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Shul renovation is an occasion for smiles, tears
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Shul renovation is an occasion for smiles, tears

At Temple Emanu-El, a 50-year-old space is due a makeover

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Karen Solomon, who was in the synagogue’s first confirmation class and who was married in the sanctuary’s first wedding ceremony, led the procession of Torah scrolls out of the sanctuary, which will undergo renovation this summer. Photo by Joh
Karen Solomon, who was in the synagogue’s first confirmation class and who was married in the sanctuary’s first wedding ceremony, led the procession of Torah scrolls out of the sanctuary, which will undergo renovation this summer. Photo by Joh

Marching Torah scrolls out of the sacred ark, removing the ark doors, and taking down the mezuzot were among the last jobs for congregants in the old sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston.

On June 19, Rabbi Mark Kaiserman and Cantor Sharon Brown-Levy led a bittersweet ceremony to help the congregation bid farewell to its sanctuary of 50 years. The space is undergoing a renovation and reconstruction that will conclude at the end of August.

Among the 50 or so who gathered that Sunday morning were those representing the past and future of the community. Rabbi Peter Kasdan, the congregation’s religious leader emeritus, who served Emanu-El for 30 years before retiring, and his wife, Sheila, were there; so were Karen Solomon, who was in the first confirmation class at the synagogue, and her husband, Dick. They were the first couple to be wed in the sanctuary.

The Muhlfelders — a family with three generations in the community — were there, as were younger congregants — Emily Lasoff, the last bat mitzva in the old sanctuary, and Mac Brower, whose bar mitzva will be the first in the fall in the new sanctuary. Each of these members helped march the scrolls out of the sanctuary at the end of the service.

Underscoring the happy aspect of the occasion, there were also lighthearted moments. Kaiserman offered a rather unorthodox translation of the parsha Lech Lecha, a reading he thought particularly appropriate for the day.

“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to a new beautiful sanctuary I will show you,’” Kaiserman offered, to giggles from the pews, which grew louder as he warned, a few verses later, “And everyone who blesses in this journey will be blessed, but anyone who has anything negative to say will be cursed.”

Leaders said the $750,000 project represents a commitment to the synagogue’s future. “If we are going to survive, we need to update and improve the sanctuary and create a spiritual space for the future,” said immediate past president Amy Young.

The bima will be redesigned, adding a ramp and removing the step in front of the ark to increase accessibility. Lighting will become more flexible to create different moods. A new ark will be designed and installed; a new music space will be constructed as part of the sanctuary; and all the seating, carpeting, lighting, and sound systems will be replaced.

Flexible seating will replace the pews.

“Sitting in pews is not going to work,” said Young. “We want to sit in chairs in a circle, looking at each other’s faces.”

‘Accessible to everyone’

As she helped put prayer books away after the service, capital campaign chair Theresa Edelstein cried.

“It’s a little overwhelming, to see everything coming together after years of dreaming,” she said. “This is so important. The sanctuary will be accessible to everyone; right now, the seating is beginning to fall apart. It’s just the wear and tear over so many years. It’s been our dream to create a space that honors our past but provides excitement for the future.”

The sanctuary was built, with the current building, in 1961. Although there have been renovation projects, the sanctuary has mostly remained the same.

So far, the congregation has raised $1,035,000 toward its goal of $1.2 million. The money will go not only toward this construction project, but also to pay off a mortgage the synagogue is carrying from a previous renovation.

Kasdan, who spent 30 years in the sanctuary, was not upset.

“I designed plans for a new sanctuary 18 years ago,” he said. “This is a very spiritual, comfortable space — but I’m not emotionally bound to it. I think change is important. And the structure is the same — it will still be a tent of meeting.”

The synagogue’s distinctive roof is itself shaped like a tent.

At the end of the ceremony, as the two rabbis removed the mezuzot, Kaiserman said, “We’ve transformed the sanctuary; we’ve emptied it out so we can fill it again — as in so many things in life that need to be emptied so they can be filled.”

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