When leaders of Temple Beth Ahm of Aberdeen were searching for a designer to renovate their synagogue, they hoped to find someone who was “most capable of capturing who we are as a synagogue body,” said Stu Abraham, chair of the Sanctuary Renewal and Renovation Committee.
He said they found the ideal fit in Michael Berkowicz, who co-owns Presentations Gallery in Mount Vernon, NY, with his wife, Bonnie Srolovitz–Berkowicz.
In 2012, the congregation board decided that, after 30 years, its home was ready for a makeover that would reflect the synagogue’s changed atmosphere.
The project to renovate the sanctuary, lobby, and side entrance cost $250,000, of which $100,000 was raised even before the start of the fund-raising campaign from congregants who were on board from the get-go to see the project undertaken. The campaign exceeded its initial goal, so no hike in dues was necessary.
“Our role as designers is to listen very carefully, find some common ground and agreed-upon feelings, and define or interpret what the various members of the committee are expressing,” said Berkowicz. “The art of gaining consensus and inspiring people is often more critical than the design process itself,” said the renowned designer of sanctuaries, synagogue furnishings, and Holocaust memorials.
For the board members of Temple Beth Ahm, this process meant communicating to Berkowicz the elements of their synagogue that had evolved over the past 30 years. Among these changes were a more participatory service, and a heightened attitude of inclusivity — welcoming all individuals regardless of gender, level of religiosity and spirituality, and physical and mental challenges. With input from the renovation committee, Berkowicz decided the shul’s high bima and straight pews, all facing forward, no longer reflected the congregation’s personality.
“Seating is critical,” said Berkowicz, who designed the new sanctuary with pews in a half-circle formation with the bima projecting out into the congregation. He explained that the new seating arrangement allows congregants to see and hear worshipers praying all around them. “You are not an observer here,” he said. “This is a place of togetherness.”
In addition, the newly renovated sanctuary features a lower bima and Torah lectern, symbolic of the community’s inclusivity. Berkowicz explained that a high bima implies a “hierarchy of importance.” The new bima lets congregants know “the rabbi or the leader is praying with the congregation,” as opposed to at it.
According to Berkowicz, lighting also plays a huge role in communicating a congregation’s personality. “It sets an ambience in the sanctuary from the moment you walk in,” he said, explaining that there should be places for both light and dark in a sanctuary; otherwise, he said, “the light cannot be seen.” It is the balance of light and dark in the new sanctuary, said Berkowicz, that ultimately creates a sense of embrace.
It was unanimously decided that the new sanctuary would be completely handicapped accessible. The sanctuary will therefore have an amplifying system for those who are hearing impaired, and a ramp leading to the bima to give easier access to those who are using walkers or who are in wheelchairs. “If it is the house of the Lord for all, then we need to make sure that everybody and anybody can participate,” said Berkowicz.
Berkowicz said he is honored to have been asked to speak at Beth Ahm’s Selihot service on Saturday, Sept. 21, the first evening the congregation as a whole will experience its new sanctuary. Berkowicz, whose parents escaped Nazi-occupied Poland to Siberia, grew up in postwar Poland and then moved to the United States in 1962 when he was 19 years old. After earning a degree in physics, he taught for seven years before discovering his passion for religion and design. He clearly feels gratified to be able to undertake projects with such import. “The experience of looking and stepping back and saying, ‘This works’ is the most amazing experience,” he said, “similar to what God did after the days of creation.”
Berkowicz said he hopes to provide an introduction to the new sanctuary that will enhance the Selihot and High Holy Day services, making the significance of the design “more obvious and deeper” for Beth Ahm congregants.
“I want those congregants to walk out with a different perception of the space, a different perception of rituals and holidays, and be enriched from every level possible,” he said.