On a January morning at a synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Rabbi Ira Rohde, and behind him, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, walked slowly toward the front of the building, both dressed in liturgical robes. Rohde carried a two-foot-long scroll draped with a red mantle over one shoulder, gripping the bottom with both hands. The scroll, called the Torah, meaning “instruction” or “teaching” in Hebrew, is the central document for the Jewish people and contains 613 mitzvot — or commandments — from God.  

With each step on the red carpet at Congregation Shearith Israel, the rabbi carried the Torah closer and closer to the ark — a wooden chamber, which holds the sacred text, situated on the wall of the synagogue closest to Jerusalem. 

When Jewish architect Arnold Brunner designed the synagogue in 1897, he planned a grand entrance facing Central Park, which lies at the building’s eastern end.  But after it opened, congregants using the entrance walked in front of the ark and disrupted the service. It’s now rare for anyone to use that door — the congregation instead opts for the more discreet side entrance on West 70th Street.

As Rohde and Soloveichik continued their procession, the choir, seemingly unbothered by the sound of sirens from the street outside, sang in four-part harmony, Mizmor l’david: Havu la’adonai, benei elim, havu la’adonai kavod va’oz. The Hebrew lyrics translate to: “A psalm of David: Prepare for the Lord, [you] sons of the mighty; prepare for the Lord glory and might.”   

The choir stood in a semi-circle formation on the balcony above the ark. The choirmaster, Leon Hyman, held his right hand just slightly raised, moving it less than an inch to mark each bar of music that passes. Most of the services at Shearith Israel, like those of Sephardic services generally, are designed to be sung communally. The congregation knew the tune well, and many joined the melody. There’s just one rule here: No one must sing louder than the choir.

For the Jewish people, it is through the Torah that one is connected to God — ritualistically and physically. When Rohde moved along the right side of the synagogue, women sitting on the balcony above moved towards the wooden railings to get closer. The procession toward the ark has always been particularly slow at Congregation Shearith Israel. “This is a most beloved part of our service,” said Rev. Zachary Edinger, when I spoke with him after the service. “One should part from the Torah reluctantly and never with haste.” The custom, he said, stems directly from the halakha, a collective body of Jewish laws that translates to “the path one walks.” 

At long last, Rohde ascended the brown marble steps up to the ark chamber. A row of scrolls dressed in green, blue and yellow were visible through its open doors. Rohde lowered the Torah into a space between two others. Together, he and Soloveichik slid the ark doors shut, and the congregation sat.