The plan for the Sanctuary of the Sephardic Temple required significant consideration. 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.
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.