The Actors’ Temple: A small New York City synagogue and theater for aspiring actors is raising money to become accessible to all with disabilities

Share
Date: 
March 28, 2017

By Michaela Quigley, Burton Blatt Institute

Florence Belsky Foundation advisor Keni Fine and friends at the Actors' Temple

About one block away from Broadway in New York City, sits a 62 by 23 foot temple tucked away on West 47th Street. Around 200 people spent the night before Valentine’s Day at the Actors’ Temple for their Evening of Broadway Love Songs show. With eleven musical guests, the audience enjoyed a night of performances centered on romance, while raising money for the 100-year-old temple. While it is exempt from Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a historic building, the temple is working toward making the building accessible to all through its Universal Design.

The Actors’ Temple is a post-denominational synagogue and a theater. It was originally a Hebrew relief society for Jewish immigrants who didn’t have much money. The first rabbi was a frequent Broadway showgoer, who used to linger near stage doors to ask actors and actresses if they wanted to join the congregation. Many of the performers became supporters of the temple, such as vaudeville and cabaret star Sophie Tucker, comedian and singer Joe E. Lewis, and the 1930s dubbed “World’s Greatest Entertainer” Al Jolson. When Sophie Tucker joined, the temple still held Orthodox Judaism beliefs, which meant Tucker would have to sit upstairs separated from the men sitting at the lower level. One wealthy woman who believed she gave the temple enough money refused to sit upstairs separate from her husband. Tucker followed her lead, and the temple became reformed after that service.  Now, the space is rented to aspiring Broadway actors and actresses when it’s not being used as a synagogue.

The first woman president of the temple, Carol Ostrow, decided it was time to make the temple accessible to everyone, for congregants with disabilities and their family members. The temple gave Ostrow a community when she had no family. According to Dan Schneider, Executive Director of The Florence Belsky Charitable Foundation and member of The Actors’ Temple, she calls the temple a “jewel of a shul.” With steep stairs to enter the building and a bathroom that is not accessible, people with disabilities were often excluded from the space.  Rabbi Jill Hausman, who was hired in 2006 to “perform mouth to mouth resuscitation” on the temple as she says, is also helping to accelerate the plans to make the temple accessible to all. She is starting a radio show called “Ask The Rabbi” to help promote the temple and expand its membership, especially among younger people in the Hell’s Kitchen community.

Although this is a difficult task, Schneider recruited help for the effort. One of Schneider’s Florence Belsky advisors, Madeline Rhodes, founded her own nonprofit called Globerollers. Rhodes and her friend Roxy Schiebergen travel the world on wheels: Rhodes on rollerblades and Schiebergen in her wheelchair. They educate people about accessibility issues on wheels and write about it on their blog. Because they know a lot about accessibility, Schneider invited them to help with the temple project.

Florence Belsky Foundation advisor Keni Fine and friends at the Actors' Temple

To get into the building, people must climb a set of stairs. The temple’s goal is to provide an alternative central way into the building so that everyone may access the space. Schneider, Rhodes, and Schiebergen first met with a contractor to discuss a different entrance to the temple. They talked about having a chairlift available for anyone who may need it, but that required help with a manual lift. Schiebergen believed, however, that accessible meant being able to enter on her own. She convinced the temple of her point of view that it was important to make the temple entrance accessible for any person with a disability to enter with dignity.

Madeline Rhodes (pictured singing) of Globerollers performing a song from the broadway show Fun Home with the help of Dr. Melissa Kalt (pictured on the ground)

Of course, making the temple accessible will not only benefit people with disabilities, but it can help many others. An individual may need to use a wheelchair or crutches within their lifetime. Stairs also create an obstacle for an individual pushing a child in a stroller. Universal Design goes beyond accessibility to make spaces work for all, regardless of ability level.

Ryan Siegel and Max Schneider performing Lights Down Low at the Evening of Broadway Love Songs
Aside from the entrance, the Actors’ Temple is working on creating an accessible unisex bathroom. Because of the small square footage, the temple office will be relocated to create more space. These two renovations are expensive. The temple is estimating the cost to be around $100,000. Their February 13 Evening of Broadway Love Songs raised funds and showed the commitment to raising additional money. Schneider’s son Max surprised the audience by singing his popular song “Lights Down Low.” The temple is also hoping to produce a digital cast album. They brought in money from the Actors’ Temple 100th Anniversary Gala Celebration in March as well.

The Actors’ Temple is planning more shows to raise money and achieve accessibility.  In the future, Schneider said, hopefully Roxy will be able to enter the building by herself and perform at the next show.

Learn about The Actors’ Temple, [www.theactorstemple.org]. If you have questions or want to make a donation, reach out to Dan Schneider by email to dan@flobel.org. Learn more about The Florence Belsky Charitable Foundation [florencebelskyfoundation.org].

For information about Universal Design and accessibility, visit the Global Universal Design Commission (GUDC) website, a not-for-profit corporation, established to develop Universal Design standards for buildings, products and services. GUDC is currently developing UD voluntary consensus standards for commercial buildings, which will expand access to buildings for all people, regardless of physical stature and varying abilities. [www.globaluniversaldesign.org].