$2.5 million facelift brings space, sunshine to Sherith Israel facility

A comfortable youth and family lounge complete with a kitchenette has been installed, both to offer teens a place to congregate and to serve as a venue for adult education programs attended by parents with children in religious school.

In compliance with the American Disabilities Act, the building has been rendered entirely accessible. This alteration, a major impetus for the massive project, has been consciously executed to ease disabled peoples' passage through the synagogue.

"There was a real interest in allowing wheelchair-bound congregants to enter with the same dignity as able-bodied congregants," noted architect Susie Coliver, whose San Francisco firm, Herman Stoller Coliver, designed the renovations.

"We've come to really understand in the depth of our beings how very demeaning it is for disabled people to have to do things differently."

The renovated building, more than a half-century old and previously known as the Temple House, will now be called Raquel H. Newman Hall after the longtime Sherith Israel member who provided major funding for the project.

This Sunday from noon to 4 p.m., the community is invited to an open house celebrating the renovations. The event — which will include music, food, children's art projects, tours of the new facility and a 3 p.m. dedication ceremony — will take place in the building at the corner of California and Webster streets.

On approaching the structure adjacent to the Reform synagogue's main entrance, visitors will see the first of several architectural details carefully conceived to reflect the distinctly Jewish character of Newman Hall.

Greeting them is a seven-paneled metal gate with fluttering discs dancing above its sections. These are meant to represent the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

"They are our past, our reference point," Coliver said. "They watch our comings and goings."

Depending on what time of day visitors arrive, they may see the unmistakable image of a Jewish star projected onto the rear wall of the entry court. The star emerges from the shadows when the sun is at its highest point and disappears just as mysteriously a few hours later.

Last week, as construction workers labored feverishly to complete the renovation's last touches in time for the dedication, the star shone brightly and clearly on a sunny day just before noon.

Coliver, who has never before executed a star like the one at Sherith Israel, noted that throughout history, Jews have marked the arrival of Shabbat by the appearance of stars. Jewish tradition, she noted, places much emphasis on the ebbs and flows of time.

The Sherith Israel star "is a temporal gesture," she said. "It has this wonderful, ephemeral `there and not there' quality."

Just past the carved glass front doors of Newman Hall is the freshly painted, sun-drenched foyer to the social hall. Now called the Pavilion, this lobby gains distinct character from a 39-foot-long Jewish calendar that hangs above the social hall entrance.

The sculptural piece, made of aluminum, sandblasted glass and Jerusalem stone, correlates the weekly Torah portion to the Hebrew names of the months during which they are read. A long tassel shaped like the fringe of a tallit will be moved weekly to hang beside the appropriate portion.

The social hall itself has been reconstructed and redecorated in a design that honors the turn-of-the century sanctuary interior while maintaining a modern flavor at the same time. To avoid an institutional feeling and give the room an animated, energetic feel, the architects created a rippled ceiling and walls whose wainscoting rises and dip to make space for recessed inglenooks, counters and cabinets.

Though the room remains the same size as before — it can accommodate 240 diners or nearly 500 for a lecture or reception — certain adaptations have been added to enhance its versatility.

A dance floor can be set up, a movie screen can be lowered from the ceiling, video projections can be connected and microphones can be plugged in for speeches or head tables. A picture rail encircling the room allows banners or decorations to be hung from the walls without marring the finish.

"Hopefully, it's going to keep in-house the receptions that people were having elsewhere," said Mark Levy, Sherith Israel's executive director.

The social hall, however, will also serve as a second sanctuary, housing community High Holy Day services and other events. Beneath two cabinets which can serve as Torah arks are Torah tables that roll out into the room and transform the space into a place of worship.

"It's now a much nicer place than it was before," Levy said. "It's something long overdue for the membership."

The synagogue's Rabbi Martin Weiner agrees. "This is truly a historic milestone in the history of our synagogue," he said.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.