Jewish architect giving Beth Jacob overdue facelift

Bidding to renovate Temple Beth Jacob, architect Joel Karr faced stiff competition from the big commercial architects. Not only was his firm, Group 41, a relatively small practice, he had never built a synagogue before.

But Karr had an advantage the others did not.

“We were up against some pretty heavy hitters who had done major synagogue and church projects,” he recalls. “[Temple Beth Jacob] told me afterward that we were the only team that showed up with someone who was Jewish.”

Whether his being Jewish made a difference or not, it didn’t hurt. Raised in a Jewish home, Karr understood better than most the needs of his prospective new client.

Now he and fellow Group 41 colleagues are drafting the $8.5 million makeover of the Redwood City Conservative shul, one that will cover everything from expanding the chapel and constructing a meditation garden to fixing a leaky roof and broken windows. The synagogue has already launched its fundraising drive.

“A good chunk of the budget is remedial maintenance,” Karr said, adding that another significant portion goes to “beautification and redesign.”

Temple Beth Jacob was originally built in 1955. A 1982 arson fire destroyed much of the structure, including the sanctuary (the synagogue’s lost Torahs are buried on the temple grounds). Karr believes the renovation will maximize the space. But he isn’t eager to change everything.

“We felt immediately that [Beth Jacob] had this wonderful mid-century character,” notes Karr. “It has that modernist feel and we wanted to retain and enhance that.”

Growing up outside of Toledo, Ohio, Karr originally set his sights on a music career. He studied flute at Oberlin College, but says he had an epiphany midway through his undergraduate studies. “My one elective in college was an architectural survey course,” he recalls. “I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. All the others complained how boring it was, but I couldn’t get enough.”

After completing architecture studies at UCLA, Karr spent time at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University studying evaporative cooling systems. He also lived and worked as an architect in Japan for five years (he is fluent in Japanese, and stays sharp by watching Japan’s NHK news on cable TV).

His firm, Group 41, is small but has a wide reach. Two of his employees are “virtual,” with one based in Paris and the other in Sri Lanka. In addition to traditional commercial and residential architecture commissions, the firm also launched a home furnishings division.

Karr, 47, lives in a the Twin Peaks neighborhood of San Francisco. It’s no surprise that his condo there has been thoroughly — and beautifully — remodeled (it was featured in a recent photo spread in The San Francisco Chronicle).

Although more of a cultural than a religious Jew, Karr enjoys celebrating the holidays and has memories of a Passover seder he hosted a few years ago in which most of the guests weren’t Jewish and had never attended a seder. “They were all fascinated and made real connections,” he said. “They can all sing ‘Dayenu’ now.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.