There was cool air and a warm welcome filling the empty rooms of Temple Sholom’s new home on Lake Avenue in Scotch Plains on “move-in” day, Aug. 18.
“You should have been here when it was 86 degrees outside and the air-conditioning wasn’t working yet,” said a congregant who was helping with the move.
One year after construction began, systems were all working, ready for the truckloads of furniture, books, and office equipment coming in from the Reform temple’s temporary home at the Fanwood Presbyterian Church. That is where the congregation has been housed since its move from Plainfield in 2003. Its religious school, currently on hiatus, had been meeting at Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains.
On Friday, Aug. 22, the last Shabbat service will be held in the church venue. On Sunday, Aug. 24, starting at 12:30 members of the congregation, walking or traveling by car and truck, will move in a procession along Martine Avenue, escorting their Torah scrolls to the new building, and will have a celebratory barbecue.
On Aug. 29 they will celebrate their first Shabbat in the temple’s new home, and on Sept. 12, the community is invited to the official dedication. There is also an open invitation to High Holy Day services later in the month, with discounted ticket prices for nonmembers.
“We are excited to welcome the New Year in our new building,” said Rabbi Joel N. Abraham. “So many people have worked so hard for this day, and we are glad to share the celebration with all who wish to join us in worship and reflection.”
For the 250-family congregation, it has been a far longer wait than anticipated. Abraham, who came on board in 1999 in Plainfield, said that when the congregation moved from Plainfield, “we expected it would take about two years to find the right piece of property, and maybe a year for construction.” They didn’t find the right site until 2007, and — taking into account delays — hoped to move in time for their centenary in 2013. But that milestone came and went.
But more important than accelerating the schedule was getting things right, and that, they say, has happened. Plainfield resident Neil Sedwin — whose wife Susan has served twice as Temple Sholom president — has been involved from the start, in the search for a site and, once it was found, in the design. The five-and-a-half-acre property on Lake Avenue struck him as perfect: “It was large enough for us to put in more parking space than any other church or synagogue in the area,” he said, “and it was beautiful.” The site has a lush green woodland and a stream on its border.
As it happened, there had been a plan to replace a derelict house with multiple dwellings on the tract, and for at least some of the neighbors, the idea of a synagogue was more appealing. The temple team encountered relatively little opposition, and they did their best to anticipate every requirement so that no variances would be needed. When their plan was finally put to the Scotch Plains Planning Board in 2010, it won unanimous approval.
As Sedwin, Abraham, and current president Suzanne Lyte proudly showed a visitor around the new premises, they pointed out its ecologically sound features, from the permeable paving in the driveway that prevents water from puddling, to the roof that will accommodate solar panels, and then, moving inside the single-story, totally handicapped-accessible building, the endlessly flexible layout.
The 8,900-square-foot building, designed by Brawer and Hauptman of Philadelphia, includes sliding glass walls and, in the main room, a series of five folding walls that allow for a large sanctuary, or a more intimate one, or — when services are not under way — six classrooms or space that can be tailored for wedding ceremonies or b’nei mitzva services, and outfitted with tables for a reception.
That adaptability enabled them to create a far smaller footprint than a traditional design would require, while still providing spaces and places that accommodate the natural flow of socializing, meeting, and — of course — praying. “So many areas in a synagogue are used only on certain days and are empty the rest of the time,” Abraham said. “We wanted to make sure that every space could be used in as many ways as possible.”
With a flourish of satisfaction, he showed one of his favorite features. In front and alongside the area that will hold the ark, there are three sections of a platform that can be stowed vertically or easily lowered to provide an elevated area for the rabbi and cantor, or for a larger group — like a wedding band. The idea for the “Murphy bima” was Abraham’s, though he hasn’t officially claimed credit for it.
After the years of “camping” in temporary premises, synagogue leaders are hoping to attract new members. When a visitor joked that they might soon need to expand, they exclaimed, “From your mouth….” They can’t go up — that would entail too expensive a framework — but they could go down, into basement space.
“We can expand as much as we ever need to,” Abraham declared.