A Synagogue Is Not a Building

by Andrea Glick

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Beth El in Akron, Ohio, built a new chapel as part of its move to the JCC.

It could be such a sad story: a once thriving synagogue, forced to sell its building due to declining membership and a lack of funds. But that’s not how the folks at Beth El Congregation of Akron, Ohio, see it. For them, selling their 60-year-old building and moving to a new addition at the local Jewish Community Center has been the the start of an energizing chapter in the congregation’s life.

It’s also a story that Beth El leaders think could serve as a model for other synagogues facing demographic changes beyond their control.

“The process was very unifying and uplifting,” says Andrea Steinberger, Beth El’s immediate past president. “People were proud of making a responsible choice that didn’t deplete all the resources of the community for bricks and mortar.” Moreover, congregants love the smaller but beautiful new space, which has just the right balance of cherished objects from their old building and creative, forward-looking design.

In the summer of 2013, Beth El officially dedicated its new facility at Akron’s Shaw JCC. But discussions about the congregation’s future had started about three years earlier. Akron, like other Rust Belt communities, has faced a shrinking Jewish population, decreasing from a high of nearly 8,000 earlier in the 20th century to about 2,500 today. Without enough younger families to replenish its ranks, Beth El was using just a fraction of its sprawling mid-century building. In addition, the facility was in need of significant and costly repairs.

After a year of town hall meetings, focus groups and research, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to accept the JCC’s offer of sharing space. Amazingly, a buyer for the building, a local charter school, materialized almost immediately.

Now came the hard part – managing the move from a large, traditional synagogue filled with poignant memories and beloved ritual objects into a smaller, unformed space that was part of a larger institution. How could the congregation take advantage of its new milieu and still maintain its distinctive identity?

The answer: bring some iconic objects and decorations to the new location, while allowing a synagogue member and artist to recycle other cherished items into objects designed expressly for the new location.

Beth El’s new home includes the 120-seat Victor and Lillian Gross Family Chapel, which incorporates some of the stained glass windows from the former building, refurbished and resized to fit the new space. The focal point of the chapel, designed by synagogue member and artist Bonnie Cohen, is a tall “Pillar of Light” ark, with a mosaic façade featuring luminescent tiles of recycled glass and tiny shards from the previous building’s unused stained glass windows. The chapel is connected to the JCC by an airy lobby that gives the synagogue its own separate entrance. The entryway features a striking “Wall of Blessings,” also designed by Cohen, that includes colorful bands representing the days of creation. It also lists the names of donors to a capital campaign which, added to money from the building sale, paid for Beth El’s new space. For synagogue programs, Beth El converted a JCC conference room into its Mercaz, or center, a multi-purpose space for meetings, classes and kiddush luncheons.

For the High Holidays, b’nai mitzvah, or other times the congregation needs more space, the synagogue reconstructed its old bimah in the JCC auditorium. Beth El also brought along some of the most cherished objects in any synagogue – the bronze memorial plaques commemorating members and relatives who have died.

For Beth El, the tangible benefits of the move are clear: the synagogue, which pays rent to the JCC, has significantly reduced its expenses for overhead and maintenance. It no longer needs its own maintenance staff, for instance, and it uses the JCC’s kosher kitchen.

But the real advantages are less tangible. One, says Steinberger, is having the synagogue entrance situated literally at the front of the bustling JCC campus, which runs programs for all ages and houses a preschool, a day school, a pool and fitness center, as well as the local Jewish Community Board and Jewish Family Services. In the old building, Steinberger says, “it was lights out 90 percent of the time. Here you get a sense of life bursting at the seams.”

That energy has rubbed off on the synagogue, with its community room busy just about every day and a chapel that on Shabbat feels intimate and warm rather than vast and empty. “The pride and the sense of ownership have been electrifying for the congregation,” Steinberger says.

How did Beth El navigate a change that in some congregations leads to bitter divisions? Mostly, says Steinberger, by the board being transparent about what it was doing and involving congregants in the process. Also, by reiterating a crucial message. Simply put, says Steinberg, “A synagogue is not a building.”

An Akron congregation faced a stark choice: pour its limited money into an aging, oversized building or try to create a new kind of congregational home.