Beth Israel to rededicate its newly renovated home
By Laura Porter
Worcester – At Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, June 22-24 has been set aside for Hanukkat Habayit, or dedication of the home, a three-day celebration of the newly renovated synagogue. The ruach-filled weekend will bring the community together to dedicate the new space, pray, eat and offer thanks to all those who made the renovation possible.
The variety of events, from a pre-neg and Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night through Shabbat morning and on to Sunday’s music-filled dedication and brunch, illustrates that “there are so many ways we can use our space even over the course of a weekend to really celebrate its use and what it means for our community,” says Rabbi Aviva Fellman.
Made possible by a highly successful capital campaign, the renovation project has blended aesthetics and necessity; bringing a fresh new look to the synagogue while updating infrastructure and ensuring greater accessibility to all.
The decision to renovate the building, which was constructed in 1959, emerged from a series of conversations beginning in 2009 with a strategic planning process and thoughtfully-led focus groups involving the entire congregation, says Debbie Fins, who is both immediate past president and the chair of the Renovation Steering Committee. At that time, a series of recommendations, some having to do with renovation, reflected the general consensus that the building was “too formal, too big, too stuffy, too old; it no longer worked for the kind of congregation we were,” she says.
The process was put on hold first in 2011, during the rabbinical search that brought in Rabbi Fellman, and again from 2012 to 2014, while discussions were ongoing with Temple Emanuel Sinai about a developing a community campus to be shared by both synagogues.
“For various reasons, that idea did not move forward,” says Fins. “When that process ended, two months into my presidency, we had Rabbi Fellman. I decided that I was going to make it a focus of my presidency to see what [renovation] would cost, what we wanted to do.”
Congregants Howard Alfred and Howard Fixler chaired an advisory committee overseeing subcommittees that reviewed ideas for the project.
In 2015, the synagogue hired Leslie Saul & Associates of Cambridge as the architect for the renovation. Saul, who also designed the addition for Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, led visioning sessions to help the congregation determine the concepts and styles that they preferred.
“She sent us five different chairs that we had at the back of the Social Hall during the High Holidays for people to vote on,” recalls Debbie Fins.
The leadership then embarked on a capital campaign, headed by Joel and Liz Baker, to finance the project. Choosing not to hire a professional fundraiser, in the spring of 2016 they first approached individuals, including past, present and future leaders. With a significant commitment in hand, they then created a campaign brochure in-house and distributed it at Kol Nidre that Fall.
“We announced the campaign goal of $1.2 million. People gasped. Then we said we had $600,000 and people applauded,” she says.
In the end, the capital campaign not only achieved its initial goal but exceeded it, reaching more than $1.5 million.
Kaplan Construction, from Brookline, was the contractor for the renovation, which focused on accessibility as well as creativity.
“We’ve lowered the Holy Ark with the Torahs and added a permanent ramp on the side, so that now everyone can access all of services,” says Rabbi Fellman. “The bimah was up high, and while there was an electric lift on the side, it didn’t empower someone to use it themselves without help. The ark was another half flight up. Now it is only three steps up instead of six or seven.”
The addition of new lighting and acoustic tiles brighten the space and improve sound. Mobile chairs not only make seating more accessible but also ensure flexible use. The new ark now has the capacity to hold all five of the congregation’s Torah scrolls.
Rabbi Fellman’s personal project has been the addition of a new Torah reading table on the floor at the center of the sanctuary. The wooden table top was designed by the designer of the ark, and it will be fitted onto an industrial strength, hand-cranked adjustable platform.
“Someone who is tall or short or seated can read Torah and lead services,” she says.
The rabbi’s input has been integral, says Debbie Fins, noting that there were decisions to make with halachic significance. For example, new center doors for the sanctuary were redone with frosted glass inserts because “the glass couldn’t be clear; if the ark is open, you’re supposed to be facing the ark.”
New push button-operable doors in the back were added as well, and an exterior ramp is now up to code. The kitchen has been redone, with working appliances and usable space. Both the front and the back lobby have been renovated to make them “welcoming and clean and fresh,” says Fins.
Notably, “we did everything in-house besides the architect and the contractor.”
“The boiler needed to be replaced, the air conditioning was broken, we had outdated electrical panels,” she says. “Nothing was to code. All of it was done by and within our house committee. All of the professionals were comfortable with our taking responsibility for the infrastructure work.”
As a result, the finished renovation is truly a community-led effort.
The upcoming celebration during the weekend of June 22-24 will be an opportunity to thank everyone who has been involved, “from the living room town hall conversations over a decade ago, to the chairs of the campaign, to the donors, for making this dream a reality,” says Rabbi Fellman.
That gratitude will take tangible form in a recognition wall that lists all those who contributed to the campaign, says Fins, who describes the wall as “a three-dimensional, multi-material art piece.”
“The important thing was that we wanted to recognize everybody who made a campaign commitment,” she says. “Everyone helped build the space.”
On Friday night, the congregation will hold its regular Cocktails and Kabbalat Shabbat, followed by the usual Shabbat morning service with an enhanced Kiddush. On Sunday morning, Rabbi Fellman will lead Havdalah in the lobby and hang a new mezuzah on the outside door. In the sanctuary, the music program will include the Beth Israel Quartet, and all five Torahs will be placed in the new ark for the very first time.
Reflecting upon the upcoming event, Rabbi Fellman cites a particular line in Psalm 118.24: “This is the day that G-d made, let us rejoice and sing.”
“Our community was special before, but now it’s special in this new way,” she says.
CAP: Beth Israel’s renovated sanctuary.