Congregation Beth Israel sits in a quiet bowl at the foot of Mt. Greylock in the Berkshires. A wall of glass lines the sanctuary and opens to a tranquil mountain vista, reinforcing the connection between the building and its site. Only the Ark, which serves as both the spiritual and structural center of the building, interrupts this glass expanse to support the roof and form the focal point of the sanctuary.
from The Office of Michael Rosenfeld, Inc., Architects
The Greek word "synagoge" denotes “an assembly of people” or “a place of assembly.” In ancient times, it was at the Temple that much of the sacred ritual took place, and what we would now call a synagogue was a place of learning and group worship. But ever since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, synagogues have been the places of worship for Jews around the world.
Synagogue architecture has been quite variable, largely because there is not a lot of ritual that needs to be accommodated. One needs a place to keep the Torah scrolls; a place to lay out the scrolls to read from them; and places for people to sit. Beyond that, one sees the addition of all sorts of spaces, whether classrooms, kitchens, offices, or social halls. The styles of synagogues usually have followed the styles of architecture that prevailed where they were built.
I would like to share with you my personal experience of this synagogue architecture, as well as my own feelings about -- and hopes for -- this building: new home of Congregation Beth Israel.
When I am on my way to our new synagogue, I am driving along the relatively wide and busy Route 2. I turn in to Lois Street, and I enjoy the way my pace is slowed as I approach the synagogue on this narrow, residential street. I drive slowly past the close-set houses and well-tended yards, and I watch carefully for the synagogue's driveway tucked between the houses.
I turn in, go up over the slight rise in the driveway, and there she lies. Nestled close to the ground, with her curved and spreading roof, she looks to me like a mother bird crouched low, spreading her wings to protect her brood.
As I walk up to the building, a single rising curve in the roofline, like the gentle swell of a wave, signals where the entrance is. Tucked well under the protecting roof is the double door, made of wood -- a warm and earthy material -- and just enough glass to allow a view of the interior.
Inside, the cool stone and low ceiling of the foyer give way to the carpeted floor and tall, open main space. The lines of the architecture are simple and clear, but their abstract simplicity is balanced by materials and colors of nature: the warm reddish wood, and the cool, organic green carpet and accents. I love the hanging lights that are reminiscent of chandeliers in old European synagogues and yet are beautifully 21st-century with their shallow curved bowls. The interior space is wonderfully integrated with the natural landscape by the view through these towering windows. (I think Frank Lloyd Wright would have liked this building.)
When we held the first service here, last March, it seemed to me that it was when prayers and songs touched these walls that the building truly became a synagogue. The cold concrete seemed to absorb the sounds of voices raised in worship and seemed to soften into something living and welcoming. The walls seemed to smile and to give a sigh of relief that construction (and reconstruction) were over and that a congregation was now able to meet here, to be a community here.
It was important to me to be here for the first service held in this building. And my family was privileged to provide the first Bar Mitzvah celebration in this building. And this evening I am thrilled as well to participate in the first High Holidays services here.
The building, of course, is not Congregation Beth Israel. The community of people is Congregation Beth Israel. I hope, in fact -- if I think well into the future -- that the community will outlive the building, that 100 years from now, and 200 years from now there will be a Congregation Beth Israel and that they will treasure fond memories and old pictures of the Lois Street Synagogue. (Oh, look at that charming 21st-century architecture -- how quaint....)
It is my hope for this synagogue that it will welcome, shelter, and comfort all who enter it. I hope that it will long hold a community that brings through the door both its joys and sorrows and that goes out the door with renewed strength. And I hope that these walls will smile to hear prayers and songs for many generations to come.
When I settle into in my seat, through the wall of windows I see, close by on the right, a richness of growing things -- this great willow tree, bushes, vines -- and I feel close to the natural physical world of which I am a part. To the left I have a distant view to a tree-covered mountain and sky. I love looking far into the distance. It always seems to settle my soul, to put things into a broad perspective. Looking out at these two views, I am reminded that this world God has given to us and has asked us to treat responsibly, is at the same time both infinitely tightly knit and complex and also infinitely vast and simple. -- And the occasional airplane taking off or landing fits perfectly well -- to my mind -- with consideration of our travels through life with their hazards, their exhilirations, and their safe arrivals back on terra firma.
At the center of this wall of windows is the Ark. It forms the spine of the building, the strong core from which the synagogue spreads. And it houses the Torah: the spine and core of our faith. What better way to feel the centrality of the Torah to Judaism than to see it literally at the structural core of the synagogue.
a few more interesting facts:
* Right before the move into the Church Street Synagogue the Orthodox practice of
separate seating for women was discontinued.
* 1961 - The board voted to to offer non-voting membership to all widows and single women over 21
years of age.
* 1963 - After many months of discussion, the proposals offered by a special committee to extend
membership to women was defeated.
* 1968 - Bernard Lenhoff moved to amend the constitution to give women the right to vote. The board
took no action on this.
* 1969 - The board instituted individual Bat Mitzvahs.
* 1969 - President Albert Taskin appointed Harry Melcher as chairman of a "blue ribbon committee" to
"recommend machinery" by which to extend membership to women.
* 1970 - After a third reading, an amendment to the constitution was passed by the general
membership to admit women as members.
* late 1970s - Rabbi Winter instituted the practice of counting women toward the minyan.
* Sukkot, 1978 A group Bat Mitzvah was held after a two-year period of study that instituted full
religious privileges to women. Participating were Amely Smith, Barbara Bashevkin, Lucy
Kronick, Selma Sabin, Sonia Lebowitz and Carolyn Kaplan.
* 2006 - The President and Acting Presidents of Congregation Beth Israel and a majority of
the Executive Committee are women. All presidents since 2004 have been women. Of course