The Derfner Judaica Museum
5901 Palisade Avenue
Riverdale, New York
Designer: Louise Braverman, Architect
Of all the Jewish institutions in New York, the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale holds one of the largest collections of Jewish art. Its ambitions grew after its first director, Jacob Reingold, read a story in the Times about the Jewish Museum looking to warehouse some of its contemporary art. Reingold contacted the museum about hanging the art throughout his senior housing complex, believing that art offered a sense of place and remembrance for the elderly. Thousands of pieces have since been donated, and because Torah scrolls and other religious items are not so easily displayed, Louise Braverman has designed a new museum for them within the complex’s Reingold Pavilion.
As with art elsewhere in the complex—it overlooks the Hudson and has sculpture scattered throughout the grounds—the Judaica in the Derfner Museum was to be accessible above all else. Braverman created the exhibition spaces so wheelchairs could navigate up to and under the display cases for close inspection, and there is ample room between cases and walls not only for unencumbered navigation but also to allow for children and families who visit. The result is an unstuffy ambiance. “The sparseness and the openness give it a very contemporary feel,” Braverman said.
The materials are also meant to be inviting, from slate floors to the wood paneling on the display cases. “We want it to be thin and float and really focus you on the art and not the boxes that art is in,” Braverman said. The key to this is the boxes themselves, especially the custom channel glass many of them are embedded in, which helps suffuse the space with natural light that spills in from a long wall of windows on the western side, offering expansive views of the Hudson. The display cases are arranged to minimally impede those views, though there is one circular case in the center of the space, designed explicitly to recall a Torah scroll or a mezuzah.