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Esther Sperber

Synagogue renovations – ethics and aesthetics

Photo by Kendall McCaugherty | Hall+Merrick+McCaugherty| Skokie Valley Synagogue platform and ark

“I’m not sure we should be spending so much on aesthetics. There is so much need and we should be focusing our efforts on ethics.” These were the words of Rabbi Ari Hart, the beloved and committed leader of the Skokie Valley Synagogue, when I presented our initial design for the renovation of the building. We were still deep in the pandemic; prayer services were taking place in a tent erected in the shul’s parking lot and concerns about the future were real. How could we indulge in beautifying the synagogue building when the world and our society need so much repair? Shouldn’t we use our time and money to fight poverty, climate changes, help refugees and work towards more social justice?

My answer to the rabbi, a view that I hope he now shares with me, is that ethics and aesthetics are not opposing values, but rather they can support a single mission, one that is infused by beauty and inclusion, clarity and welcoming, light and accessibility.

We have recently completed the first phase of the building renovation which focused on the sanctuary, a new coatroom and bathrooms. A few visionary members of the congregation realized that the pandemic offered them a unique opportunity to transform the building while use was low. I recall feeling deeply moved when I received the call informing me that the committee decided to proceed with the design we presented, demonstrating a commitment to communal prayer and a shared physical space.

The Skokie Valley Synagogue was built in the late 1950s. It had a 3,500-square-foot sanctuary that seated approximately 300 people. The building has an interesting triangular geometric form with cantilevered roofs and angled walls. Despite these formal architectural features, it had many shortcomings. The sanctuary was dark and the acoustics were terrible. Fixed auditorium-style seats limited the use of the space. A large stage occupied 25 percent of the room and was rarely used. The lack of lighting and the poor acoustics made it difficult for people to read their prayer books and enjoy the rabbi’s sermon. The tiny bathrooms were challenging and the coat room was bursting at the seams.

Our vision was to create a light-filled space with fresh air and crisp sound. We wanted an uplifting room that would support the prayer services; a room in which an individual could experience a contemplative spiritual connection to the divine while also feeling the embrace and support of the community.

In collaboration with the client team and communal input, we redesigned the sanctuary to create this vision. The direction of prayer and seating was rotated to face east, toward Jerusalem, the traditional direction of Jewish prayer. The colored glass windows were replaced with clear glass, which face the lush treetops. New operable windows allow for natural ventilation. A large triangular skylight was installed over the center of the sanctuary, creating a view of the sky and a focal point around which the services are conducted. The service leader and speakers now stand in the center of the space, allowing them to have an intimate connection with the congregation.

The fixed seating was replaced with flexible movable chairs and a new central platform was designed to make the reading table and ark in which the Torah scrolls are stored ADA accessible for everyone.

Men and women sit in two separate sides of the room during the prayer services and are separated by a mechitza (a partial partition). We designed a custom glass mechitza with the Friday evening Sabbath service etched on the frosted glass panels.

We collaborated with Amy Reichert Design who created a beautiful new ark to house the congregation’s Torah scrolls. When the ark is open, the doors resemble large wings as though they were hovering and protecting the community. A new matching reading table can be raised or lowered to accommodate members of all heights.

We achieved our goal of transforming the existing sanctuary into an uplifting space that welcomes the community and respects the dignity of each member. When people can hear the prayer services, they feel heard, and when they can see their prayer books, they feel seen. I hope that when the voices of the congregation, the Chazan, the rabbi and the children fill the room with song and yearning, we have created an opportunity for a spiritual moment.

It is with ethics and aesthetics that we can create spaces that enhance religious experiences. We strive to create buildings that are infused with beauty and accessibility, and to create a lasting institutional infrastructure that supports our communal growth and deepens our experience.

About the Author
Esther Sperber is an architect and founder of Studio ST Architects. She also writes and lectures about architecture, culture, religion and psychoanalysis.
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