The Minnie Petrie Synagogue

The Minnie Petrie Synagogue at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, made possible by the generosity of Milton and Carol Petrie, was designed as part of the new campus for the seminary of Reform Judaism by the architectural firm of Harrison and Abramovitz. The architects were inspired by the College-Institute’s seal, which includes the Biblical textual excerpt, “Haboker Or” – the morning dawns – expressing the institution’s commitment to enlightenment and modernity. Indeed, natural light fills every space of the six-story building, dedicated in 1979, through skylights and multi-story atria from the roof to the conference level, illuminating 2 or 3 stories at a time. The metaphor of light finds its most brilliant expression in the Minnie Petrie Synagogue. 

Shaped like Noah’s Ark with warm golden oak floors, walls, and a gilded suspended ceiling, the Petrie Synagogue is designed as a multi-purpose space with modular seating for multiple and varied arrangements for worship and performance. The Synagogue is the heart of our seminary, serving as an evocative venue for worship and spiritual growth on the one hand, and a laboratory for the professional development of our rabbinical, cantorial, and education students.  It features extraordinarily fine acoustics for our School of Sacred Music’s programs.

In 1981, the College-Institute dedicated the commissioned fittings for the synagogue –the stained-glass windows, Torah Ark, and the Eternal Light, designed by the renowned Israeli artist, Yaacov Agam. Agam was born in 1928 in Eretz-Israel, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, and was educated in traditional Judaism and the Jewish mystical traditions of the Kabbalah. He began painting as a teenager, studied at he Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem, and in 1949 went to Zurich at the advice of his Bauhaus- trained teacher, the painter Mordechai Ardon. In Zurich, he studied with Johannes Itten, a Bauhaus theoretician who advocated the use of pure color and constructivist compositions. By 1953 Agam’s travels had taken him to Italy and France where he began to exhibit his “polyphonic paintings” in which two or more abstract patterns were painted on the sides of a zig-zag relief. In that way the composition could encompass the sensation of motion and change as visible from different vantage points.

For the Petrie Synagogue, Agam designed four stained-glass windows, ranging in height from 26 to 29 feet and representing The Twelve Tribes of Israel.   As the visitor moves past the windows, the imagery shifts from vivid blocks of color to complex geometric patterns inscribed with the Hebrew names of the tribes. These unique windows were commissioned by Janet and George M. Jaffin in memory of their parents.

The Torah Ark defies tradition in that it is a relief structure projecting from the wall in three triangles, made of translucent, facetted material, which reveals the fragmented, dematerialized reflection of brilliant geometric patterns of the woven Torah mantles within. The numerical multiples of three, nine, and eighteen are repeated throughout the Ark’s design, with the number eighteen being the Jewish symbolic number for life. The Ark was commissioned by Michael and Jenny Roth and the seven-branched Eternal Light was donated by Hannah Hofheimer in memory of her husband, Henry. 

Three elements of the Petrie Synagogue were created in 2000 by the contemporary sculptor Jeffery Brosk: the Torah Reading Table, commissioned by  Enid L. and Robert N. Randall; and the Tzedakah box (charity box), donated by the Class of 2000 ; and the Elijah Chair. Working in wood and slate, Brosk suggests earth, water, and sky and the works echo Agam’s mystical ethos of process and discovery. 

Artists Yael Lurie and Jean Pierre Larochette created the hand-woven tapestry cover for the Torah Reading Table, which complements the color palette and forms of the Agam windows.  The central motif of Etz Chaim – Torah as the tree of life – commemorates the values and commitment of Reva Godlove Kirschberg, ל”ז, founder of the HUC-JIR Museum, whose daughters Ann Holland and Nancy Mantell donated this beautiful Jewish ceremonial object.


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