Thursday, August 27, 2020

Preservation Call: Forest Hills Jewish Center, A Community Cornerstone!

 By Michael Perlman  

Forest Hills and Rego Park are home to a vast collection of historic buildings that bear architectural and cultural significance. Among them is the sanctuary building of Forest Hills Jewish Center at 106-06 Queens Boulevard, situated on Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser Square, named after the congregation’s prior and longtime rabbi, who was highly influential in Conservative Judaism in the U.S. It has an adjoining religious school, recreation center, and senior center. Collaboratively, it boosts the community’s quality of life. Each period of architecture offers distinctive buildings meriting preservation. Without education, history and architecture is sometimes misunderstood and undiscovered. 

Forest Hills Jewish Center was designed by Architect Joseph J. Furman, and represents a fusion of the International Style and earlier Art Moderne style. Today, the firm operates as Furman & Furman Architects. The convex front façade bears a relationship to the street. Limestone steps with modernistic brass railings lead to varnished carved wooden doors with brass handles. Etched in limestone above the entryway is “They Shall Build Unto Us A Sanctuary” and “That I May Dwell Among Them.” Limestone surrounds hold sleek stained glass windows that depict the Burning Bush on the front and side façades. The crab-orchard rock façade, quarried from Tennessee, is reminiscent of the stone pattern of the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem; the only surviving remnant of the destroyed Holy Temple. On December 6, 1949, the synagogue received an Honorable Mention award for its excellence in design and construction in the Queens Chamber of Commerce's public buildings category. 

“This new building, raising its hands to heaven, is more than a sacred structure. It is an example of the type of thinking that will bring universal peace and solution of the problem that faces all mankind” were the bold words of New York City Mayor William O’Dwyer to 5,000 attendees on the steps of the newly dedicated Forest Hills Jewish Center on September 18, 1949. He then stated, “Sacred institutions embodied the democratic ideal and principle.” 

For the synagogue, the prospectus read, “The heart and soul of the community. Beautiful and inspiring – soaring heavenward, lifting the aspirations of our congregation.” It also introduced a chapel, main auditorium, school, library, bridal chambers, social halls, club rooms, committee rooms, a kitchen, gymnasium, and lounge. 

Right to left: Rabbi Ben-Zion Bokser, Building Committee Chair Fred Katzner, Huntington Bache great grand-nephew of Benjamin Franklin in center, Mayor O’Dwyer, & Building Committee members Emanuel Roth, John Turk, & Harvey Pearls

Photo: Architect Joseph J Furman & Rabbi Ben-Zion Bokser overlook the 1947 FHJC cornerstone

The first synagogue was organized in 1931 in a frame house on Kessel Street, and then a 2-story synagogue was erected on site. Later on, the Queens Boulevard cornerstone was laid in 1947, and incorporated one stone from the Holy Land and another from a desecrated synagogue’s ruins in Frankfort on the Main, Germany. The cornerstone reads, “That The World May Be Perfected Under The Kingdom Of The Almighty (1947/ 5708).” The groundbreaking ceremony was attended by Rabbi Ben-Zion Bokser, Chair of Building Committee Fred Katzner, Huntington Bache; great grand-nephew of Benjamin Franklin, Mayor O’Dwyer, and Building Committee members Emanuel Roth, John Turk, and Harvey Pearlstein. 

Stepping into the synagogue’s 1,400-seat sanctuary, the charming ambiance is embellished by stained glass windows and the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark). The over 20-feet high elaborate golden ark depicts Judaic traditions and holidays, and was designed by the famed artist Arthur Szyk. This was his first 3D creation for a synagogue, and resembles the breastplate of a Torah scroll. It is considered unique how a Torah design element can serve as an inspiration for a larger than life model, which houses the Torah. Historians and critics consider the Ark to be one of the greatest works of 20th century Judaic art. Two of Szyk’s candelabras sit adjacent.

According to the Arthur Szyk Society, Szyk’s art was his means to promote ethnic and religious tolerance, human dignity, and social justice. Syzk worked in the tradition of 16th century miniaturist painters utilizing text and illustrations. The famed Szyk Haggadah was given to Forest Hills Jewish Center. It became a work of hope and courage during Hitler’s rise. It addressed the era’s politics paired with earlier oppression. Referring to WWII, Szyk told the New York Daily Mirror on April 10, 1941, “The Revolution America fought was an ideal that any artist could thrill to. Today art must be almost negatively directed against a force that destroys all ideals. But no true artist has the right to avoid using his strength to strike at the darkness." The Times of London referred to his work to be “among the most beautiful ever produced by the hand of man.” Szyk is considered by art critics to be the greatest illuminator of the past four centuries.

In the late 1940s, a synagogue building boom was underway, especially in the suburbs. Religious persecution and tragedies of the Holocaust were fresh in the consciousness of Americans, resulting in renewed interest in Judaism, and Forest Hills Jewish Center is a physical example of how they persevered with forward thinking and community-oriented faith. The year 1948 also coincided with the new state of Israel, tying into religious pride. The December 1948 issue of “Interiors & Industrial Design” referred to Forest Hills Jewish Center’s style as “a radical departure from the usual Moorish and Oriental style of synagogue architecture.”

Mitchell Grubler, president of Queens Preservation Council, called the synagogue a prime example of post-WWII modernist synagogue architecture. He explained, “After the Second World War, the design of synagogues moved away from traditional Old World influences and embraced a modernist aesthetic. The Forest Hills complex embodies the spirit, design and social philosophies of midcentury Judaism. The temple complex was intended to not only serve a growing suburban Jewish population after WWII, but also to benefit and be open to the wider community with recreational services.” 

Forest Hills Jewish Center is often a subject on Forest Hills history and Mid-Century Modern walking tours. Architectural historian and tour guide Frampton Tolbert also had much to express in the name of preservation. He founded an innovative website, “Queens Modern,” to largely chronicle the period of 1948 to 1970, when the Queens Chamber of Commerce recognized nearly 400 Queens buildings at its annual building awards program. He said, “Forest Hills Jewish Center is a jewel of the neighborhood. The restrained Modern design, including Crab-Orchard stone cladding across a convex facade, is highly visible from MacDonald Park. I have been pleased to include the building as a featured site on my annual tour of Forest Hills architecture.”