For as long as we have been doing this, Chris and I have always wanted to go see Temple Sinai due to its unique architecture and its mysteriousness being tucked away back in the woods off of Penfield Road. We have reached out to the powers that be at Temple Sinai before and have been informed that while they do not offer tours, we are more than welcome to attend a Shabbat service on a Friday evening. Chris and I have gone back and forth on this idea as one we will “eventually do when we run out of other places to see.” Plus, Chris did go to Temple Sinai on a reconnaissance mission when the Temple was hosting a public book sale and returned with the message of “Dude, it’s a very cool sanctuary that we will have to check out some day.” So we continued to sit on it…until now.
I was sitting at my desk working really hard one day (I work at the College at Brockport), when I learned via my work email that a woman by the name of Rochelle Dreeben was going to be visiting the campus to share about her experience as a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi Occupation of Poland. As I read more of this brief advertisement, it also said that Ms. Dreeben would be giving the same presentation at Temple Sinai two days later. BOOM! That was our ticket in and Chris agreed.
On October 3, 2013, Chris and I met each other early in the parking lot of Temple Sinai in order to explore a little bit before the presentation. The outside of Temple Sinai is absolutely beautiful, incredibly picturesque and seems to be intentionally placed into the woods in such a way as to cause little disruption to the nature growing up around it. There are two entrances to the building, one that goes into the children’s school which makes up a large area of the building and the second entrance which leads into the main sanctuary area. Kind of in-between these entrances is really what makes Temple Sinai so stunning, which is the sanctuary itself that you can see directly into from the outside, since an entire wall is completely made of glass. The other two side walls seem to be made of a stucco-like material that really does a good job of blending into the nature that surrounds it. Directly in front of the humongous glass wall are two even bigger pillars that stand taller than the actual building itself, that have leaves and ivy growing all the way up them. It becomes quite evident as you are looking from the outside that the whole scene is meant to be viewed from the inside, so that’s where we went next.
As you walk in to the main sanctuary at Temple Sinai, you quickly feel as though you are outside. Not only is the back wall behind the altar completely made entirely out of glass, so is the entire ceiling; plus the ivy is also growing inside along the bottom of the stucco walls. It is really quite spectacular to look at and the two giant pillars outside can be seen directly through the glass and give a rather monolithic effect. I picked up a pamphlet I found nearby and here’s what it says:
“Our sanctuary’s unique construction is one of thoughtful design by renowned architect James Johnson. The sloping walls suggest a sheltering tent, which reminds us of the nomadic theme found throughout Jewish history. For some, the ten sections of the wall symbolize the ten lost tribes that once made up the northern kingdom of Israel. Beyond the bima (altar) and behind the glass, we look out on nature’s changing colors and two tall tablets that may represent the Ten Commandments. Overhead, the glass ceiling inspires us to look forward and recall that God once promised Abraham that his descendants would be “as numerous as the stars in the sky.” On top of the Holy Ark, (the wooden cabinet on the bima), is the seven-branched menorah; a symbol of light and the people of Israel, The ner tamid (eternal light) hangs near the Holy Ark. This light burns continuously as a symbol of the eternal presence of God.”
The pamphlet also mentions that the Holy Ark contains an original Torah that had been confiscated by the Nazis during the Holocaust and later released by the Czech government. Temple Sinai came into possession of this very special Torah in 1980. The Holy Ark itself, the Rabbis lectern and the Rabbis chairs were all hand made by artist Wendell Castle.
Temple Sinai was established in 1959 and is a Reformed Judaism congregation. Today the Temple encompasses a community of approximately 650 families. As Chris and I walked around the Temple, we also felt very welcomed and even had a nice conversation with a man watering the flowers outside. We eventually joined an audience of about 20-30 people to listen to Rochelle Dreeben share her experience of what it was like to live as a Jewish child in Nazi Occupied Poland as the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto and implemented the means towards the Final Solution. Rochelle shared that she was a 5-year-old child when the Ghetto came to be and was 8-years-old as the Russians pushed back the Nazis out of Poland, only to take it over themselves. Once out of the Warsaw Ghetto, Rochelle never saw her father again since he remained behind and she was also separated from her mother, as she was placed in a children’s home for Christian children where she now had to deny her Jewish ancestry. By a stroke of luck and a lot of determination, Rochelle was reunited with her mother, and they eventually made their way to America.
This is definitely a summary of what Ms. Dreeben shared, but I can assure you, hearing it from her is certainly very sad and very moving. Chris and I hung around for a few minutes afterwards for the reception and ended up talking to some folks like we usually do. Hearing such a story certainly can make you grateful for what you have. I know I speak for Chris when I say how grateful we both are for our families, for having roofs over our heads and for being able to explore new places and meet new people the way we have been for nearly the last two years.