You don't have to know your Kaddish from your Kodesh to recognize, when you step into the recently opened Soho Synagogue in New York, that you're in the presence of some divinely inspired design. Run by Rabbi Dovi and wife Esty Sheiner, the 1,600-square-foot synagogue is reintroducing orthodox Judaism to the downtown scene with yoga classes, cocktail parties, and relaxed Friday-night services. And the newly redesigned space itself looks like a nightclub.
Designed by Dror Benshetrit, a frequent collaborator with synagogue member and fashion designer Yigal Azrouël, the space challenges nearly every aspect of traditional synagogue design. Set in between two of Benshetrit's Peacock Chairs is a circular Torah Ark bearing the Star of David which, when opened, reveals its composition as one triangle on the left and right. "It's usually just a square box, maybe ornamented, with fancy woods and a two-hinged door," says Benshetrit. "I love how it comes together and collides in the front." Elsewhere, custom, low-slung benches can be moved easily; coffee tables can be folded and hung on the walls as art or cantilevered for additional seating; the typically drab donor wall and names are handpainted in unique letterforms.
"I never liked to go to synagogue as a kid," the designer admits.
The menorah on the north-side wall of the synagogue is one of the most striking elements in the space; it was also the most serendipitous. During the demolition, Benshetrit noticed seven symmetrical blocks of brick that served as a built-in schematic of the top of a candelabra. He painted them copper and added branches on the bricks below to complete the effect. The entrance's ceiling, too, introduces an abstracted menorah pattern, with snaking lines that hide the track lighting in the front.
"I never liked to go to synagogue as a kid," Benshetrit admits. "I was always asking ?Who are these people and why are they singing so weird?'" But he approached it like an abstract painting, trying to communicate the ineffable. "I didn't want to feel intimidated, I didn't want it to feel foreign, or terrifying, or ancient and irrelevant," he says. "But I didn't want to spell it out either. And so you trust your guts to translate your brain to your brush and hope you succeed."
[All photographs by John Hall.]
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