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Sharing the Beauty: Religious symbols and worship environment of Sherith Israel class

The second class on Sharing the Beauty at Sherith Israel (I wrote about the first here) took place this past Monday and several of us arrived early to do a tour of the dome, as seen from the outside here and which you can look up into from the main sanctuary as in this photo.

I had never been up in the dome, so it was neat to be able to walk up the several flights of stairs it took to get there and finally see the large space the top part of the dome took up.

And to be able to look up at the artwork in the top most part of the dome closer than you normally could from the sanctuary.

Perhaps best of all, was the view looking down into the sanctuary itself from the dome.

But it was tricky to get a real feel for the space given the limitations of photographing inside a circular space with a small camera, so I took a video too so I could share it (might mute it, our guide was continuing the tour while I was recording):


Upon going back down the stairs, I took a moment to visit the area where the organist sits, sometimes accompanied by the choir during the High Holy Days. That was also offered a magnificent view of the sanctuary.

Shortly after 7PM the actual class began. Joan Libman, a member of the board of trustees, began by talking to us about how she worked to rediscover the history of the synagogue about 10 years ago. Her research adventure began when the congregation learned that they needed to raise several million dollars in funds for a mandatory seismic retrofit of the building. As part of this campaign, she offered to put together information about the historical significance of the building and quickly learned that many of the records pertaining to the construction had been lost during the earthquake and fires of 1906 that essentially leveled the city of San Francisco. She then dove into the unsorted records that had been kept over the years and began piecing together the history.

Joan also showed us a picture of a couple rare pieces of artwork done by Emile Pissis, the artist who did the amazing stained glass that is found throughout the synagogue. An article she wrote back in 2005 has some details: Beneath its beautiful dome, a beloved synagogue finds it houses rare artistic treasures

Prior to the synagogue’s detective work, Emile Pissis’ award-winning work was hidden away in a storage room of the museum of the Society of California Pioneers, along with a companion canvas.

She also went into discussing the stained glass windows. During her research she reached out to Dr. Virginia Chieffo Raguin (whose book, Stained Glass: From Its Origins to the Present, is now on its way to me!), who, referencing the same sfgate article is quoted:

“This is first-class artistry in using opalescent stained glass,” says Raguin. “Often, with windows of a popular design firm, such as Tiffany Studios, you get the same designs that were used in other installations. This sanctuary has one-of-a-kind designs, and I’ve never seen anything like them.”

Unfortunately the class was taking place in the evening during the winter, so we couldn’t really see the windows! We were given a handout that I could perhaps get a digital copy of that had more details about the windows, and here is a little information on the Sherith Israel website: Stained Glass Gems. I’m also hoping to attend another class in the spring where they plan to bring in a glass expert to give a tour.

I also found this great article online: Art and Architecture – San Francisco: A San Francisco Jewel

Finally, she spoke briefly about what was know about the stunning frescoes by Attilio Moretti that cover the walls of the synagogue. It’s said that he worked with the Pissis brothers (architect and stained glass artist) to consolidate their vision, and came out with a very Byzantine-influenced feel for the interior, and much of the design which would be familiar to those of Islamic traditions. She mentioned that the architecture itself was in the Beaux-Arts style.

Nancy Sheftel-Gomes, education director at Sherith Israel, was next up. She began by mentioning some of the great acoustics in the sanctuary and then discussed the historical importance of the layout, very similar to that of “tent of meeting” described in the Torah. When the building was built, electricity was not ubiquitous in San Francisco, so it was originally lit with gas lighting, some of which remains. The electric lighting that exists today was all an addition once the building was wired for electricity.

She then invited us up on the bema to look inside the ark and at one of the Torahs. They even gave me permission to take pictures!

The Torah scrolls are made out of parchment, which by tradition is made of kosher animal skin. It was also interesting to learn that the “big” torahs in the back of the ark aren’t actually big, it’s just their blue covers that are big!

More photos from this visit are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pleia2/sets/72157638537252903/

Last up, reading through the application for the building to be a part of the National Register of Historic Places is interesting draft here. The building was added to the registry on March 31, 2010, NRHP Reference No. 10000114.

Huge thanks to everyone who put this class together, it was really a pleasure to learn about the building and do some of my own reading since then.