Sometimes an institution’s PR description of its project sums it up quite well.
In a recent Facebook post, Congregation Or Ami at Lafayette Hill announced a “once in a generation” update of their Shrine.
The 200-family Reform Synagogue is “completely renovating the sanctuary,” according to Executive Director Scott Allen. Individual seating replaces the pews that have already been removed; the bimah is lowered in an appropriate metaphor to bring God closer to man; and new carpets, floor tiles, paint, and lighting are installed.
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The multi-hundred-thousand-dollar project is the first major update to the sanctuary in 40 years, Allen said. The goal is to complete it before the High Holidays.
“We look forward to welcoming more people back and having a beautiful new space to pray,” Allen said, referring to the pandemic’s restriction of personal activities over the past two years.
Or Ami’s update is both practical and stylish, according to Allen.
Practically, a 40-year-old sanctuary only needs an update, and a period of reduced activity is an ideal time to do so. About 700 people attended High Holy Day services in the pre-COVID era, and synagogue officials want to prepare for the return of that crowd.
Stylistically, however, Or Ami wants to enter the post-COVID era with a more flexible and egalitarian aesthetic. Allen mentioned the addition of individual seating and lowering the bimah as the most important updates.
The new seating allows for more versatility for activities ranging from bar and bat mitzvah services to rock shabbats. A lower bimah brings the rabbi closer to the community.
Overall, Allen believes the new setup will be more welcoming.
“The idea of adapting the space to the programming is a way to make the space more contemporary,” he said.
According to the director, Or Ami relied on a combination of large and small donors for the update. Early in the process, temple officials asked parishioners who they thought would contribute. These efforts raised enough funds to secure the project.
“By reaching out to a few people who we thought would find this project meaningful and special, we were able to raise a significant amount of money,” said Rabbi Glenn Ettman.
Ettman and his leadership team began dreaming about the overhaul four years ago. During a service on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, Ettman opened the Torah Ark doors to reveal the stained glass windows behind. A back seated parishioner who grew up in Or Ami told the rabbi after the service that it felt like he was seeing the stained glass for the first time.
He thought it was beautiful and wondered if the synagogue could renew its sanctuary to emphasize that beauty. Together, the member and the rabbi came up with a clarifying question: What if you could walk inside, see the stained glass, and understand its beauty?
Now that the bimah is lowered, parishioners can do just that.
“Knowing that it’s a special, sacred place,” Ettman said. “That started the conversation.”
But the size of the project and the pandemic kept the idea stuck in dream territory for a few years. Recently, however, Or Ami renovated its kitchen to make more space for what the rabbi described as “alternative programs,” such as cooking classes for young adults.
Ettman wanted to bring the same spirit to modernizing the sanctuary as well. Synagogue members today want religion, yes; therefore they are members of the synagogue. But they also want community in more modern, interest-based ways, like through cooking classes where they can learn recipes.
This is what Judaism will look like after COVID, according to Ettman.
“Belief in the religion as well as in a knish bread recipe is how Judaism will continue,” he said. “Being able to transform the spaces, give them a fresh look, to say, ‘Here we are. let’s come back Let us do this.'”
For a smaller synagogue, Or Ami has a healthy mix of younger and older families. Some are intergenerational. Others are children who grew up in the temple and have come back.
Ettman hopes they will all attend the High Holy Day services in the fall and remain with Or Ami in the future. His young daughter has completed the synagogue’s Early Childhood Education program and is a student at the religious school.
“Our goal is to bring the Jewish community together, beginning with the ECE (Early Childhood Education Program) and all the way through the moments of the Jewish life cycle,” he said. “And the moments outside of the life cycle.” JE