and chanting the prayers - centered and toward the rear. This model allows for 286 stationary seats; theater style seating would have allowed for at least 400 seats. The congregation also decided that they would have to accommodate those who did not want to sit mixed (men and women). The plan therefore called for an elevated women's section (Ezrat Nashim) located on either side of Sanctuary facing inward toward the Tebah. The space in the middle of the Sanctuary is left open and creates a sense of majestic solemnity. The Tebah is moveable and the platform can be moved forward toward the front of the Sanctuary for a wedding ceremony to accommodate a large huppah. The result of this unified architectural design provides an exceptional effect for worshippers and guests alike.
While construction was underway, a charter house was purchased in March 1963 that would become the home of Rabbi Marans and his family. Services were held there during the Temple's construction until March 1964 when the congregation moved into the Temple building that was still partially unfinished. By June 1964, the Sanctuary was completed.
An aesthetic in keeping with the rest of the edifice was needed for the Heikhal (what Ashkenazim call the 'Ark'), the focal point on the East Wall of the Sanctuary wherein the Torah scrolls are kept. Architect Bert Bassock oversaw a contest of the most ardent and learned sculptors available for its design. The winner of the contest would be given the commission and suggestions were voted by a committee. The designs of three artists were reviewed in particular: contestant 1 suggested marble pillars; contestant 2 suggested a ladder with small angels (like the story of Jacob's ladder); and contestant 3, a young man named Emanuel Milstein, suggested what would become the chosen design. Milstein had a good appreciation of Judaism and studied art and architecture in Florence, with special emphasis on bronze sculpture and bronze doors. Milstein wanted to emulate the grandeur of bronze since the amount of actual bronze necessary to match the large interior of the Sanctuary would render it too heavy. The answer was fiberglass - a malleable and lightweight material that could be manipulated to suit the needs of the design in many ways.
Once fiberglass was chosen as a medium, a design was put forth. The Torah describes the breastplate of the high priest having twelve stones of different colors. A story in the midrash indicates that when a difficult question was presented, the high priest would look to the light that would shine out of engraved letters on the stones, which when rearranged, would form the answer. The Heikhal of the Sephardic Temple would evoke this story in a design that features twelve round pieces of glass like those from the breastplate. Milstein searched for glass manufacturers in all the Northeast and glass colors were found similar to those of the stones that are mentioned in the Torah. The everburning light (Ner Tamid) and a thoughtfully designed sculptural element rises above the Heikhal with a sense of uplift to a crescendo of the Hebrew phrase from Isaiah: "Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh" ("Holiness, Holiness, Holiness").
The Heikhal was dedicated in March 1964 during the first Passover celebrated in the Temple building. Above the Heikhal is a circular zodiac configuration that was designed from an artifact found in a synagogue in Toledo, Spain - the last synagogue that was used for worship before the Inquisition. The Hebrew words of "Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh", harken back to the Torah when Moses escaped from Egypt's Pharoah and witnessed the burning bush that was not consumed. Moses wondered whether this sight was a manifestation of G-d and angels told Moses to look to the lip of the flame and see if anything is visible. The tongues of the flames said "Kadosh…" Moses would then fulfill G-d's direction and lead the Jewish people out of Egypt.
The mantles of the twenty-eight Torah scrolls in the collection of the Sephardic Temple are embroidered in a compatible design to the Heikhal featuring the same imagery of the zodiac roundel and "Kadosh" lettering. All impart a sense of consistency as well as an appreciation as if to say: "this is where I belong, this is where I am encompassed". These elements cohesively come alive with the surrounding architecture.
ELEMENTS OF DEDICATION...
Additionally, the walls of the Sanctuary are a source of inspiration. Two menorahs flank either side of the Heikhal wall where six lights (not seven) are lit. This accords with a tradition harking back to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE that stated if a menorah is to be put in a house of G-d, the seventh light of the menorah will only be lit when the messiah comes.
On the upper wall opposite the Heikhal, two lions alight either side of Ten Commandments made of stained glass. The lions recall the midrash where King Solomon sat on a throne with two lions. If Solomon had disagreeable visitors, he would signal the lions for protection. Lions also appear in a legend about Esther where King Ahasueros had lions and their menacing demeanor succeeded in keeping Haman away.
At the end of every pew, decorative symbols in the form of relief sculpture are visible, such as: menorahs, candlesticks, the Ten Commandments, and matsah. Close to 40 different symbols adorn the pews crafted by the United States Seating Company.
The two side bands of the Sanctuary contain the verses of the "Shema" and its antiphon "Baruch Shem" and serve as a dynamic proclamation of the monotheistic faith of Judaism. Other symbols of dedication can be found in the Sanctuary. Names of those who have donated elements of the Sanctuary, such as the Heikhal and artwork, are visible in bronze lettering on the walls.
After the completion of the Sephardic Temple, architect Bert Bassock received many awards for his accomplishments. In the Journal of Architecture and Religion, Bassock recited: "Religious buildings should inspire man's best efforts, for the attainment of architecture requires nothing less." Perhaps one of the most valuable prizes of his architectural vision is that of the continued impact our synagogue evokes for those that enter.
Notably, bronze memorial plaques line the Sanctuary walls. In a homiletical sense, the death of an individual only takes place when a person's name is completely forgotten. The names of those people from the almost 1,200 bronze plaques in the Sanctuary are kept alive by their presence during prayer and their significant place in this sacred space. The Sephardic Temple has accepted the responsibility as a repository for maintaining the memory of these individuals, and is also the steward of the memorial plaques from the Sephardic Home and the Sephardic Jewish Centers of New Lots and Canarsie that can be found in our Memorial Hall. Now more than ever, the Sephardic Temple serves as a premier congregation of Sephardim embracing past generations and engendering the next.
The beauty and holiness of the Sephardic Temple building continues to be enjoyed and maintained by an active congregation with members whose families count back several generations of participation.
In the Sanctuary, a sentence under the stained glass of the Ten Commandments reads (in Hebrew): "And you shall make for Me a holy place, and I will dwell with you." We hope that Hashem looks upon us with satisfaction for the preservation of our unique Sephardic legacy, and we look forward to welcoming you to our sacred space of worship.