Forest Hills Jewish Center was designed by architect Joseph J. Furman, and represents a fusion of the International Style and earlier Art Moderne style. Limestone steps with modernistic brass railings lead to varnished carved wooden doors with brass handles. 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.
“This new building, raising its hands to heaven, is more than a sacred structure,” said then-mayor William O’Dwyer to 5,000 attendees on the steps of the newly dedicated Forest Hills Jewish Center on September 18, 1949. “It is an example of the type of thinking that will bring universal peace and solution of the problem that faces all mankind. Sacred institutions embody the democratic ideal and principle.”
The origins of the congregations were organized in 1931 in a frame house on Kessel Street. A two-story synagogue was erected on site. 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 in Germany.
Stepping into the synagogue’s 1,400-seat sanctuary, the charming ambiance is embellished by stained glass windows. A 20-feet high Holy Ark depicts Judaic traditions, 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.
Historians and critics consider itk to be one of the greatest works of 20th century Judaic art.
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 Times of London referred to his work to be “among the most beautiful ever produced by the hand of man.”
In the late 1940s, a synagogue building boom was underway, especially in the suburbs. The religious persecution and tragedies of the Holocaust were fresh in the consciousness of Americans, resulting in renewed interest in Judaism.
Mitchell Grubler, president of Queens Preservation Council, called the synagogue a prime example of post-WWII modernist synagogue architecture.
“After the Second World War, the design of synagogues moved away from traditional Old World influences and embraced a modernist aesthetic,” he explained. “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.”
Historian and tour guide Frampton Tolbert founded the website “Queens Modern” to chronicle the architecture from the period of 1948 to 1970.
“Forest Hills Jewish Center is a jewel of the neighborhood,” he said. “The restrained Modern design 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.”