This year marks the 40th anniversary of the installation of Chaim Gross’s Ten Commandments at the International Synagogue at John F. Kennedy International Airport. As a high school intern at the synagogue since last spring, I have had the privilege of admiring the sculpture on a regular basis, while exploring its history and the central role it has played in the synagogue since its installation.
The International Synagogue was founded in 1958 to meet the needs of the flying public at what was then known as Idlewild Airport. The original synagogue building, a modernist, freestanding structure, was dedicated in 1967 on land leased from the Port Authority, across from the main terminal. The founders of the synagogue, leaders of the New York and American Jewish communities, wanted to create an international Jewish cultural and religious center. The plans for building an inclusive synagogue representative of world Jewry called for works of art to be contributed by Jewish communities around the world, with the United States Jewish community contributing “the most magnificent object of art to be used as the central theme of this building.” To realize this vision, the International Synagogue’s leadership selected Chaim Gross, both for his renown as an artist and sculptor and for his stirring representations of Jewish themes and imagery. Gross conceived, designed and created the sculpture reliefs of the Ten Commandments.
Since its installation in 1972, the Ten Commandments has been the artistic and thematic focal point of International Synagogue. The relief consists of ten panels, each measuring 42 x 30 inches, along with two additional pieces adorning the Holy Ark. The panels were sculpted from 1970-72, in bronze with gold overleaf. Beyond the beauty of the sculpture, the panels are remarkable in the way the images concisely capture and convey the abstract concepts of the Decalogue, from fidelity, to honor, to honesty, to jealousy.
The Ten Commandments, the moral code for humanity, represented the perfect theme for this new synagogue, which in addition to serving the Jewish community, also represented Judaism to the broader public. The original synagogue stood alongside Catholic and Protestant Chapels of equal size, and together the three symbolized the religious freedoms guaranteed to all people by the United States. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who participated in the dedication ceremonies, said that the chapels represented “a symbol of the essential unity of our great religions, and a pledge of their determination to make this a better nation and a better world.”
The original synagogue building stood from 1967 to 1988 and included a sanctuary, meeting rooms and museum. Upon their installation in 1972, the bronze and gold panels of the Ten Commandments rose in two giant columns on white tablets, above the Holy Ark, and against the stained glass wall of the sanctuary. During that period, the synagogue’s sanctuary with Chaim Gross’s majestic sculpture served as host to many world leaders and dignitaries, including Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol, Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Goren and Ambassador Abba Eban.
In 1988, in order to accommodate an airport expansion, the Port Authority relocated the synagogue to Terminal 4, and the original building was razed. The synagogue’s art collection, including the Ten Commandments, was put into storage at this time, and parts of the collection were later given to other synagogues in the New York metropolitan area. The leadership of the synagogue staunchly opposed the relocation, especially since it was the Port Authority that originally proposed the concept of an airport synagogue to the New York Jewish community. However, the synagogue location was inconvenient for passengers and employees to reach by foot, and by the 1980s the number and role of cultural Jewish centers in American Jewish life had greatly diminished.
From 1988 until 2001, the three faith groups shared one temporary chapel on the second floor while construction was taking place. In 2001, the synagogue was relocated to its present location on the fourth floor of Terminal 4, alongside the Catholic and Protestant Chapels, as well as a fourth multi-faith chapel. The panels of the Ten Commandments were reinstalled in the new location where they continue to provide inspiration to travelers. More than nine million passengers pass through Terminal 4 each year.
Even many who have never seen Chaim Gross’s Ten Commandments are familiar with it from the popular book on the sculpture by Rabbi Israel Mowshowitz, a book found in many Jewish homes a generation ago. As observed by Rabbi Mowshowitz, one of the synagogue’s founders and its honorary president:
the sculpture captures the spirit of Jewish tradition and its reverence for God’s word. It is a work of art of which the viewer never tires and which he never sees in the same way twice. Like any truly great work of art, the more one views the Ten Commandments, the more one appreciates them, the more one is challenged by them.
In order to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the installation of the Ten Commandments, the International Synagogue is hosting a special exhibition of the sculpture. The exhibition is an opportunity to reintroduce this important sculpture to the public and to increase appreciation for the role it has played in the history of the synagogue since its installation.
Ms. Schein is a senior at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway High School in Cedarhurst, New York.