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SBJ’s Sharon Jacobson’s Community Involvement: Working with Congregation Beth El during their Renovations


Beth El Revamps Building with an Eye on All Ages

Congregation Beth El-Atereth Israel is updating its 1960s building by renovating the sanctuary and social hall, and adding a mikveh. The projected $4.25 million renovation began last High Holidays. The first phase of the renovation is focused on the social hall, which is set to be finished by this Rosh Hashanah. Mark Salzberg, co-chair of the building committee, said he believes the project will be completed within a year. Already, the Modern Orthodox congregation has raised more than half the cost of the project.

Sharon Jacobson, an architect by trade who is co-chairing the building committee with Salzberg, said many of the changes are being made in response to congregants with young families, some of whom grew up in the congregation. Beth El-Atereth Israel originated from two congregations that started in Dorchester in the early 1900s. The synagogue’s roots in Newton were established in the mid-1950’s, and it built its current structure in 1965

“When they started in the shul, the shul was in good shape and it was a forward thinking shul, and they wanted to see that again for their children,” she said. “I hope it will make our synagogue stronger, and eventually we will be able to renovate other areas of the synagogue.” Catering toward the younger families in the 200-family congregation, the revamped shul will include family-style bathrooms, a nursing room and a stroller parking area. For energy savings, the air conditioning and heating systems are being replaced, and new windows installed. In the new sanctuary, the ark will have a blend of dark and light wood, reflecting the blending of old and new, said Rabbi Gershon Segal. The woodwork on the wall is darker, while the pews, which will be shipped in by boat from from Kibbutz Lavi in Israel, are a lighter tone. “It is an appreciation for what we have and a connection to our past, but looking forward to the future,” Segal said.

The ark will represent the burning bush, with flames on the curtain, and the ark doors will be made with varied types of wood to depict the bush branches. As it can get noisy in the halls during services, the sanctuary will be sound-proofed and have improved acoustics. A ramp will make the new bimah handicap accessible. “The building is meant to function for small children all the way to elderly members of the congregation, from 2 years old to 90,” said Paul Hajian, the architect. The old sanctuary split up the women’s seating, so that women were seated on either side of the men’s section. In the new sanctuary, women will all be sitting together. Seating in the men’s section will be slightly reduced to give more seats to women, though the men will still have slightly more seats. Jacobson, who worked on the Kollel of Greater Boston, said before, “women were on the edges.” With the new sanctuary, “it will be more of a feeling of a more equivalent view of the stage,” she said.

The members of the building committee solicited feedback from congregants that they plan to integrate into the sanctuary. For example, half of the seats will have shtenders, because half of the congregants surveyed said they wanted them to hold their books. The mikveh is much anticipated both by congregants and members of other local shuls, Jacobson said. Some people have to walk an hour to get to an Orthodox mikveh on Shabbat now. “The Newton Orthodox community is growing and renovating, and typically around the world, when you have an Orthodox enclave, you have a mikveh,” she said. “I hope it will generate even more positive interaction between the synagogues.”

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