The main sanctuary in Congregation B’nai
Jacob is a mess. It’s dirty. Pigeons use it as a rest stop. And
practically everything here, including the frescoes, the balcony
and the cupola - which once was made of stained glass - is in
But one day, this space will look beautiful again, thanks in part to the efforts of Alex Novack and Fred Polaniecki, the founders of the Brooklyn Jewish Arts Gallery. Proceeds from this gallery, which is located in the synagogue, will go towards the restoration of the 102-year-old building.
The synagogue, located at 401 Ninth St., between Sixth and Seventh avenues in Park Slope, was bought by Congregation B’nai Jacob in 1996. (The Joseph J. Diamond American Legion Post and Congregation B’nai Shalom were the previous occupants.)
Before the Brooklyn Jewish Arts Gallery was created, the synagogue had raised some money, but needed more to make all the improvements it required.
In April 2001, Polaniecki’s friend, curator Betzalel Cadena, had just finished assembling a show at the Synagogue for the Arts in Manhattan and was looking for another synagogue to host an exhibit. Polaniecki casually mentioned this to Novack. Both men soon realized that a gallery might help raise the needed funds for B’nai Jacob.
"We saw that this was a feasible idea and we wanted to look into it," said Polaniecki. "We talked about it with the board. They also thought it could work and told us that we should go ahead and do it."
There were a number of concerns that had to be dealt with before the gallery opened. One worry was that it wouldn’t attract a huge audience.
"We weren’t sure how large the interest in Jewish art was," said Polaniecki. Another concern was that the art would detract from services. A third worry was that the art wouldn’t be modest enough for the modern Orthodox synagogue. But Novack and Polaniecki assured board members that the art wouldn’t affect the synagogue negatively.
"People eventually got behind the gallery," Polaniecki said.
Another problem was that there was a limited amount of money to work with.
"We set a reasonable budget and we were able to stay well within it," he said. That was partly due to the fact that they did not spend a lot on promotion. Press coverage and word of mouth helped attract attention.
"We really didn’t have too many hurdles to overcome," Polaniecki said.
The first show, curated by Cadena, took place March 8-9. The gallery, an approximately 60-foot by 70-foot, well-lit room, exhibited works by a trio of Jewish artists: Ivo Perelman, Rebecca Schweiger and Shoshannah Brombacher-Miller. The Klezmer Mountain Boys, a klezmer and bluegrass ensemble led by clarinetist Margot Leverett, played March 8.
The show attracted about 400 attendees, said Novack, who came from all over Brooklyn - and beyond - to see the 52 works on display.
"People enjoyed the art," Novack said.
That response, he said, "made us realize we could take this to another level. Not only could we fundraise, but we could also create an appreciation of Jewish art and connect people to our synagogue."
The gallery had another effect as well.
"People told us the art inspired them during prayer services. We’re very pleased by that," said Novack, adding that they were not completely surprised.
"The art is very spiritual," he said.
Novack estimated that the first show raised a few thousand dollars. (The gallery committee’s ultimate goal is to raise $770,000.) The money raised from the show is currently in the restoration fund.
As for the future, some improvements to the gallery space and the main sanctuary will be made shortly. The main sanctuary, in particular, needs to be improved as soon as possible.
"The longer we leave it in this condition, the more hazardous it will become," said Novack. Another reason the main sanctuary needs to be improved is so the gallery can expand to a small area there before the upcoming show. (The space is capable of exhibiting around 25 additional works.) The original gallery space, on the other hand, requires improvement because the synagogue is trying to encourage more people to rent it out. This is especially important, as those rentals help raise money for the restoration.
While it’s encouraging that work continues to be done on the synagogue, some things - like the frescoes and the cupola - simply cost too much for a full restoration right now.
The upcoming art exhibit, featuring works by Cadena, Alex Zwartenstein, Ewa Harabasz, Richard McBee and Shoshana Golin, opens May 15. The gallery will host two more shows later in the year: one in September and one in November. Further details will be posted on the gallery’s Web site, bjag.org, as they become available.
The Brooklyn Jewish Arts Gallery is located inside Congregation B’nai Jacob, 401 Ninth St. at Sixth Avenue. The next group show runs May 15-June 15. An artist’s reception will be held May 15, from 6 to 10 pm. For more information, call (718) 832-1266 or visit the Web site at bjag.org.