Soon after joining the Summit Jewish Community Center as religious leader 50 years ago, Rabbi William Horn realized that the synagogue didn’t have enough space. Over the next few decades, with a sanctuary that could seat only about 150 people, Horn told NJJN, “there were times when we told other children not to come to bar mitzva services because there wouldn’t be space for them.”
“That was no way for a congregation to be.”
This past Sunday, Horn, the center’s rabbi emeritus since 2005, and others reveled in a major change in that scenario: The Conservative congregation dedicated its new 300-seat sanctuary, some 11 years after they launched the effort to build it. The new structure, adjoining the existing building on Kent Place Boulevard, is at last complete — after legal wrangling with neighbors and local officials and financial struggles that included having to buy not one, but two adjoining properties, and 18 months of construction.
Some 84 years after moving to this location, 59 years after the core building was erected, and after one previous extension and a renovation, the congregation has reached a new milestone: No longer will the SJCC, whose membership numbers just under 300 units, have to hold its High Holy Day services up the road at Summit High School. From this Rosh Hashana on, services will be held in the synagogue’s own spacious worship space.
With a crowd of around 300 celebrants gathered outside in the blazing sunshine, the center’s Torah scrolls were carried under a huppa in a joyful procession, through what used to serve as the main entrance, across the parking lot, and up the stairs to the synagogue’s new entrance, to be placed in their new home. Before everyone went in, Horn affixed a mezuza to the doorpost frame and said a few words to the assembled community. “I didn’t know if I’d live to see this day, and here I am, alive and kicking.”
The center has also assumed an additional name — Congregation Or Shalom. Current religious leader Rabbi Avi Friedman said the name, which is Hebrew for “Light of Peace,” is in keeping with the theme so evident in the new sanctuary. Light, he said, has so many forms of metaphorical significance in Judaism. “May this community be seen as a source of peaceful light,” he added. Summit Mayor Ellen Dic kson echoed his words, saying the congregation would continue to be a major asset in “a great location.”
It wasn’t the first ceremony in the new sanctuary, or even the largest: As Friedman — Horn’s former student — acknowledged, his son Jonah’s bar mitzva on May 25 (see “Praying with Jonah, shul finds ‘inner joy,’ June 12, or njjewishnews.com) was the new space’s premiere, but June 23 was the official transition and the sense of shared pride was palpable.
There were prayers and speeches, and a series of songs — some with lyrics written especially for the occasion by synagogue leaders — sung by the children, the SJCC Adult Choir, and the Cabaret Spielers, led by Cantor Janet Roth and accompanied by the Shabbat Band and pianist Dave Davis. Horn, as he always does at the end of his talks to the congregation, told the crowd, “You done good!”
“Now let’s adjourn to do what we do best: eat!” declared Friedman.
In the adjoining room — formerly shared by the old sanctuary and the social hall and now offering seating for another approximately 300 — there was a big buffet lunch. Some floor space has been left uncarpeted to allow for dancing, and a group soon formed a circle to do an Israeli dance.
Not everyone expressed approval of the pointed, half-magen David shape of the new building, designed by Alexander Gorlin Architects, but all seemed delighted by the soaring space inside and the light flooding in through the long, narrow windows.
“The acoustics are so good, even if you just have a few people singing, it sounds good,” congregant Alice Barron said. And everyone, the education staff in particular, seemed happy about the space opened up below the sanctuary — allowing for storage and bathrooms, three new classrooms, and a big all-purpose room where youngsters will be able to play on rainy days, and where the youth minyan and perhaps morning minyans will meet.
Richard Barron, the former two-term congregation president and current cochair of the so-called Room to Soar Committee was described by fellow synagogue leaders and others as the individual most involved in the construction process. He was heard to say, “I’ll see to that” a few times as people came up him to point out a problem or suggest a change, as has often happened to him during the past decade.
“It’s not over. We still need to raise money for the furnishing and the art work,” he said, giving a figure of $3 million as the cost for the project to date. “We’ve talked to the architect about the kind of ark we should have, that would make the most of the beautiful light coming in. And it would be really good to have a financial cushion.”
But for the moment, everyone was basking in the achievement, especially the rabbis. Friedman said, “We’ve had song and prayer, and humorous moments and serious moments. This is what this congregation is all about.”